I, University

We are, like so many public institutions, in the midst of austerity. Some of it is up-front, such as the “voluntary departure” schemes encouraging staff and faculty to take themselves off the payroll for early retirement — and leaving academic departments chronically understaffed. Much is coated with an icing of rhetoric about strategic planning or buried amid myriad semi-private initiatives. Replacement hires are a thing of the past. New hires are to be approved strictly in terms of their contribution to plans unrelated to the needs of humanities disciplines. In History, which bears heavy and largely inescapable expectations of geographical and temporal coverage in terms of teaching and research alike, the dissonance between our work and the way our superiors insist it be described to them is deafening. Optimists interpret this as a game we can win; find the right language to mask what you’re asking for and you’ll get what you want. But increasingly, imposing the task of finding the (ever-changing) right language to disguise our collective needs as bold new initiatives seems to be a diversionary tactic.

This is of a piece with the growing number of other respects in which costs of maintaining the essential, definitive functions of the university — to wit, teaching and research — are being shirked by the institution, with its faculty members expected to pick up the slack out of duty, concern for reputation, or perhaps a sense of professional guilt. Sometimes this is a matter of small but nagging things, such as the degree to which normal expectations (usable classrooms, for example) have to be reformulated as special favours, or else as potentially embarrassing grievances, in order to be met. But it shows up in larger matters, too, such as the conversion of libraries from the sites of collections into vacant or, better, commercial “study spaces”. We may all agree that Greta van Susteren was stupid to call university libraries “vanity projects”. But was that any worse in substance, or even any different in spirit, than much of what routinely comes out of university officials’ mouths on similar matters? The raw idea behind her tweet — that “technology” means all the books we need are on our phones; or, from the university’s perspective, on our students’ phones, hence not our problem — is already at work on campus. Given its economic logic and shallow technophilia, how could it not be?

I’m not going to blow your mind by pointing out that “technology” is partly code for externalizing the costs of essential educational resources, displacing them onto students who are already paying them in the form of tuition and fees, or else onto faculty members who keep de facto lending libraries for students who can’t find key works in the library. For other actors, of course, it is a sales pitch to universities (passed on to students as fees) presenting gadgets that perversely normalize overcrowded classrooms and understaffed departments as transformative or, God help us, “disruptive” educational opportunities. Hence the last month brought news of further restrictions on our increasingly offsite library collection, along with an invitation to faculty to take books out ourselves and store them at home if we think our students will need access to them over a period of months — or to put it another way, an ultimatum to subsidize the costs of university renovations by providing free storage and retrieval of the shrinking collection. (Which, to be fair, is nothing if not disruptive.) The same month also brought six emails in two weeks from representatives of one ed-tech company imploring me to try a “comprehensive teaching platform” that automates attendance-taking and student feedback in the classroom. We all have our vanity projects, I suppose.

All this mirrors the ongoing externalization of research and training costs via the metrics of research productivity and per-capita funding dollars. These measures tilt the playing field towards disciplines and sub-disciplines where large, collaborative external grants and multi-authored papers are the norm (though this is as much the doing of governments and public funding agencies as of individual universities; still, academic leaders have been less than heroic in questioning it); internally, they often privilege “research centres” rather than departments. Overall, they force those outside the charmed circle (yet subject to its metrics) either to ape methods that may not suit them or to go by the board. Which is not to denigrate the value of collaboration within or across disciplines, or the importance of money, or even the appropriateness of research centres, institutes, and so on, but merely to point out that in conditions of austerity the price of institutional hegemony for one model is the marginalization of others — and to wonder about why administrations prefer the model they do. I’m beginning to fear that it’s not out of deep scholarly conviction. Just kidding.

One irony is that at the same time as they are asked to bear more of the costs of making the university work, faculty members — collectively speaking, that is; there are always favourites, who rise and fall like Renaissance courtiers — are being prevented from, or are ceding their responsibility for, directing its research and teaching agendas. One means of wrenching loose what control remains in their hands is precisely this redirection of resources from departments, with fixed places in the administrative hierarchy and firm ties to academic norms, to more free-floating or interstitial centres/institutes/think tanks or special initiatives whose control by standing policies, procedures and norms is not always spelled out, whose oversight is often in the hands of one or two faculty members or administrators, and whose mission is not unambiguously compatible with the teaching or research functions of a university, or indeed with professional ethics (*cough*). Some do good work, beyond the reach of disciplines or the capacity of departments; the same might of course be said of some new technologies, and some modes of implementing them. But others are little more than fiefdoms for favourites, or weeping wounds through which public resources seep into private hands. A second irony is that as long as their own reputations, their personal brands, are untouched, many faculty who might speak out seem content to let this pass. Perhaps in the future we will all have centres of our own.

[Image: Pig and piglets in woodland alongside Ober Water, New Forest, 12 November 2016. Photo by Jim Champion, obtained from Wikimedia Commons and used under the CC by Share Alike 3.0 license.]

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