The moment of human resources

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, French debates over university reform have often dwelt on the question of human resources, and even on the very desirability of thinking about universities in those terms. The advocates of a more “modern,” “competitive” university — who are themselves often products of business and public administration schools — have generally tended to take such a perspective for granted. In an exemplary moment, Valérie Pécresse, in January 2009, remarked that

‎”… je sais que les ressources humaines sont le cœur de l’université. Naturellement, dans toute organisation les ressources humaines sont au cœur du système. Mais dans un monde où la production intellectuelle est tout, plus que jamais, « il n’est de richesse que d’hommes ». Ces hommes et ces femmes qui font l’université, je les écoute et je les entends.”

[“… I know that human resources are at the heart of the university. Naturally, human resources are at the heart of the system in any organization. But in a world where intellectual production is everything, more than ever, ‘the only source of wealth is men.’ These men and women who are making the university, I’m listening to them.”]

If you believe that ideology is at its most effective when it is perceived to be entirely natural and universal, then this remark was an ideological moment par excellence. For Pécresse’s assumption here is that every human organization depends on “human resources”; she makes no distinctions between organizations governed by contemporary business logic and any other kind of organization. And in invoking a 16th century proverb by Jean Bodin, she certainly suggests that the logic of human resources long predates contemporary capitalism.

At the same time, Pécresse’s discourse was hybrid. Even as it placed the image of human resources at the heart of the university, it allied itself with a very traditional conception of academic life: the conception where the faculty are the university, where the university is constitutively a site of the production of knowledge, of “intellectual production.” The logic is one of an extension of the traditional logic: yes, men and women make the university — as the traditional definition would have it — but what they are doing is (intellectual) production that constitutes wealth — which inserts a much more business-centered view of human activity into the traditional definition.

Pécresse generally seemed to believe in the success of her hybrid discourse. Her detractors tended not to, seeing her as an agent of naked “corporatization of higher education” (as it is called in English), and I suppose viewing her gestures towards traditional views of academia as idle rhetoric.

Medium-sized American college towns

Around this time last year, I happened to pass through the city of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It’s a medium-sized city of 38,000 people, set beside the Mississippi River. When I showed up on my bike in the haze of summer, it felt quiet and empty, and I imagined that it was a sort of rust belt merchant town, a victim of the obsolescence of Mississippi River traffic, like Cairo. The economic story is a bit more complicated than that, it turns out. According to the city’s 2007 Comprehensive Plan (sec. 2), the town has had several periods of growth, initially in the 19th century because of river traffic, then around the turn of the century with a shift from steamboats to railroads, and again after World War II with a shift towards interstate highway traffic. This shift towards the highway, and I suppose the general post-war rise of car culture, brought about a familiar story of urban transformation: the surrounding farmlands partly became into suburban developments, while the historic downtown was increasingly abandoned:

As the more suburban areas continued to expand, the downtown began to decline as larger retail development spread to the outskirts of the City. By the 1980s larger retail stores and a regional mall were constructed near Interstate 55, further negatively impacting the market viability and tenancy of the downtown core area. The continued decline in downtown commerce has led to the significant ongoing efforts to preserve the City’s history and certain landmarks that add to the colorful past of Cape Girardeau. [2-5]

Seen in long-term historical perspective, the city appears to be a classic — even stereotypical — illustration of how shifts in the dominant mode of transportation determine the patterns of economic and urban development: the city reoriented from river to rail, and later from rail to highway. Seen from closer up, we find out that the city has, nevertheless, tried to preserve its “history” and “colorful past,” whose value is, of course, simultaneously cultural and economic.

(This mural depicts town history.)

On one hand, its “history” offers a cultural identity to a city that otherwise might have no choice but to surrender to reigning forms of social and economic homogeneity in America: to have a “colorful past” is to claim to be different — or at least, to have been different once — from every other city of the same size and approximate shape. On the other hand, of course, having a history is an economic strategy: it helps to bring tourists, giving them something to look at, and something to purchase in the city’s antique shops, which line the semi-revitalized downtown.

(Semi-revitalized downtown, in a traditional American style.)

If you believe the population statistics on Wikipedia, it is a city that has never been larger than it is now, but one which has essentially ceased to grow. And in such a place, again for simultaneously economic and cultural reasons, it matters that this is a college town: the home of Southeast Missouri State University. Continue reading Medium-sized American college towns