Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.
A brief commentary on:
“The New Political Economy of Higher Education”, Special Issue of the journal Higher Education, Editors: Johannes Angermuller, Jens Maesse, Tilman Reitz, Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Higher Education, Volume 73, Issue 6, June 2017. https://link.springer.com/journal/10734/73/6/page/1
Eli Thorkelson put me on to this special issue of the journal Higher Education. I confess I had not seen it and that I was pleasantly surprised to see the robust theoretical and empirical work coming from a group of scholars who I was unaware of. Since I read as much as I can on US and European higher education (in English and Spanish), the fact that I was unaware of this network of researchers suggests that others might gain as much as I have from learning about their work.
The geographer Alison Mountz published a remarkable paper last year, “Women on the edge: Workplace stress at universities in North America” in The Canadian Geographer (or on ResearchGate) . Based on 21 interviews and first-hand observations as a career academic, Mountz documents a series of difficult — at times impossible — working conditions and their bad consequences for the women in question. These difficult working conditions included gendered and racialized inequities, such as devalued research topics and disproportionate burdens of emotional labor. They also included more generalized bad consequences of contemporary academic work environments, such as generalized overwork, an “always on” situation exacerbated by technology, and a lack of boundaries between work and home life.
The personal consequences of these work-related stressors are multiple and, taken cumulatively, heartbreaking. They are above all psychological and affective, covering stress, burnout, anxiety, despair, isolation, fear and loss. They also extend into the human body, including weight fluctuations, problems with diet and sleep, and physical or mental illness. Mountz speaks of:
a constant aching and tiredness, coupled with insomnia—waking up alert in the middle of the night or extremely early, unable to sleep again; a yearning for sleep coupled with its elusive nature, a familiar frustration… (p. 213)
One thing I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while is the slow institutionalization of a subfield of “Critical University Studies” (call it CUS). For those who may not have come across it, CUS is a sort of compromise category that brings together a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and criticism on higher education. Jeffrey Williams began publicizing the field qua field in a 2012 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he noted, as I recall, that the name was modeled on “Critical Legal Studies.” CUS, by contrast, still lacks its own Wikipedia article (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but I’ll just note for now that CUS brings together some very different political views about higher education, ranging from social democrats like Davydd Greenwood to revolutionaries like the Undercommoning project.
Over at the Society for Applied Anthropology, a Topical Interest Group (“TIG”) on Higher Education has recently come into being. I attended their first set of sessions at the SFAA conference in 2015 and found them to be a large and quite diverse group of people, many working outside of the academic social sciences. The TIG recently sent out a newsletter that announces some of the interesting work they are doing in 2017, which I thought was worth reposting here.
For those not familiar with it, this blog, though it focuses on the University of California system, frequently airs issues and analyses that are of broad interest to anyone interested in university reform. In addition to the perspectives offered and the detailed, even meticulous analysis of policies and practices in the University of California system, one of the unique features is their willingness to engage university policies and finances head-on and in detail. As we know from the work of Susan Wright, Andrew McGettigan, Walter MacMahon, Cris Shore, and a few others, subjecting the policies and numbers to critical analyses and alternative formulations is hard work but is effective in calling academic administrators and policymakers “to account”. Enough accountability raining down on us. It is time to push accountability upward.
The blog entry page is http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/. Here is the most recent example:
Continuing our coverage of research on university staff, the French sociologists Guy Briot and Charles Soulié have recently examined the politics of French university staff in the 1970s, in “Histoire des personnels BIATOSS de l’université de Vincennes : de l’AG permanente au règlement intérieur (1968-1980).” In English, that’s “History of administrative and service workers [personnels BIATOSS] at the University of Vincennes: From direct democracy to internal regulations (1968-1980).” Their paper is a chapter in an edited volume, De l’Université de Paris aux universités d’Île-de-France, which I haven’t read in full, but which documents the postwar expansion of public universities in the Paris region.
Briot and Soulié document an exceptionally militant political culture among the staff of an experimental university, the University of Paris 8—Vincennes-Saint-Denis, founded in 1968 after the massive protest movement of that May-June (see Un mythe à détruire, 2012). The fieldsite is close to my own interests, since my fieldwork on French higher education focused on this same university forty years later, after it had been relocated from its original site at Vincennes to a new campus in Saint-Denis. I note that Soulié has long supported my own ethnographic research on this campus, where he also teaches — the world of critical research on higher education is not so large. Briot for his part was formerly the secretary of the Paris 8 Sociology Department, which places him in the unusual category of administrative staff conducting reflexive research on their own institutions.
