Thomas Kilkauer, Meg Young – Academentia: the Organization Insanity of the Modern University

The neo-liberalisation of higher education

Thomas Klikauer teaches MBAs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Western Sydney University, Australia

Meg Young is a Sydney Accountant

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

When 19th century elite universities were transformed into 20th century’s mass university to eventually become 21st century’s neoliberal universities, manic Managerialism and Academentia started to hold sway. Yet, universities have also been converted by today’s managerial apparatchiks from places where one wanted to go into places which have to be endured in order to get a job.

The keen observer may be familiar with the term Managerialism. Yet a more recent concept is that of Academentia. The term “Academentia” combines “academia” (post-secondary education) with “dementia” (progressive impairments to memory, thinking and behaviour which negatively impacts on a person’s ability to function). In short, Academentia describes a state of organisational insanity in which academics can no longer function as scholars.

Academentia is the outcome of a severe loss of touch with the scholarly reality of universities due to an environment shaped by the ideology of Managerialism and Neoliberalism. Such an often rather toxic environment is run by a university’s very own managerial apparatchiks. This is a hierarchically structured management body with several layers ranging from line managers to CEOs. The latter are still called Vice-Chancellors and university presidents.

Sydney University’s new boss, Mark Scott, for example, is getting $1.15m. As one would expect, in the USA this has reached even more obscene levels. The boss of University of Southern California rakes in a cool $7 million a year; the boss of Chicago University: $6 million; Jefferson University: $5.3 million; Columbia University: $4.5 million; Harvard University: 3.5 million and University of Pennsylvania: $3 million. The list goes on.

Overseen by top-dollar-receiving University bosses, below them a huge apparatus opens up that creates Academentia. This is an entire new condition that is formed by excessive and manic Managerialism. It destroys next to all scholarly creativity and intellectual endeavours.

Academentia downgrades what once defined the very existence of a university – the academic faculty – into some kind of over-stressed semi-academic factory workers. Simultaneously, real academics have been side-lined by managerial apparatchiks. Under Academentia, those academics dedicated to scholarship have lost next to all input in university policy-making.

Just as dementia describes, the rule of managerial apparatchiks over academics at neoliberal universities have negatively impacted on academics’ ability to function as academics. For managerial apparatchiks, academics are an (unfortunate) necessity.

They are a cost factor still needed to operate a university until online teaching can be made the norm and research can be outsourced. For Managerialism’s apparatchiks, the rather innocent words “cost factor” automatically implies: a burden, something negative and a cost to be reduced.

To the innocent observer, it may indeed appear as if there is a loss of the human dimension within the all-encompassing bureaucracies. Yet reality is rather different. Firstly, there is no loss of the human dimension under Managerialism. Managerialism does not have a human dimension – it has a managerial dimension. Human beings are reduced to human resources, tools, implements and chattels. Secondly, university Managerialism no longer operates bureaucracies.

Bureaucracies existed in organisations that administer a public entity for the benefit of its people and the public good. Under Managerialism, things are different. A so-called as-if ideology reigns.

This means that the management of neoliberal universities has taken on significant features from companies and corporations such as, for example, strict hierarchies, a quasi-dictatorial managerial authority (no democracy), the self-invented right of management to manage, performance management, KPIs, etc. This, of course, means that managerial apparatchiks invent structures and plans while individuals are responsible to perform.

Most of these initiatives come from the private sector. They come like a fast-advancing invasion force destroying everything in its way. Along the way, they create Academentia in virtually all parts of a university. Much of Managerialism’s conversion of academics into Academentia operates as a so-called “as-if” operation.

This occurs when managerial apparatchiks pretend that universities are like real companies and corporations. In other words, today’s neoliberal universities no longer have bureaucracies. Instead, they are run by full-scale management systems as overseen by managerial apparatchiks.

In today’s neoliberalism, the state’s role is to create an institutional framework appropriate to reduce government spending which is deliberately designed to turn academics and workers into income-generating productivity units. Texas A&M University, for example, calculates a profit and loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salaries against numbers of students taught and research grants obtained. In HRM, this is known as a balanced scorecard.

Its goal is to create Academentia – an automaton fulfilling the automaton’s pre-designed role through behaviour modification (read: behaviour manipulation). The managerialist’s goals are to be achieved through a process known as MBO: management by objectives.

