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Agonistic Academe: Dialogue, Paralogy, and the Postmodern University

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 21-36 | 10.1353/com.2013.0030

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The birth of the neoliberal university might be traced back to 1996, when a relatively unknown associate professor of Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal caused a stir by publishing a book that showed how colleges and universities are run more like businesses or corporations than educational institutions. Widely read and cited, Bill Readings' The University in Ruins (1996) was a shot across the bow of academe. It announced that business values were supplanting academic values in the administration of universities—and laid the groundwork for a chorus of ever more dystopic political and economic accounts of the state of higher education.

Readings' book was highly influential and convinced a lot of folks whose primary area of research was not higher education to start thinking and writing about the corporate conditions of academe. Over the course of the next dozen years (1996-2008), many other fine accounts of the corporate logic of the contemporary university and its implications came out including CUNY sociologist Stanley Aronowitz's The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2001), former Harvard President Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (2003), freelance journalist and New America Foundation fellow Jennifer Washburn's University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (2005), and more recently, Ohio State University English professor, Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008). From Bok reporting how he received year after year "one proposition after another to exchange some piece or product of Harvard for money—often, quite substantial sums of money" (x) to Donoghue boldly predicting that while "professors have only been around for the last eighty years" (xi), don't count on them being around for the next eighty, each of these studies provided a slightly different voice to the growing chorus that the economic base of higher education in America has in fundamental ways, changed.

For the most part, the consensus has been that the financial changes within the university have been for the worse—and are not reversible. However, of late, there seems to be a change in tone in discussions about the fate of the university. Whereas just five years ago, Frank Donoghue could proclaim "I offer nothing in the way of uplifting solutions to the problems that I describe" (xi), after the collapse of the economy (which occurred after the publication of Donoghue's book), this no longer seems possible—or at least responsible. With so many academics underemployed and unemployed, and so many students strapped with debt that will take most of their working lives to pay off and fewer real employment opportunities, academics now seem ready to get down to problem-solving—rather than merely bemoaning changes in academic culture. Though the financial hurricane of 2008 may not have destroyed the corporate practices of universities, as a number of more recent studies show, the house of higher education is still tenuously standing—though desperately in need of reform.

In this article, I would like to argue that what is needed in conversations about higher education in America are not more accounts about the growing corporatization of the university, increasing focus on research and specialization, diminishing faculty academic freedom, and rising costs and student debt. By now, most will agree that these and other changes have occurred in the American higher educational system. Rather, what is needed is more inquiry on the university from the point of view that there may be no going back to the way things were; that what we might call the "modern" university (that is, the model used at least since 1915, the founding year of the AAUP) is dying—if not dead—and that the new university that is emerging out of the ashes of the modern university will be fundamentally different.

If nothing is done by engaged academics, then the neoliberal university that has emerged from the shadows of the modern university will be the university of the future. Academic identity in the neoliberal university will be characterized by docility, consent, and acquiescence. However, if academics try to stave off the entrenchment of the neoliberal university by calling for...

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