‘The Toxic University’

Author discusses his new book, which argues that politicians and “zombie leadership” in higher education are destroying academic values.

July 12, 2017

John Smyth has a call to arms for academics frustrated by trends in higher education in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Smyth has had it with politicians and university leaders who focus on cutting spending and finding new revenue through business ties. Smyth is currently visiting professor of education and social justice at the University of Huddersfield, in Britain. And he’s an emeritus research professor of education at Federation University Australia. He thinks the trends in those nations apply in the United States as well.

Smyth makes his case in The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan). He responded to questions via email.

Q: Do you consider the conditions you describe to be present throughout Western nations? Are there any places resisting the forces you write about?

A: Yes, sadly the forces of neoliberalism that would have us believe that universities ought to operate like profit-making businesses -- engaged in cutthroat competition, run as ruthless corporations, where the market is the arbiter and regulator of all things -- has become the prevailing norm in Western countries, especially Anglo countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. This lemming-like behavior seems to have little basis in evidence, but there is a singular lack of political will and courage to oppose it. The econometric model that has been imposed is an alien interloper that is totally destroying the relational basis of universities as cultures and organizations.

The question about where the places are that are resisting this paradigmatic urge is an interesting one. In short, it is hard to find whole countries that have been able to resist what Pasi Sahlberg in Finland called the GERM (global educational reform movement). It is more an issue of how far and how fully different places have bought into it -- and to some degree all Western nations are within the grip of this juggernaut. My feeling is that some of the Nordic countries have bought into it less than the Anglo countries, but even there the indications are that politicians seem unable to resist the allure of it and it really has become the only game in town, internationally speaking.

That is not to say that there are not some perfectly viable alternatives around, such as Mondragon University in the Basque area of Spain, and various movements committed to preserving the idea of democratic public higher education, such as the Council for the Defense of British Universities and its Australian equivalent. There are also other groups like the Cooperative Universities movement. However, the effect of the underlying logic of attempting to commodify both research and teaching, in the cryptic words of Rob Watts in his Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of the University, “can only end in the kind of grief that results when pigs are encouraged to fly.”

Q: Would you define “zombie leadership”?

A: As I explain in a whole chapter of my book, a zombie is something that is dead but still gives the appearance of being alive. The field of economics is a good illustration of this, as John Quiggin demonstrates in his book Zombie Economics. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman put it, “Zombie ideas … are policy ideas that keep being killed by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentlessly forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda.”

When applied to leadership, what we have occurring in universities is a complete detachment of what passes as academic leadership from an understanding of the essence of the work of academics and students. There is simply no evidence that commodifying higher education in some kind of mythical race to the top has any effect whatsoever in improving what goes on inside universities -- indeed, the reverse is the case. Even the IMF as the major celebrant of neoliberal economics has recently recanted. The whole panoply of league tables, performance indicators, impact factors, measurement, image and impression management, and the like, as it exists in higher education, is fake.

University administrators and policy makers who purport to believe in it and promulgate it are in effect caught up in a form of witchcraft they do not understand -- and I say this as someone who was trained an economist, but now works as a sociologist! What is expunged, of course, as a result of this zombie leadership, is any understanding that universities are supposed to be places of courageous social critique, not places manacled by and subservient to market forces.

Q: You note that while the condition of many academics has worsened, “stars” are doing well. Why is this?

A: The answer is pretty simple. Academic superstars are seen as important emblems with which universities can sustain the myth that the competitive way is working, that some institutions and departments are top dogs, and that hierarchies are the evidence that the market does indeed sort things out. Recruiting and constructing superstars is also a backdoor way of blaming those deemed not to have made it, and to make it look as if success has to do with personal attributes and the application of effort, while conveniently ignoring the structural conditions necessary for success as an academic. As U.S. sociologist C. W. Mills put it so neatly in his Sociological Imagination, "public issues" (such as adequately supporting the work of university academics) are recast as "personal trouble" (lack of individual effort). In other words, constructing superstars, who are given privileges unimagined by rank-and-file academics, shifts the blame onto individuals while allowing austerity measures to be implemented with little room for opposition.

Q: Politicians and many university administrators say that their policies are needed because governments can't or won't support higher education adequately. How would you answer that argument?

A: Adopting stupid policies is no reason for excusing a lack of political will and imagination. We need to get the message across through the political process that if university administrators, politicians and governments willfully refuse to accord higher education the policy priority it deserves, then they need to step aside and allow those who do have a vision to do the job to take over. The excuse that there is insufficient funding for higher education is a complete nonsense. I have yet to hear of the military-industrial complex in any advanced country engaging in the equivalent of a cake bake to raise funding!

Q: What can rank-and-file academics do to resist what you see as the toxic university?

A: Again, this is not rocket science. There is insufficient space to do justice to this here, but as I indicate in two chapters of my book, academics and the wider community need to get the message across that as advanced democratic civilized societies we have had enough of this "failed experiment," and it is time to move beyond the current crop of infantile policy responses that are being imposed on universities. This can happen, as I indicate in the book, by rank-and-file academics simply saying politely to academic administrators that the way they are operating is no longer efficacious, and educating them as to the alternatives -- and I go into how that might work in some detail that goes beyond simply being militant.


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