What is Neo-Taylorism?

Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood, in their book “Creating a New Public University,” put a lot of emphasis on what they call Neo-Taylorism. This is their general term for the corporate organizational form that dominates most contemporary universities. While everyone reading this has likely heard the expression “neoliberalism,” most people won’t have heard of “Neo-Taylorism.” So I wrote up a little primer in Q & A form.

All the questions are mine; the responses come straight from their book. When I ran this by him, Davydd also wanted to add a few clarifications, which I’ll insert in italics. If anyone has further queries, please comment.

Defining Neo-Taylorism

What is Taylorism?

Taylorism comes from early generations of industrial goods manufacturing. Its application to universities, medicine, law and other areas where the product is not a material good began as an analogy and was infused with bureaucratic logic. Current neo-Taylorism is a radical break with Taylorism that converts services like teaching, medicine, and social services into fictitious commodities subject to “casino capitalist” control by apical authorities via accountability, and extraction of surplus for administrative salaries for the benefit of external businesses and governments. [91n1]

DG comments: Perhaps some clarification here is needed. Taylorism was invented after the industrial revolution; there were large manufacturing plants before but more in the form of collections of artisans. So the process is longer.

What is its objective?

In Taylorism, the essential idea is to create specialized jobs that optimize productive output. Each employee is only trained to perform one specific job. If a co-worker gets sick, the only option available is to call in a substitute worker to take over the job. Hopefully the management will have trained other employees to take on this specific job but this often is not the case. [117]

Why the “neo” in “neo-Taylorism”?

We use “neo” with the term “Taylorism” because F.W. Taylor would never have used the fictions of self-ownership and autonomy to describe the hierarchically imposed work systems he designed. He would have been unapologetic about advocating the unilateral authority of the “bosses” over the “workers.” [138]

What kind of organizational form does it yield?

Neo-Tayloristic systems involve significant redundancy of “parts” because they require large numbers of people, each one doing a single or relatively simple task. This is visible in the enormous and increasing administrative bloat in public universities. These redundant “parts” have to be coordinated and controlled from above because the redundant “parts” only have their own skills and specific areas to work in and are not allowed to interact with other parts of the system outside of their boxes. The result is a fragmented set of socio-technical activities, the imposition of machine metaphors on work behavior, high specification of tasks by breaking them into the smallest areas of expertise possible, the alienation of the labor force from work process improvement, and the distancing of decision makers from the empirical realities of the processes they are making decisions about. [134]

DG comments: The dynamics are not exactly that these systems “require” large numbers of people, but that they employ vast numbers in non-value producing roles. Davydd Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs also hits this topic directly: It is not that the system requires this economically, but that the system produces this wasteful and inhumane use of people.

Neo-Taylorism and the disciplines

Why is knowledge organized in “departments”?

From the 1750s onward, scholars became evermore concerned as the massive expansion of the print media made the project of integrating and verifying knowledge at first difficult and then impossible. Faced with the impossibility of any one person or a group of general scholars to manage this expanding intellectual resource, they eventually hit on the idea of dividing knowledge into fields and attempting to guarantee comprehensive understanding of each field by having each discipline manage and verify the knowledge within it. This taxonomy was intended to organize all knowledge and gave both a new structure and meaning to the “university”. This taxonomy resulted in the Tayloristic system we now find to be so counter-productive (Wellmon 2015). [90-91]

So are the scholarly disciplines a counterforce to neo-Taylorism? Or are they a product of it?

For us the central problems are that, over a number of generations, faculty have converted themselves into members of disciplines, departments, professional associations, into editors of disciplinary journals, reviewers of disciplinary grants, and so on. In Ellen Messer-Davidow’s term, they are now “disciplined” (Messer-Davidow 2002) to accept the boundaries of their academic discipline and department, to color inside the lines, and to fend off any and all attacks on their space, resources, and subject matter. The mandated noncooperation among academic departments gives deans and higher administrators all the power they need because they only have to manipulate university resources and make departments and disciplines compete for them and their power at the apex of the system is assured.
This is not to say that within the disciplines, faculty are particularly cooperative. When frontally attacked by others, they may rally together out of self-interest but, in our experience, within department competition for gaining higher merit raises, faster promotions, bigger offices, and more graduate assistants trumps the kind of supposed intellectual solidarity that is a consistent founding myth of most disciplines and departments. Many academics are one-person businesses building their own “brand” by means of a curriculum vitae, national and international standing, the ability to get external support, invitations to be on editorial boards, grant review boards, etc. [145-146]

Neo-Taylorism and the misdirected nature of critique

What kind of academic consciousness does this fragmented system yield?

