“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).

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