Higher education environment is increasingly dogmatic and oppressive, and worse still, dogma and oppression are being delivered in the name of freedom and creativity.
Thomas Klikauer is the author of 560 publications and writes on Managerialism.
Norman Simms is a retired academic who lives in New Zealand and continues to write articles and books, as well as editing an online journal.
Ever since Neoliberalism and Managerialism arrived at universities, the halls of ivy have rather deliberately been changed from a place where people wanted to go to a place that people endure. As a new caste of managerialist, corporate apparatchiks, and CEOs – albeit the latter with different titles – took over, students eager to learn became customers eager to get the stamp of approval for a job.
Inside The Toxic University, the most willing executors of Managerialism (always to be found in administration) were promoted into management. Others, less manageable, were downgraded, side-lined, dismissed, retrenched, and casualised. Simultaneously, academics, who originally constituted “the university,” became a necessary evil, a cost, however, to be reduced. Based on her decades of experience in academia, Margaret Sims’ book Bullshit Towers outlines how this process was inexorably and relentlessly carried through.
Today, many academics go to work, to a place that makes their stomach churn and their blood pressure sky-rocket. The idea of using the word bullshit can easily come from reading too many management emails.
While the term bullshit has become ever more prevalent ever since the US philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a book On Bullshit (2005). The word has entered the scholarly arena, the champion of the dispossessed, ready to take on the lions (liars and their prevarications) of managerialism. Recently, bullshit became truly popular in other gladiatorial combats through Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018) and Spicer’s Business Bullshit (2018).
There are many very justifiable reasons to call universities bullshit towers, places run by those with bullshit jobs engaged in the business of bullshit. What corporate apparatchiks in universities do may appear as bullshit it is, nevertheless very dangerous bullshit (in the sense of meaningless and obscurantist discourse). Much of the bullshit we see – many not just see it from afar as a theoretical “cloud of unknowing” but experience it first-hand as a traumatic shock to the system – is created by a corps corporate apparatchiks.
These corporate apparatchiks do not really work in a proper corporation (one that produces or distributes things) but have taken on the ideology of a corporation (a consolidation of managers who merely self-aggrandize and self-perpetuate). They transfer the ideology of Neoliberalism into the idea of a university where it becomes not just another ideology to compete for mental and bureaucratic space, but the very ideology of Managerialism, the one that replaces knowledge, tradition and intellectual ambition.
Neoliberalism is an ideology. Reading through the godfather of Neoliberalism F. von Hayek’s catechism Road to Serfdom (1944), indeed one gets the distinct impression that his short(ish) booklet isn’t on academic economics at all but an insidious ideological pamphlet. At the end of his long life, Hayek himself admitted that his main success had been the influence he had on journalists, working economists, and politicians. One of Hayek’s outstanding successes was the removal of state responsibility. In Neoliberalism, this new condition of statelessness means privatisation.
In Managerialism this means shifting responsibilities (liabilities, consequences and burdens of guilt) to workers, ideologically camouflaged as empowerment (another meaningless buzz word, like agency). For university managers, it means taking credit for what academics have achieved (as scholars and teachers) while blaming them when things (the financial and structural integrity of the institution) go wrong. This remains one of the most important rules management has ever invented.
Of course, in the old days of a more equal (collegial) life at university to be an academic was to enter into venerable learned profession, a career in creating and evaluating knowledge and passing on the improved ideas and the refined skills to the next generation; therefore, it could not continue once Managerialism moved in lock, stock and barrel From then on, it proclaimed to the animals in the farm, no one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal.
Any university boss or corporate henchman will tell you that empowerment and collegiality are important. And, of course, at the same time, they say that, any viable sense of agency is undermined. Simultaneously, dissent is perceived as traitorous, and as such, a legitimate target for punitive action. That’s just because some animals are more equal than the others.
This managerial gobbledegook comes along with a curriculum that is simplified, so that students obtain good grades and respond with high customer satisfaction rations. Both are important for academic promotions and for the marketing of The PR-University. Surveys (not objective, careful meditations on the subject) are also use to indicated quality (a diaphanous mode of bovine excreta). In that game, everyone, except (naturally) the student or customer, is a winner. The ideology of quality assurance is highly useful to force academics into standardising their teaching.