These Academentia-creating goals of managerialists are used to manipulate the behaviour of those HR-managers call “underlings” or “subordinates”. Such MBO goals are minutely laid out on an Excel spreadsheet that is invented, overseen, assessed and controlled by managerial apparatchiks. Its function is to control human behaviour.

In order to create Academentia, contemporary Managerialism applies what Jerry Mander calls the Rules of Managerial Behaviour. One of these rules demands that managerial apparatchiks reduce everything to that which can be measured. Under Academentia, the individual becomes a purely measurable unit.

Only what is measurable is recognised – publication output, student numbers, student surveys, grant applications, industry funding and of course, the all-important impact fetishism enshrined in the infamous h-index. In Academentia, researchers are reduced by managerial apparatchiks to a function in a mathematical equation:

This rather inhuman but managerially-pushed system punishes employees and frustrates students. Hence, one suffers (academics) while the other one endures (students). Unknown to the simple- minded managerial apparatchik employed as a “Willingman” or as a willing executor of neoliberalism, university Managerialism follows what Greek historian Thoukydides (472-400BC) described as, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

This is the “us-vs.-them” version of top-down Managerialism. Much of this is based on mindless Managerialism that measures academic impact by means of ticking boxes on Excel spreadsheets. Hence, academics now report to managers and the managers are instructed by the People of Worth (PoW). PoWs consist of university’s overseers’ class, the upper echelons of Managerialism, the top managerial apparatchiks and their CEO.

Worse than that is, that much of this has created a mind-numbing reporting culture furnished by endless report writing, box ticking and form filling. These are sent to those who neither understand research and teaching nor have any interest in research and teaching. Their interests are checking forms, overseeing and assessment. They file reports for those with a bigger desk – at least until they themselves get a bigger desk.

Of course, much of this operates with the Peter Principle which explains why managers rise up to the level of incompetence. In Managerialism this makes perfect sense – incompetency rises to the top. Yet, and to the annoyance of managerial apparatchiks, universities still need researchers and lecturers. University management will need people who can do the teaching, can research and can publish.

In short, those with competencies cannot be promoted into the higher ranks of managerial apparatchiks. They are needed to do the work. Beyond that, university apparatchiks claim to still need more managers (mostly middle-management) who can manage, oversee, access, monitor and, most importantly, control those who can do research and teaching. This is for the simple reason that they themselves cannot do either one of the two.

As Corporal Klinger once said on MASH 4077, those who can’t, manage those who can. A particular evil heretic might have said, the higher a monkey climbs, the more you can see his butt. Others might prefer to follow Matsch’s Maxim: a fool in a high station is like a man at the top of a mountain – everything appears small to him and he appears small to everybody.

Largely or fully freed from research, teaching and form-filling, these high-up university apparatchiks or PoWs initiate university mission statements, invent business plans, research strategies, teaching policies and work – always very hard in endless business meetings – on university branding.

University branding is a badge it gives a university institutional personality. On institutional personality, some people might say, I know people on crack-cocaine who make more sense than this. Yet for Managerialism this makes perfect sense. As academics are deprived of what philosophers call personal identity or personhood, the Orwellian ideology of institutional personality is installed to camouflage the inhumanity of Managerialism.

Of course, the inventors of mission statements and institutional personalities represent a new generation of PoWs in top management now earning stratospheric salaries, even in the face of widespread student poverty.

Not to show their real character, managerial apparatchiks are quick to install “well-being programmes” for their subordinates and underlings, and “safe spaces” for students while sitting in air-conditioned office towers (top floor, of course), enjoy a private car park, drive corporate cars (i.e. university owned) and fly business class.

Beyond that, managerial apparatchiks are also busy with one of Managerialism’s all-time favourite instrument: restructuring – a very common and handy thing to do for university apparatchiks. Une idée fixe is the following: never let any institutional sector settle while creating the impression of transformation by endless (and often fruitless) restructuring.

Restructuring is like being on a treadmill that more often than not goes nowhere – and, is a mechanism enabling managerial-led centralisation of power. Going nowhere is precisely the point. Going somewhere is not the point of restructuring.

