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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
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
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
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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