University neoliberalism in America: Greenwood on Spellings

I hadn’t meant to take such a long break from the blog. I will try to write weekly, at least, since there is so much here in France to write about. But for the time being, one more in a series of posts on neoliberalism…

Davydd Greenwood, an economic anthropologist turned action researcher from Cornell University, has been writing critically about social science and higher education for at least a decade now. In a long stream of essays, often co-written with his collaborator Morten Levin, he has castigated the “inhumanities and inaction research” that he views as leading to socially useless theoreticism, commented on Taylorist organization in university structures, and argued for far more extensive social research on academic institutions.

In a recent essay that I want to talk about here, Greenwood takes up what he calls “Bologna in America,” which is to say, the belated importation of neoliberal reform projects into U.S. higher education. His primary symptom of this phenomenon is a 2006 report put out by George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, which advocated a program of newly imposed “accountability” regimes for American universities, a “reform through imposed free market discipline.” Greenwood is quick to point out the contradiction inherent in the “imposition” of a “free” market:

“If [these would-be reformers] actually believed in the free market, this would make no sense. After all, by free market logic, institutions that are not accountable, not transparent, not affordable and not efficient would simply be put to death by the market itself. However, in their world view, the free market always needs the oversight of authoritative policymakers who know better than the consumers and producers what they all need” (22).

Now oversight, as the Spellings Report imagines it, consists of several things: a changing regulatory and financial structure, a new push towards policy integration of university and economy, and particularly a new regime of “transparency and accountability.” Accountability here largely involves instituting “output controls” instead of “input controls” — “output controls” meaning measuring the results of an education (demonstrable skills afterwards, job placement) rather than the inputs (money spent, teacher qualifications, or whatever). Greenwood notes correctly that no reasonable person could be against understanding the results of educational processes and trying to improve them, but as he points out, the Spellings Report’s version of accountability involves reducing educational processes to a set of uniform, quantifiable outcomes.

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A university call to arms after an unsuccessful strike

A question that has interested me since my arrival in France has been the following: how do participants in last spring’s university protests sustain their political hopes in light of the seemingly limited success of their actions last spring? I asked around last June about this and got some nebulous answers about how you just have to keep trying, as if hope was normative even when dismay was the real political feeling of the moment. It would I suppose be exaggeration on my part to say that last spring’s strikes “failed”; certainly they may have slowed things down, and they caused an immense ruckus and drew attention and majorly developed critical analysis of the university and put a major thorn in the side of the education minister — who is still Sarkozy’s Valérie Pécresse, in case you wondered. But they didn’t manage to get the government’s university reforms withdrawn and neither did they manage the radical transformation of universities that many said they desired.

In this light, I wanted to translate a current call for a General Assembly next week at my field site in Paris-8. It goes like this:

“We have even more cause than last year to be angry and to keep fighting.”

This declaration was placed at the start of the communiqué of the National University Coordinating Committee*, which met at Paris-8 on September 30. It perfectly summarizes the feelings of everyone who was there — the representatives of 29 establishments of higher learning and research. We all know that it’s not possible to have a strike comparable to the one we had last semester; we all know that there’s no single form of action that alone would manage to make the government give in; but we all know as well that doing nothing would end up giving the government free reign to impose the worst on us.

For we must not have the slightest illusion on this point: the passage to complete university “autonomy” will wind up threatening the status of ALL workers in higher education. A small cast of mandarins and their lackeys aside, this reform will, before the end of this coming decade, force us all to have to defend our jobs in terms of criteria that the government will wholly determine.

—Autonomous to manage our own fiscal destitution,
—Autonomous to inflict the costs on the students and raise their tuition,
—Autonomous to spread precarious working conditions throughout the educational system,
—Autonomous to impose permanent competition between ourselves.

Last semester’s strike led the government to slow down in its destruction of the public service. But let’s not get this wrong: if we let down our guard, our universities will soon become service stations working under contracts with the State. The State will then retain for itself the autonomy that we claim for ourselves: that is, the autonomy to set scientific programs and pedagogical methods. And given the way the minister acts towards our university today, as in the case of the IFU, we can genuinely fear the worst.

