Levin and Greenwood, “Creating a New Public University”

Last year, Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood published a book whose title sufficiently indicates its broad scope and ambition: Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy. The subtitle, Action Research in Higher Education, indicates the authors’ preferred method for realizing their goals. The book is written in plain language and speaks at a general level to participants in American and European higher education. Berghahn Books is releasing it in paperback in 2018. It is neither an ethnographic case study, nor a global history, nor an abstract critique of higher education. Rather, it is a manifesto for what public universities might look like if they were thoroughly democratized; it is a practical guide to participatory research as a means of organizational change; and it is a general theory of why participatory democracy is inseparable from any education worth having.

There is a great deal that one could say about this book, but I must say I am not in a position to write a standard book review, as I lack the least semblance of critical distance. Davydd Greenwood was my teacher in college, and his seminar on Anthropology of the University was my entrée into what would become my area of academic expertise. These days he’s a co-editor of Academography, and while I had no specific role in the production of the book, I’m still mentioned very kindly in the book’s acknowledgements. I always think it’s important, in a project like Academography, not to take this personal dimension for granted: academics’ personal relationships always play such a major role in shaping the development of academic fields.

Fortunately, as the book is essentially a long argument in favor of participatory processes, it seems only appropriate to respond to it with something more like a dialogue. So without further ado, here are some questions for Levin and Greenwood. (Those who want a general overview of the book may want to consult David Wheeler’s review in Times Higher Education.)

1. My favorite part of this book is its effort to combine organizational analysis with a reflection on the meaning of education. I think most scholars would be inclined to separate these two things — the “meaning of education” becoming a problem for philosophers or humanists, the “internal organization of universities” being more of an issue for applied social science. Why is it that you don’t separate organizational questions from philosophical questions?

2. “Neo-Taylorism” is your key term of opprobrium for the way that public universities are mostly managed. You criticize “neoliberal” management quite frequently, but clearly you consider neo-Taylorism to be the deeper and more fundamental phenomenon in contemporary higher education. As I understand it, neo-Taylorism is basically a mechanistic division of knowledge and teaching into tiny disciplinary boxes that are all separated from each other — seemingly the way that Taylorism divides up manufacturing work into tiny subtasks. But there’s a crackpot twist here: Whereas factory Taylorism helps to streamline manufacturing, academic neo-Taylorism in fact yields worthless products (antisocial social research, ivory tower humanities, fragmented and impractical undergraduate education, etc.).

So my question: Can you elaborate more on neo-Taylorism as a general term of critique? Clearly, many academics are very critical of neoliberal management, but many of them still basically accept the modern system of disciplines as it stands. What would you say to all the people whose very grounds of existence are at stake in your critique of the neo-Taylorist disciplinary system? I think it’s asking a lot for scholars to put in question not just the corporate management of their institutions but also their own authority, expertise and intellectual self-worth.

3. You are obviously, openly, both deeply committed social democrats. Of course in the contemporary United States — as the Bernie Sanders campaign showed — this has become an almost ludicrously “radical” position, as ridiculous as that might have seemed a few decades earlier. But I wonder: What would you say to those who argue that social democracy was always at best an unstable compromise formation between the interests of corporate management and the counterforces of labor organizing and civil society? And to the idea that social democracy at its best was good primarily for a privileged minority of “labor aristocrats,” generally white and male, in the global North? What could social democracy really look like in an era of globalized precarity? Contemporary Europe seems like a highly problematic model here, given its massive problems with Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe I should put it like this: Can there be a non-nationalist social democracy? And what sort of capitalist economy could possibly be compatible with it?

4. I fully appreciate the ironic function of your declaring, basically, “Look, you neoliberals claim to be remodeling higher education on business lines, but you don’t even understand how modern business works.” But I’ve been steeped for several years in the culture of the contemporary tech industry — San Francisco, Silicon Valley — and in spite of the pervasive sense of adventure, excitement and innovation, it remains a really problematic and awful model for workplace organization. I can’t tell you how many tech workers feel miserable in the team-based “open office” settings that have become standard, how frustrated they get with their group work processes (their task management software, their communications software, their state of permanent interruption), and how much the whole environment is steeped in sexism, racism, classism, and prejudice against anyone older than about 35. So I couldn’t help wondering: Don’t you idealize the post-Taylorist corporate workplace a bit?

5. A question about how style and audience. I had this worry in reading that many cultural anthropologists, and many critical theory/humanities people, might not read your book. Partly that’s because the language is so marvelously plainspoken that it probably doesn’t pass muster as elite academic discourse (no doubt you already expect this and take it as a compliment). Partly that’s because you always avoid detailed case studies and speak in a general register that I suspect is more familiar to organizational studies people — or to academic administrators? — than to ethnographers or historians or humanists. So my question would be: For whom are you writing? I know you hope to reach many constituencies in higher education, but which one is most immediate to you?

6. One of your most powerful insights is the notion that leadership is not necessarily identical to a “apical,” top-down managerial class. You also point out that many current “leaders” are not actually leading anyone anywhere, but are just exercising a sort of nihilistic governance-by-fiat, serving their own personal interests while failing to buffer universities from outside forces (like the whims of funding bodies).

You counterpose to this a theory of “participatory leadership” that would “enable every stakeholder to have “space” enough to realize their own potential in administration, research, teaching, and learning,” in which “everyone is expected to take part and to contribute knowledge and effort to creating a dynamic, flexible, and well-adapted organization” (139).

Again, what’s interesting about this is that you don’t just think participatory leadership would be better as an abstract goal, but also that it’s a way to make higher education actually serve the public in a coherent, deliberate way. In other words, participatory leadership isn’t just your organizational program, it is a political mechanism for trying to rebuild higher education with a common purpose that would be socially relevant. And you also hope that, if we actually had an institution where people were actually practicing participatory democracy, they might notice that it is a good model for other domains of social life as well… Can you expand on your views that leadership isn’t just hierarchical individualism?

7. Following up on that last question, it would seem logical for us, the readers, not to treat you as the sole “leaders” in a project of democratizing higher education, but instead to treat you as the facilitators of a broader collective project. Can you say more about how you see your own role in the world, given your theory of participatory institutional change?

On one hand, you do want to propose an alternative model of higher education, one based on “neo-Bildung” (a collaborative process of teaching, learning and research) and on your revised concepts of collective democracy and academic freedom. On the other hand, you hold that only a participatory process of reflection and action can truly enlist social actors in a new collective project, and we wouldn’t really know what that project would look like before the process takes place. Doesn’t this make your role as leaders or prophets rather ambiguous, since you are arguing that it would be desirable to undertake a process whose end result is unknown by definition?

Thanks for the stimulating book and the provocation to engage more deeply with organizational theory. For those of us not already in that world, I suspect that that may be one of the most unexpected components of your argument.


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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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