Steven Gregory recently published a paper in City & Society, “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good,” in which he analyzes Columbia University’s efforts to expand its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem. The paper came out in 2013, so let’s call it “relatively recent” rather than brand new, but it makes a good contribution to the literature on universities and urban geography, and thus falls within Academography’s ambit. Gregory’s paper is more ethnographic than conceptual, but its significance lies precisely in the wealth of detail provided by its extended case study.
Gregory’s story is a tale of “David and Goliath”: it recounts how Columbia University fought to get the power to expand its campus into Manhattanville (an area in West Harlem just north of the historical Columbia campus in Morningside Heights) and how the community sought, unsuccessfully, to resist. It seems that Columbia would have preferred simply to have bought up all the property in the relevant area. However, since not all property owners wanted to sell, the university was obliged to resort to more complex legal and rhetorical tactics, which in turn elicited legal action and public protests from the community in question. The key weird premise here is that it would have been calamitous for Columbia to only mostly own the Manhattanville area, as if any amount of non-university-owned space was an intolerable form of contamination to campus space. The expansion plans were all or nothing. Thus when in 2009 all but two property owners had sold out to the university, the university still vehemently continued its efforts to acquire the last holdouts (48).
Mariya Ivancheva is currently working on a research project with the Universities of Leeds and Cape Town called “The Unbundled University.” Some of her recent work includes “The Discreet Charm of University Autonomy: Conflicting Legacies in the Venezuelan Student Movements” (2016), “Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis” (2016, with Kathleen Lynch), “The age of precarity and the new challenges to the academic profession” (2015), and “The Bolivarian University of Venezuela: A radical alternative in the global field of higher education?” (2013). You can also follow her on Twitter or Academia.edu.
Eli Thorkelson: I was really interested to see that your early work was about Walter Benjamin’s theory of utopia, and that you’ve written a great deal about Bulgarian women’s and environmental movements (and migrant workers in Britain) as well as about university politics in Venezuela and precarious academic labor in Europe. Do you think you could say a few words about how your research projects have evolved since you entered the academy?
Mariya Ivancheva: Where to start… All these different topics and field-sites might sound thematically and geographically eclectic – even more so, given that my current field research is in South Africa. The new project I just started working on with the University of Leeds and the University of Cape Town is on widening of access to higher education through digital technologies, in contexts where marketization and disaggregation of traditional degrees (unbundling) are going on. And yes, many times we come to study topics that mix our biographical and intellectual trajectory with contingencies of educational institutions and the job market…
From an organizational perspective, it seems to me our grasp of how universities work remains quite spotty. We have a variety of studies of students of different kinds: multicultural, international, by gender, fraternity and sorority members, adult students, not every kind of student and experience but a good start. We have a stack of work on professors both by professors and about professors. We have portraits of senior administrators and their self-portraits and their picture of the faculty and students and we have some work on admissions and “enrollment management” staff. But universities and colleges do not operate simply by faculty teaching, students studying, and administrators “administering”.
There are all sorts of relatively invisible roles, however, that make these organizations possible and they matter a great deal to the functions and sustainability of the institutions. Groundskeepers, maids, food service personnel, accountants and budget officers, human resource officers, buildings and properties managers, dining staff, alumni affairs staff, public relations staff, and so on are all part of the organizational structure. They are diverse, ranging educationally and economically from the bottom and operating within a narrow organizational span to relatively well paid people with a broad span of responsibilities.
My point arises from my observations on my own campus over the years. In every one of these categories, there are people who actively contribute to either the academic mission of the institution or to the quality of life makes it a better place to work than it would be otherwise. In every one of these categories, I have found people who support the learning/teaching mission of universities and people who don’t. I have seen two different people in a relatively high staff position with similar education and compensation, play their roles very differently. The actions of one undercut the organization in an authoritarian and self-interested way and the other helped make up for a variety of defective processes and structural linkages in a way that made the organization effective and more efficient.
I think positive staff contributors, often unrewarded and disregarded, should be represented in our ethnographic work. They are part of the conditions of possibility of the institution, not mere “staff” to be hired and fired at will or to be outsourced without consequence. By not making their roles visible and showing some of the ways they play their role, we allow senior administrators, faculty, and students to think that only they “are” the “university”. Let’s help broaden the view.