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The origins of university real estate

A friend of mine recently asked if I knew anything about the history of the college quad as a place of free speech and debate. I didn’t, but I’ve done a tiny bit of research in the last couple of days and the results are interesting. Among other things, I observe something of a historical transformation in the scholarly literature: an older era’s work concentrated mainly on college architecture as an aesthetic form in itself, tracing the origins of campus buildings and the progress of architectural styles. Many campuses have their own histories; they are often adapted to the rhetorical needs of campus self-promotion and self-consecration, the sort of thing written by loyal emeritus professors to please the president. On the other hand, a more recent, more modern, more critical literature takes up a different problem, that of the university’s relation to its town, to its broader environment, to its social context; this research tends to be darker, looking at university’s sometimes problematic involvement in urban development, in racial exclusion, in slum clearance, in gentrification. I’ve posted before about Gordon Lafer’s history of Yale urban development and about Kate Eichhorn’s paper on the “abject zone” of copyshops around the University of Toronto — typical examples of this more recent literature.

I have a bunch of photographs of university quads to look at here, and some more recent articles from the U.S. context to think about, but to start off this new set of posts I wanted to begin with this extract from a History of the University in Europe. It offers a very suggestive picture of how universities began to acquire real estate in the first place:

“In the late Middle Ages, as student populations grew and universities ceased to migrate, universities acquired buildings and movable property. For a long time time in Paris and Bologna the administration had not needed to take care of buildings, because there were none. Lectures were held in houses rented by the masters, examinations and meetings in churches and convents. In Paris, however, both the theological faculty and the nations began renting property as early as the fourteenth century, and acquiring it in the fifteenth century. With lecture halls in the rue de Fouarre and many other places, with colleges and lodgings, and with churches (all of them on the left bank of the river), the Quartier Latin became the university quarter of Paris. The young Bologna studium, too, contented itself with private houses and religious or public buildings for lectures, meetings, and ceremonies.

Growing numbers of students, some of them very young and needy, made housing facilities more necessary as time passed. College buildings arose everywhere, but especially in universities with large faculties of arts, such as Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and later on the German universities. Italian studia also looked for lodgings for their students. The comparatively few colleges in northern Italy were founded in and after the fourteenth century, at first in converted private homes. After 1420 a special type of building appeared, the domus sapientiae (house of wisdom) or sapienza, a teaching college modelled on the Collegio de Spagna in Bologna, built in 1365-7. The rooms were grouped around an arcaded courtyard. Gradually the sapienza ceased to be dwellings and in early modern times became the official university buildings with lecture rooms, discussion rooms, a library, rooms for accommodation and administration, archives, and a graduation room. The palazzo della sapienza became the current name for these sumptuous university buildings. (136-7) Continue reading “The origins of university real estate”

A UMP student looks back on French protests

Time to get back to France and to my ambition to make French academic life more visible to anglophone audiences via this blog. I have a long list of stuff I want to post soon, but this will have to do for now — Le Monde here in France just published an article with a bunch of interviews entitled “What’s left of the movement against the Law on University Autonomy?” The most interesting statement, in my view, was by a center-right student who opposed the strikers and describes his sense of being threatened by the student opposition:

“It takes a strong stomach to oppose the strikers”

Aristote Toussaint, 21 years old, master’s degree in business law at Bordeaux IV.

In student movements, when like me you’re in the opposition, you have an interest in keeping your mouth shut. Or you need to have a strong stomach! At the Nantes fac, where I was last year, I was threatened for my comments in the General Assembly [AG]. I couldn’t go to class by myself. I didn’t hide that I was a member of the UMP [Sarkozy’s center-right party], and then? I’m proud of my convictions. The strikers [bloqueurs] are disrespectful people, they call themselves defenders of democracy but they’re anything but democrats. They’re utopians, allergic to work. I’d like to think that the leaders act in the name of some real ideology, but most people are just following the movement. The ones who criticize the autonomy of universities [recently imposed by the Education Ministry] are the same ones who complain about not getting jobs when they graduate… In the end their action accomplished nothing, aside from a few weeks of vacation. For the time being, it’s rather calm in Bordeaux, and I sincerely hope that there won’t be any strikes this year. We have to be optimistic and continue to reform [the universities], whatever it costs.

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