This is not the only reminder of Henry Ford’s car factory with assembly-line manufacturing. What in a car factory is called SOS (Standard Operation Sheet) is called standard teaching and the standardisation of assessments. Following Ford, it creates standardised academics and students ready-made for the standardised world of consumer capitalism. Best of all, it creates a standardised illusion of thinking, bullshit framed in an appropriate jargon.
Self-evidently, the language of Managerialism often sounds profound but its weighty sounding words hide a complete lack of clarity and meaning. Managerialism does this deliberately. It is a valued strategy to obscure issues so that the managerialists can blame academics when things do not turn out as planned. It allows corporate apparatchiks to claim misunderstandings and to extract (or abstract) themselves from the scene. The advancement of the learned language of Managerialism Managerialism can be gaged in rafts of Managerial Buzzword Generators available on the Internet.
It equally important for corporate apparatchiks to master the babble of Managerialism because it shows leadership potential and belonging. Managerialists have no problem at all with spreading not only the bullshit language, but the meaningless ideas upon which it is based. This is a crucial point. While academics are trained to examine words and concepts, to detect holes and contradictions, for Managerialism all of this is worse than irrelevant. It is threatening. Managerialism operates on ideology and power. Holding power allows managerialists to blame academics when misunderstanding the bullshit language of managerialist obfuscation. It forces academics into a position of having to interpret what is said by corporate apparatchiks.
Beyond that, it reinforces a much valued power asymmetry in which managers tell academics what to do, as though a gang of monkeys typed out the lectures for the lecturers to read out to their students. It is power-play which corporate managers enjoy, as academics, not just students, are regularly on the receiving end. They are the winners, further cementing their power. In a second move, academics can be exposed as incompetent. Thirdly, whatever the once-respected professors say provides valuable information that can be used against fellow academics. Big Bother is always watching you.
For corporate apparatchiks running universities, academics are not much more than human resources, materials, tools, chattels, (unfortunately) still a necessary and above all a costly function, the rest is pretence. The occasionally issued invitation to participate to the university’s organisational affairs means nothing to managerialists except gaining insights into academia and the gathering of information to be used against those down Fayol’s chain of command (1916). From the standpoint of the managerialist, academic involvement is unwarranted, as it simply gets in the way. Nothing should stand in the way between a managerialist and his maker. Based on decades of excruciating experience, Sims is correct in saying,
Once in the management group, the language of bullshit must be spoken to maintain one’s position. The language of bullshit speaks the neoliberal managerial culture into reality.
Using the mystifying language of Managerialism means expressing a manager’s conformity to the esprit de corps of Managerialism and a readiness to further the spirit of managerialist culture. This culture, by the way, isn’t culture at all. It is organisational pathology sold as “culture” [sic], a key term when enforcing the ideology of Managerialism. Managerialism assumes that organisational culture means shared values. These are the values of Managerialism – not the values of academia or students.
Still, when all is said and done, language is a powerful tool used to shape and re-shape realities, beliefs, and worldviews it acts as a complete tool of social control. This is exactly want Managerialism is about and how it sees language. The language of Managerialism is a vital tool to establish social control over universities. This is even more the case in organisations in which profit-maximisation, euphemistically labelled “shareholder value” under Managerialism, is not the prime goal of a university. Free from the demand to generate profits, university managerialists can freely go about cementing Managerialism into all the nooks and crannies of higher education.
Much of this concretisation (or intellectual constipation) comes to the detriment of students and academia as a (w)hole. That all of this is damaging to Alexander von Humboldt’s idea of the university is of no concern to corporate apparatchiks so long as they can fly business class and get picked up by a chauffeured blue Maserati with license plate depicting the corporate logo of the university.
Of course, the language of Managerialism has been sent to earth by higher beings to further privileging the new cast of managerialists. In the simplistic world of managerialism where in-group is set against out-group, those who are not fluent in bullshit language are positioned as undeserving outsiders. For the in-group, it means that managers gain confidence through having the right words to say and rarely seek to delve into any deeper meaning – partly because such a deeper meaning rarely exists. Managerialism remains a rather shallow affair based on ideology and power, not deeper meaning.
