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Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2018
How the University Became Neoliberal
By Andrew Seal

In his instantly iconic December 1964 address in front of UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Hall, the Berkeley Free Speech leader Mario Savio warned his listeners that "if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material!" If students — and faculty — did not want to be ground up and processed mechanically, they had to put their "bodies upon the gears … to make it stop!"

Savio’s message was far from new. As long ago as 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson warned that, in colleges, "young men of the fairest promise are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, — some of them suicides." Across the Atlantic, John Henry Newman scoffed that businessmen "insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if every thing, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind." Later critics like Thorstein Veblen and Upton Sinclair railed against industrial barons treating colleges like personal fiefdoms, trampling the still precarious ideal of academic freedom.

Four months after Savio’s speech, Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society, addressed the March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam. He exhorted his listeners to "name [the] system" undergirding war: "Describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it." Potter wasn’t referring to the university directly, but his attempt to define global political conditions and Savio’s critique of the business-oriented university have, over the past 50 years, combined to produce a new understanding of the close and intricate relations between "the university" and "the system."

Ask three academics what 'neoliberalism' is, and you'll get three different answers -- at least one of which will be 'there's no such thing.' No longer does it seem sufficient merely to insist that higher education should transcend the bottom line. More and more, the bottom line has stitched the university into the fabric of capitalism; one can no longer evade capitalism’s influence merely by aspiring to "higher" ideals. Or as the pioneering social historian E.P. Thompson put it in 1970, "the system not only grew around us, but built us into its own body-walls. Once inside there it looked as if we were running our own bit of the show: but the show itself was being directed toward other ends."

Academics have tried out many names for this "show." "Academic capitalism," "Higher Education, Inc.," or the "corporate university" are common (if uninventive) monikers. Recently, "the neoliberal university" has become the label of choice. But until the mid-2000s, almost none used the term "neoliberal" to describe the changing university. In fact, they didn’t use the term "neoliberalism" much at all.

Ask three academics what "neoliberalism" is, and you’ll get three different answers — at least one of which will be "there’s no such thing." But many historians and social scientists believe there is such a thing, and that we can’t understand the world without knowing something about it.

Explanations of the term have cropped up frequently in journals, magazines, and newspapers. But the connection of "neoliberalism" to academe usually goes unmentioned. In fact, the wide use — some might say the overuse — of the term is a direct product of the changes that academe has undergone in the last half century. "Neoliberalism" didn’t originate on campus, but its popularity as a label is largely the achievement of academics whose work has been inspired by the desire to understand what’s happening to higher education and who have found that the university is the critical vantage point for grasping larger global transformations.

Talk about the "neoliberal university" is therefore entirely appropriate, both because academics have done the most to circulate the concept of "neoliberalism" and because the university is one of neoliberalism’s indispensable nodes. The history of neoliberalism’s entanglement with the university, therefore, tells us a lot about both intellectual fashions and the real changes in higher education that have shaped those fashions.

Terms like "academic capitalism" or the "corporate university" rested on a vision of "the system" that assumed that changes in the economy were separate in origin from changes on campus. The reason for alarm — and the reason for these neologisms — was that those external changes were working their way into the ivory tower like an infection. Higher education was being "corporatized." Business values were seeping in to seminars. Students were learning to evaluate their course schedule like a bond trader looking over a portfolio, and they were being taught to do so not by their professors but by an exterior culture that sang the hymns of return on investment.

To understand this outside-in dynamic, academics turned to one of the most sophisticated theories of slick corporate culture: Fredric Jameson’s notion of "late capitalism." That phrase pointed back to the work of the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel, who popularized it on the left in the 1970s. The term’s usage also foreshadowed Jameson’s epochal 1991 work Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press). Wildly influential, both halves of Jameson’s title became standard: the back issues of journals like PMLA, American Quarterly, and Social Text reveal that from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, scholars most frequently used "late capitalism" when trying to sum up and critique what was going on in the global political economy. They almost never used "neoliberalism."

In the hands of Jameson, "late capitalism" was a powerful way of describing the effect of the market mania of the 1980s and 1990s. "Late capitalism" named the present in a way more reminiscent of literary history than political or economic history, and it was therefore eagerly taken up by radicals who often approached their critiques of capitalism through "readings" of its "texts." It was, in some senses, an aesthetic term, focused more on capitalism’s ambience than its mechanics, the way it colonized our perceptions and even our emotions, not just our working conditions.

The adjective "late" also deftly evoked the persistent quasi-eschatological unease of the millennium’s end: It captured the eerie, elusive sublimity of a reality so large and complex that it could only be grasped in fragments or snatched through glimpses. "Late capitalism" worked as the term of choice for scholars from the 1980s through the early 2000s because it imagined a capitalism that was literally mind-boggling in its complexity and superhuman in its scale. That perception of a ubiquitous but entirely external economic reality fit well with the experiences of academics encountering for the first time new "corporate" imperatives suddenly thrust into their departments, their research, and their daily lives. These practices and the values that backed them were wholly external — even antithetical — to academe, but also inescapable. It was impossible not to feel disoriented; late capitalism had suffused the university.

The 2008 financial crisis caught many people by surprise, but not David Harvey, a British geographer at the City University of New York. Like Jameson, Harvey’s early work used the concept of postmodernity to analyze capitalism, but as a social scientist his work was rooted in political economy rather than cultural critique. This difference led to an abrupt shift in nomenclature: In 2005’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press), Harvey argued that the capitalism of the past quarter-century operated not by overwhelming individuals and nonmarket values with its complexity but simply by running roughshod over any resistance it found. Neoliberalism’s only purpose, he argued, was to restore immense power to economic elites; unlike mid-century liberal capitalism, it required only compliance, not assent, and ignored questions of long-term stability. Harvey pointed at the beginning of his book to the Iraq War as an example of neoliberalism in action. The course of the war, with its brutal "shock and awe" tactics, brazen profiteering, and incompetent planning, seemed only to confirm his broader argument.