One of key ideas behind eternal restructuring is that it provides a great and very useful reason for management to fire people. Today, firing people is framed as letting you go, setting you free and free to seek other opportunities (HR-talk). One of the most obscene version is delivered by Amazon: to graduate. Furthermore, PoW aspirants, in order to secure worthy positions, thus ensure that bureaucracies expand constantly and that work expands to fill the time available.

This remains one of the core principles of Managerialism. Managerialism beefs up the importance of managerial apparatchiks and their Academentia-creating apparatus – collateral damage included.

This, of course, also means that officials make work for each other. They also make work for everyone else and hijack time that was previously available for productive activities. This is another feature of Academentia. Real academics are hampered in what they used to do before Managerialism arrived. Now they fill in forms for managerialists ranked above them. This is the ailment of Academentia where academics can no longer function as scholars.

Now they work for educational Fordism suffering on an education production line with plenty of managerial apparatchiks measuring and assessing their output. This also means that managers and administrators outnumber academics at many institutions sometime by a factor of 2-to-1. Perhaps Forbes magazine was asking the right question in 2020, who is running our universities? Forbes also found the answer, Administators!

For these Willingmen and managerial apparatchiks, work means going to meetings and generating more work for academics that need to be done at night and weekends after the meetings are over. Some have and continued to rebel saying, I refuse to waste a morning justifying my employment by mindless form-filling.

Rest assured the punishment will be forthcoming: no promotion or even demotion, put on a PIP (a performance improvement plan which is the first step to dismissal) and in severe cases, immediate dismissal.

In milder cases, it means organisational isolation, being made an outcast, seen as being recalcitrant, stamped as a trouble-maker, as not joining the great cause, etc. Worse, managerial apparatchiks and administrators set unrealistic targets but they are never themselves responsible for ensuring throughput. This is made to fall onto academics. And when they fail, Managerialism is there to punish them accordingly.

Self-evidently, the first law of academic mismanagement applies here too, namely, it punishes the academic sector for problems not of their own making. This fits to the second law of Managerialism, always blame others when things go wrong and always take credit when things turn out great even when you have done nothing to achieve such positive outcomes.

Gone are the days when departmental deans supported academics. Today, they are part of the body managerial apparatchiks. They are the Willingmen – the willing executors of Managerialism. Gone are the days when deans represented academics and not just authority, as they do now.

When two world- class economics professors got dismissed from an English university, one said to me on the way out, stay away from the Dean! After all those years, I still remember that. Of course, they found employment elsewhere. Both of them continued to be world-class economics professors until one retired while the other one still appears in the international press.

Only a few days ago, one appeared on While they got the chop, the remaining managerial apparatchiks who did engineer the dismissal are still there. Perhaps this little episode represents Imhoff’s law: the organisation of any bureaucracy is very much like a septic tank. The big chunks rise to the top.

In the end, the virus of Managerialism is like influenza – it is extremely difficult to treat with any sort of vaccine, largely because vaccines are effective only against specific and individual mutations. Yet, university apparatchiks and their ideology of Managerialism aren’t some sort of individual mutation. It operates very much in the same way in virtually all universities. Managerialism has a few common features found in next to all of today’s universities. Overall, Managerialism’s success has two basic ingredients.

The first ingredient is a state or country hooked on the ideology of neoliberalism. This creates the ideal condition for Managerialism to grow like a cancer. In many cases, the apostles of neoliberalism have deliberately engineered the right environment for Managerialism to take over universities.

Secondly, and perhaps even worse is the fact that many academics think along the path in which they are trained. They tend to assume that managerial apparatchiks can be convinced to support real scholarship by using rationality and logical arguments. In many cases, they know that they have the intellectually superior arguments. In science this makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately and rather sadly for those professors of science, this does not make sense in the realm of Managerialism. Managerial apparatchiks know that they are intellectually inferior to scientists. Crucially, Managerialism is something that operates with its own internal logic, rationality and above all, with its own ideology. The fight against Managerialism and against managerial apparatchiks cannot be won with ration arguments. In short, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!

The fight against university Managerialism can only be won with the only thing the managerial apparatchiks of Managerialism understand: well-organised and overwhelming power. As a consequence, academics can only face up to Managerialism and managerial apparatchiks through power.

The only institution that gives academics organisational power to challenge Managerialism is their trade union. It is as simple as that. This is not rocket science. Yet, rocket scientists need to use the power of trade unions to fight Managerialism and managerial apparatchiks.

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