The lack of deeper meaning reaches into the teaching part of the university as well. In many instances senior managers are completely unable to define what learning actually is. Of course, top-managers in a car factory are unable to define how an ABS breaking system actually works, or American presidents to understand the workings of the US Constitution.
This mere technicality of knowing what you are talking about is of no concern to corporate apparatchiks. These mechanical things are for people down the line. What concerns the managerialists is the development of policies and procedures designed to standardise the product, and standardise tool to measure compliance and performance. Performance management remains a vital component of Managerialism and for corporate apparatchiks.
The fact that performance management is rather useless is irrelevant. The point is to use the illusion as a tool to further the course of Managerialism and to demonstrate to academics who “runs the show”. The point is power – not organisational performance. As William Shakespeare would have his dramatis personae explain at the end of their performance, we are such stuff as dreams are made of.
Beyond that, the system of performance management gives managerialist yet another punitive tool to be used against academics. If a management-defined failure lies in the area of teaching and research, it will generate a Unit Action Plan or, even worse, a PIP or performance improvement plan (PIP) – the first step to dismissal. Corporate managerialist call this, we will performance manage her out of here and my way or the highway.
The system has other benefits for Managerialism because academics spend more and more of their time each day demonstrating to managers what they are doing, rather than having time to actually do it. This creates accountability – a key term for Managerialism. What is relevant is accountability not teaching, research and attending an academic conference, for example.
In the good old days (for lecturers) or the bad old days (for managerialists), an academic would pop his or her head around the Head of School’s door to get approval and sign a piece of paper to attend an academic conference. Now, managerialists have turned this into a 16-step application, vetting, reporting process, and the final conference report to be submitted to management.
Of course, there are millions of dollars wasted by excessive compliance demands. The European Union has even calculated the millions of Euros lost and the time wasted every year as academics are forced to apply for funding grants for research project. Grant applications waste researchers’ time, headlined the Time Higher Education in 2018 (UK). Regularly, if one project applicant gets funding, plenty of other applicants do not. More than that, nothing is either lost nor wasted, since the whole process makes it more necessary that Managerialists run the whole show, thus demonstrating their sublime power to create nothing (ex nihlo).
They can dream up endless funding plans, conjure forth funding criteria, generate new assessment procedures, appoint more judges to vet proposals, etc. This keeps academics busy with filling in forms while corporate apparatchiks can set up special management departments assisting academics in the writing of funding proposals.
Meanwhile, the underlings of the corporate apparatchiks have also been kept busy with inventing ever more policies and procedures. At one universities there were more than 64 policies, 62 rules, 106 procedures, 31 guidelines (plus an additional 17 guidelines), eight protocols, four codes, three plans, two statements, 328 documents specifying who things should be done and by whom. For what purpose? one might well ask. To camouflage the Neoliberal ideology. In brief, to respond to the demand for less red tape.
To oversee all this, corporate apparatchiks have invented plenty of managerial positions such as, for example, a sourcing and category manager, an asset compliance manager, a content optimising officer, a process innovation co-ordinator. As a consequence, universities are full of mangers and increasingly fewer academics, casualised or otherwise. At one university, the apparatchik component was a staggering 62% in 2006. By 2017, it had grown to 68.1%. Increasingly this is a common feature defined today’s universities as sacred spaces for bullshit managerialist and not ivory-towered academics.
Much of this gives managerialists tremendous power beyond their sheer numerical strength. As a consequence, dissenters are casually dismissed as poor team-players, trouble-makers or malcontents. Of course, the system of Managerialism and its overpaid university bosses can call upon external assistance, usually framed as independent advisers. One such a support agency is Price Waterhouse Coopers which in 2016 stated, Academic freedom and democratic governance of Universities interfere with the efficient exercise of managerial prerogative and must be reduced in influence. Unlike Neoliberalism that seeks to use democracy, Managerialism it outright anti-democratic. What Managerialism seeks is efficiency, not democracy. They will, like Fascism, make the trains run on time.
It relentlessly advances what might be called PICO which stands for power, influence, control. The increased power of corporate apparatchiks inevitably leads to bullying. Expectedly, around 80% of bulling in higher education is perpetrated by managers. It gets even better as management perceive themselves as the university. In the end, the educational environment is increasingly dogmatic and oppressive, and worse still, dogma and oppression are being delivered in the name of freedom and creativity.