Despite the ongoing dreamwork of many academics who try to view themselves as part of a self-regulating guild of colleagues in the same discipline and academic field, organizationally they are individualized meritocratic subjects managed from above when it comes to working conditions, salary, contracts, promotions and dismissal, benefits, and job expectations. Rather than analyzing themselves in this organizational context, they often blame the stupidity and authoritarianism of “administrators” for the many experiences they have that do not conform to their guild and craftwork idealization. They do not spend effort learning how things came to be as they currently are. [90]

What about for students?

Students too live in a hierarchically organized world in which bureaucratically imposed standards, rules, and learning conditions prevail. Students are encouraged see themselves as voluntaristic individual actors who select institutions to study and work in, choose courses of study, and choose courses and make life plans individually. They too are subjects of a neo-Tayloristic system. They compete against each other to get into universities. While at the university, they are boxed in by requirements and rules, allowed in or excluded from particular courses and curricula, have little influence over the content of the courses, and, except for unusual crises, have little impact on the management of universities. Now many of them are debtors in the world system of finance. [91]

And for staff?

The non-academic staff and administrators most closely fit and take for granted the neo-Tayloristic system. They work according to hierarchically organized job classifications and definitions, within a multiplicity of organizational units that report upward, and they generally must obey chains of command. Senior university administrators sit atop these multiple hierarchies. It might seem that they are therefore in control but those familiar with organizational analysis also know that these administrators are themselves subject to the system. They compete with and discipline each other and they report upward to boards of trustees, state educational authorities, higher education associations, and markets of various sorts. They also compete with similar administrators at other institutions for better jobs, reputations, and salaries (Tuchman 2009). They enforce national and state higher education policies while they are also driven by them. [91]

DG comments: We were wrong to say that staff take for granted the neo-Tayloristic system, since there are many staff who find the system irrational and inhumane.

Is it hypocritical for scholars to denounce administrators’ neoliberal behavior?

When such people speak of academic freedom, they often mean freedom to be an entrepreneur in whatever way they see it fit in their department, college, university, and national and international arenas. They feel entitled to speak their minds on most subjects and expect to be listened to but they only rarely rally in defense of colleagues whose rights to free speech have been abridged either within or beyond the university. Given this, we think it is disingenuous for radical individualist academic entrepreneurs to disparage academic administrators who are similarly entrepreneurial or students who are trying to make pragmatic educational and economic decisions on their own behalf. The moral high ground that many academics claim to occupy does not seem quite so high to us. [146]

How about for students to denounce faculty?

For students to complain about the self-serving and self-regarding behavior of faculty is common and occasionally the complaints are legitimate. But students, especially now that they are told to behave as customers, are capable of intensely self-regarding, competitive, and hostile behavior toward each other. They often show a startling lack of interest in the fates of anyone but themselves and their personal goals. [146]

And are the staff in a position to criticize?

Staff are locked in hierarchical competitions with each other and to keep their positions in the system secure. Solidarity and cooperation are rarely rewarded; more often they are punished. Administrators are under the gun from above, compete with each other, and often are intensely disliked and disrespected by those below them, hardly a joyful working life. [146]

Does neo-Taylorism discourage actors from understanding their own organizations?

No organization operates in a vacuum. Material constraints in the form of technology, resources, the larger political economy, and the plethora of ideologies that surround organizational structures and practices play an important role in daily operations. Analyzing organizational dynamics without understanding these contexts and the ways they are handled is a dead end.

These basic organizational dimensions are ignored by many faculty, students, staff, and administrators in their everyday practices and thinking. Because so many contemporary university actors understand themselves as solo meritocratic operators and individualist entrepreneurs, the lack of organizational self-understanding itself has become a central part of the problem we address. In the current situation, many organization members refuse to see themselves as forming part of a work organization (Schmid 2000).

We believe this to be one of the central consequences of neo-Taylorism and neoliberalism. The social production of meritocratic persons blinds these persons to the system they are a part of. Running a competitive race while wondering who set the course, whether the timers and referees are fair, if they are counting the right things, and whether the prizes for the winners are worth having is unlikely. The neo-Tayloristic model has penetrated university organizational structures and practices and sets the conditions for working life even though its hegemony is not entirely clear to the runners in the meritocratic races. We affirm, with Christopher Newfield (Newfield 2004), that Taylorism has been and remains almost unchallenged as the core organizational design for universities, so much so that many of the actors in the system cannot imagine an alternative way of organizing university life. [145-146]

DG comment: This is an overstatement now. Between the efforts to create a cooperative university in the UK, the proliferation of liberal arts colleges in Europe, and so on, there are alternatives. They are few, forlorn, and struggling but they do exist.


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Eli Thorkelson

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

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