These conditions made of Harvey — and his emphasis on classical Marxist political economy — an unlikely icon. In 2008, a YouTube series of his lectures on Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital became an unexpected viral phenomenon, just as global markets were melting down.

Contingent academics and students loaded down with debt are utterly typical of an economic order devouring itself from within. For a newly invigorated academic left, Harvey became the key interpreter of the financial crisis. In his 2011 The Enigma of Capital (Oxford University Press), he argued against popular explanations of the crisis as a chance event or as merely the result of poor decisions on the parts of some key financial actors. Rather, 2008 was the natural outcome of the ordinary operations of capitalism. There was no such thing as crisis-free capitalism, he argued; as long as we live with capitalism, we will live with periodic crises — some of them severe.

Harvey’s timing again was excellent: The Enigma of Capital came out just as the window of hope that 2008 would produce real and positive reforms slammed shut. Disbelief that such a major financial disaster had not caused a greater, New Deal-like transformation of political priorities in Washington would lead to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement.

If Occupy was built on anger that Wall Street could slink back to "normal" operations so quickly, on campuses 2008 seemed to have introduced a shocking "new normal." Although the twin crises of "adjunctification" and mounting student debt began well before 2008, academics were in staunch denial that these trends were baked in to the modern university. They were outside impositions of "corporate" logic; they could be banished summarily and academe’s real noncommercial purpose re-established. Although analysts like Marc Bousquet were already arguing that this self-assurance was naïve, many academics presumed that the obvious failures of market logic in 2008 would convince administrators of the folly of further dalliances with corporate values and practices. After riding out a few rough years, higher education could emerge from the crisis emboldened to return to its proper mission.

The first shiver of disillusionment came when, at most institutions, the job searches that seemed to be merely on hold until university budgets righted themselves never materialized. The shift toward contingent labor did not abate but increased, a fact that hit recent Ph.D.s particularly hard. But production of new doctorates did not slow down, creating a glut of highly qualified candidates stuck in a stagnant job market.

Younger students may have become disillusioned even earlier, as the 2008 crisis appeared to embolden administrators not to back away from "corporate" values but to jack up tuition. Protests of tuition hikes in the University of California system roiled campuses beginning in 2009. Certainly by 2011 — when the infamous pepper-spraying incident at UC-Davis occurred — any hope that higher education would be willing or able to turn away from its policies of austerity and high tuition had evaporated.

With optimism extinguished, contingent academics and students loaded down with school debt began to see themselves not as unique failures of a functioning system but as utterly typical of an economic order devouring itself from within. That self-understanding gelled with Harvey’s insistence that capitalism was intrinsically crisis-prone: Crises were features rather than bugs of the capitalist operating system.

With the shared bleakness of global recession and dwindling job prospects, scholars began mobilizing across national borders. The most important group, the Edu-Factory Collective, had roots in Italy. Their slogan was "As once was the factory, so now is the university," an idea that focused the collective’s discussions not merely on higher education as a part of neoliberalism but as its central institution.

Capitalist production had entered a new phase, many collective members argued, where the generation of knowledge and the production of "knowledge workers" had replaced the manufacturing of physical commodities as the driver of the economy. In this new "cognitive capitalism," control of the university — in material as well as ideological terms — would become as crucial and contested as control of the factory floor had been to the earlier labor movement.

In contrast to the earlier critics of the "corporate university," who mostly imagined a future in which higher education could simply reset to its noncorporate golden years, the collective refused to yearn for the public or mass university of the past. "We vindicate the university’s destruction … [we are] not merely immune to tears for the past but enemies of such a nostalgic disposition."

The collective began as an email-list discussion in 2007 and claimed to have had about 500 "militants, students and researchers" participating. But its real impact came a few years later, when its texts began circulating in multiple languages — the English version of its packet of readings, Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, The Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory, came out in 2009 — and in the period 2011-13, when its ideas blossomed through the global wave of occupations and student strikes and other actions against debt, tuition hikes, and austerity. Edu-Factory conferences in Australia and Canada occurred in 2012 and 2013.

Like the Edu-Factory Collective, current critiques of academic neoliberalism emphasize the centrality of higher education to the key narratives of exploitation — capitalist, racial, or both — of American history. Such work consistently links the conditions of the university to more general and fundamental conditions in the world. These critics argue that the problems that plague higher education today — weak or nonexistent job markets for new Ph.D.s, racial tensions on campus, controversies about tuition hikes, sexual assault and harassment — are not simply rough patches in a cycle of good and bad times. Nor are they "campus issues," to be analyzed and addressed as conditions unique to the ivory tower.

Both the antiwar activism of the 1960s and the culture wars of the 1990s tested the idea that "campus issues" were distinct from broader political and social divisions, but popular memory has tended to frame these histories as politics "erupting" on campus, as if higher education were both distinct from the rest of society and politically quiescent. Activists and intellectuals who apply "neoliberal" to the university would like to see that premise shattered. Higher education, they contend, is not a neutral arena where neoliberal or corporate values struggle for control of the future with a set of noncommercial, humanistic values. Neoliberal politics aren’t coming from outside the ivory tower: The caller is in the house. The university will have to be reclaimed and rebuilt, not merely rebooted.

The phrase "neoliberal university," in other words, isn’t cant or a faddish bit of jargon. It is the name for a new understanding of higher education’s integral role in the present economic order. It is also a sort of wager, or, if you like, a prophecy: The university will be central to present and future struggles to change the world.

Andrew Seal is a lecturer in economics at the University of New Hampshire.
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