University Management By Measurement

29 May

By Miranda Joseph

Miranda Joseph 2009Mark Taylor’s End the University as We Know It makes a broad argument from a very specific professional, disciplinary and institutional location—he is a tenured faculty member in a traditional humanities department at a prestigious private university. From where I sit–-a tenured faculty member in an interdisciplinary department (Gender and Women’s Studies) at a large public research university–the problems and solutions look quite different.  Like many public universities, mine is struggling with both a decades-long decline in state support and catastrophic budget cuts.  And like many others, my university officially values interdisciplinary centers and institutes, and has made enormous investments in them, primarily in the sciences.  These sites aim to produce applicable (read commodifiable) knowledge that will attract external funding from industry as well as federal agencies, and that will ultimately be saleable to the private sector. Equally important, since such research rarely actually produces a positive financial return on investment for the university, prioritization of interdisciplinary science is shaped by rankings and accountability systems that likewise value precisely this kind of funded research.

Taylor advocates increasing the pressure to produce marketable problem-solving knowledge.  But, in my context, it is an ongoing struggle to preserve institutional space for so-called basic research (even in the sciences) and for all of those fields where accomplishment can’t be measured by research expenditures. Our College of Humanities is one of our smallest in terms of funding, numbers of tenure-track faculty members, majors, and graduate students.  Meanwhile, our interdisciplinary Institute for LGBT Studies is relatively well supported by our university.  But it will be evaluated in large part on its ability to generate grant-funding and thus has, in part, shifted its focus from humanities-based queer studies to applied social science research on LGBT people. For better or worse, the kind of knowledge production Taylor criticizes is in fact disappearing at warp speed.

At the same time, our university is held accountable by various political actors—our board of regents, legislature, governor—who value only producing the largest number of bachelors degrees for the lowest possible cost.  Such evaluative criteria contradicts the high value placed by our own administrators on funded research (which inevitably requires substantial internal investment and drives up the cost of education), but they also reinforce the pressure to shrink the space of knowledge production.  For these political actors, the point of producing cheap degrees is not to democratize access to education, but rather to provide trained workers for private corporations at low cost to the state. The humanities continue to exist at all by virtue of the huge numbers of student credit hours they generate in required composition, foreign language and general education courses. This is to say that neo-liberal privatization and management by measurement have already gone a long way toward shifting power and resources from traditional departments to interdisciplinary problem-solving institutional structures (to the extent that they can shape by funding who is hired by departments) and from peer-review to administrators and governing boards. (With the exception of research expenditures, there are no performance measures with any link to peer review in either our regents’ state-wide strategic plan or our own university strategic plan.) Peer-review, problematic as it can sometimes be, is absolutely crucial to preserving academic freedom and the institutional space for critical knowledge production.

As Halberstam suggests, faculty, especially those of us with the extraordinary privilege tenure provides to speak our minds, must take the lead in shaping a response to this situation. Doing so requires using the interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches that are already well-developed in gender, ethnic, queer, environmental, and anti-incarceration scholarship (to name just a few).  We must analyze the political conjuncture in which we find ourselves and, as Chris Newfield has argued in his important book, Unmaking the Public University, intervene to create “markets” for our knowledge production.  Such intervention will include finding creative ways (probably at least in part quantitative) to make the case for the value and impact of what we do. The dominant values of our administrators and governing boards, prioritizing interdisciplinary problem-solving research and accessible education, seem ripe for appropriation on our behalf.  We already shoulder relatively heavier teaching loads than many of our sci-tech colleagues, and we take up pressing social problems and issues through interdisciplinary approaches (if through relatively abstract analysis of systems of power and meaning rather than policy-ready social science). Simply giving up and giving in to either the “market” as it exists or the values of “trustees and administrators,” which is really what Taylor is suggesting, is neither necessary nor wise.

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6 Responses to “University Management By Measurement”

  1. Angela Zito May 29, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Miranda writes:
    “…(With the exception of research expenditures, there are no performance measures with any link to peer review in either our regents’ state-wide strategic plan or our own university strategic plan.) Peer-review, problematic as it can sometimes be, is absolutely crucial to preserving academic freedom and the institutional space for critical knowledge production.”

    This strikes me as an important crux of the matter, since “peer review” could be seen as a form of faculty self-governance, or at least should be understood as an area of overlap between intra-institutional governance and our “peculiar” form of collective knowledge production. Taylor’s original piece absolutely confounds institutional management and knowledge production in a fairly naive way.

  2. sangeeta ray May 29, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    hear, hear.

    • Jan Fox June 4, 2009 at 1:31 am #

      but as students what are we to do?
      we are in it (some of us) for the love of learning, and yet to progress through the system must find a faculty sponsor who is wedded to the funding mechanism necessary for our own continuation through ‘higher education.’ It is a major catch 22 for those who do not have private means. and even those that do must ‘produce’ (or reproduce) knowledge within the system….
      how to create an alternative? for some of us it is the reason we are engaged in academia, but then we are constrained by the very system that affords us choice… ahh the irony!

  3. Dave (the cuz) Joseph June 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm #

    I think a huge part of the problem is the way the continued conservative cry of “taxes/government bad” has totally undermined the traditional concept of Universities as centers of knowledge development. The immense value of this is an intangible concept and hard to parse down to a talking point that is easily sold. (and rather the right wing has further torn down higher education the same way they have undermined media – by claiming a left bias.)

    Taylor’s premise that we should eliminate tenure can be equated to the idea that we should deregulate financial markets. That old saw about forgetting history and being doomed…there is a solid foundation for the current system, and destroying it will set the educational system back a hundred years.

    One has to hope that in the era of Obama we can once again turn to moving civilization ahead!

  4. Clint June 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    I wrote an essay in response to Taylor’s piece (linked below). His idea of networking departments is definitely an interesting one worthy of exploration, but his treatment of the university as a factory is perverse. Applying free market prescriptions would have a disastrous effect on society at large.

    http://www.whyweworry.com/blog/2009/06/25/restructuring-humanities/comment-page-1/#comment-3574

  5. Virginia August 21, 2009 at 2:01 am #

    smart, miranda. thanks

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