“Everything is going great”: the official lie of campus newsletters

As someone who’s young, as someone who hasn’t known the academic world for decades and decades and decades, this hadn’t occurred to me, but it turns out that something as seemingly innocuous as the campus newsletter may have a political history. At least that’s what I infer from this fairly bitter critique of campus newsletters on French campuses that I’ll excerpt and translate from Christian de Montlibert‘s 2004 book, Knowledge for Sale: Higher Education and Research in Danger (Savoir à Vendre : L’enseignement et la recherche en danger). My guess, though he doesn’t give any real detail, is that the very existence of a campus newsletter on French public universities is a fairly recent development.

Management at the University

Managerial university administration supports itself with numerous organizational measures; computer software on the corporate model, for example, has already profoundly modified universities’ operations. And the language of entrepreneurial discourse — “efficiency,” “control,” “evaluation,” “project,” “objectives” — is being transposed onto centers of teaching and research which worked, until now, according to other logics. The critical and cumulative temporality of knowledge, after all, has nothing to do with a realized project’s profit timeline.

Nothing shows this penetration of managerial ideology better than the realization of university “newsletters” (journaux). We find in these newsletters a clear expression of this “enterprise culture,” a cleverly disguised and hence valorized means for the indoctrination of a firm’s employees, whose aim is an interiorization of the objectives of productivity and an acceptance of organized forms of domination. These newsletters aim to give a handsome image of the university, without wrinkles or folds, which has no more relation to reality than advertising icons have to social reality.

The newsletter delivers an official lie: “Everything is going great.” It is in no way a public space that would allow a debate about campus participants’ activities and conditions of existence. One doesn’t talk about the misery of foreign students who go to the hospital in a state of physical deterioration because of malnourishment, nor about the short-term jobs that other students string together, nor about anguish in the face of precarity, nor about academic failure. Neither does one talk about the working conditions in the university’s offices or among its laborers. One doesn’t talk in this newsletter about the faculty’s working conditions, nor about the reactions to the latest ministerial injunctions, nor about the problems of research work. The newsletters keep silent on the reforms imposed on university workers, even though they could be the best placed to forecast the University’s development.

As the University is also a center of research, one can only be amazed to see that the newsletter doesn’t open up its columns to notes on current research projects, on the ideas currently up for debate, or on the knowledges currently being developed. In reality, the newsletter is copying business newsletters: it wants to be the vector of an “enterprise culture.” But everything shows us that the University, a place of confrontation between different knowledges and truths and research projects, loses itself in wanting to “sell itself.” It ceases to be by wanting to be what it’s not.

(pp. 46-47).

I’d have to do some library research to be sure, but I get the impression that PR-style university newsletters are a very recent innovation in France, perhaps dating from the last fifteen years or less along with the rest of the “managerial” innovations that de Montlibert deplores. In some ways, these newsletters seem similar in form and function to the U.S. institution of alumni newsletters, but I suppose that even in the U.S., alumni associations are sometimes organizationally distinct from the university administration itself, so that even if they frequently dispense hollow propaganda, the origin of their propaganda is slightly different from something coming straight from a university P.R. office. My sense is that elite schools have long had alumni associations, serving to obtain donations and to maintain a sense of exclusive institutional identity. A quick look at JSTOR indicates that American alumni associations have been around for almost two centuries — the first one was formed in 1821 at Williams College. I initially guessed that American university public relations offices would be a much later creation than alumni associations, but interestingly enough, it turns out that they came into being as early as 1904, and formed a national association, the American Association of College News Bureaus, on the very same day in 1917 that the U.S. entered World War I. The next year, it appears that the alumni associations had grown to such an extent that they too formed a national group, the Alumni Magazines Associated. By the later part of the 20th century, in fact, the university PR association had even merged with the alumni association — which gives the lie to my supposition, earlier in this paragraph, that these are separate entities.

But in France the situation seems to be different. French public universities — which are quite different from, and much less prestigious than, the elite grandes écoles here — have never had alumni associations, although some groups currently advocate them. The grandes écoles, in contrast, seem to have quite strong alumni associations; the Ecole Normale Supérieure is famous for producing an elite academic fraternity that sticks together for life, and French engineering schools turn out to have had alumni associations since the late 1840s (caveat: I’ve only read that article abstract so far).

In the universities, however, it seems that the absence of alumni associations was coupled, until recently, to an equal absence of public relations departments. I suppose the centralized French university system, earlier in the 20th century, probably saw no reason to give each university its own press office; official communication probably used to be handled by the Ministry. But the more that French universities are asked to be autonomous, the more they need (or are forced) to develop and differentiate their identity. The campus newsletters that de Montlibert attacks, I suppose, are just one piece of the longer history of newly developed “branding” activities on French campuses. I’ve seen some curious examples of this here, which I’ll write about soon, I hope.

I also hope that de Montlibert’s comments speak for themselves (which would be a good indicator that my translation isn’t a total failure), but let me just signal in closing that I’m very curious about his emphasis on the university’s “being,” as if the university was constituted by a sort of transhistorical essence which consists in being the site of a perpetual confrontation between different “knowledges.” This, I would emphasize, is one major rhetorical strategy of the academic corps faced with neoliberal assaults: to claim that the reforms undermine the very essence of the university.

The problem, of course, is that these critics seldom manage to acknowledge that the university’s “essence” is itself largely fantasmatic. I suppose there’s a broader theoretical question here about whether or how much any institution can be rightly said to have an essence (is the essence of business to make money? is the essence of government to maintain a monopoly on legitimate use of force?), but I’ll leave that aside to point out that even by de Montlibert’s own provisional definition of a university, most universities aren’t and never have been universities. Most modern universities are places where interdisciplinary conflict is an exception to the rule and where conflict is averted by increasing hyperspecialization (which means that we seldom have to talk to people we deeply disagree with). Many universities have been places where knowledge was, if we believe Thomas Kuhn at least, neither extremely cumulative nor particularly critical. If the university has an essence, I don’t think we’ve figured out what it is yet.

But I can’t be too hard on de Montlibert, because there’s another interesting thing about this little passage. In short, there’s a sort of textual clash between his idealistic definition of what a university at heart “is,” and his list of all the university’s undiscussed problems. To me it seems contradictory for de Montlibert to define a university as home of a “critical and cumulative temporality of knowledge,” while immediately going on to acknowledge that campuses are rife with misery, precarity, bad working conditions, and malnourishment. The former points towards a defense of the university as it is or could be; while the latter tends to suggest that actual universities are deeply problematic institutions.

This thought crosses my mind: Shouldn’t de Montlibert also admit that the traditional humanistic definition of a university is itself another nice official lie? At any rate, he seems caught in the rhetorical tension between the actual and the desirable. But I won’t try to resolve things here. I just find it an interesting page in an interesting book. And I appreciate his historicization of a campus artifact that I might have otherwise taken for granted.

(One last note on translation: the polemic is about university journaux, which might sound like it should be translated as “campus newspapers,” but as there don’t seem to be student-run campus papers here in the American mode, I’m assuming he refers to the glossy little publications that campus administrations put out here to trumpet the latest local achievements. They tend to have carefully uncontroversial little stories, as far as I’ve seen.)

One thought on ““Everything is going great”: the official lie of campus newsletters

  1. Another interesting thing here is the normativity of institutional happiness and well-being that de Montlibert points out only to decry. Barbara Ehrenreich has recently drawn attention to the “cult of positive thinking” in America; it’s worth noting that big organizations, including universities, are apparently also required to “think positive,” at least in every public communication where they can get away with it.

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