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  • La Langue de CotonHow Neoliberal Language Pulls the Wool over Faculty Governance
  • Nancy Welch (bio)

In recent years, against numerous rejections by the faculty senate, a public campaign by the faculty union, and civil disobedience by students, the administration at the University of Vermont (UVM) has pursued a far-reaching restructuring of this ostensibly public institution. They have done so by increasing student numbers, tuition cost, class size, and hence the size of the university’s operating budget while shrinking the share of that budget devoted to academics. The administration has also carried out restructuring by eliminating — “reallocating” is the favored term — vacant faculty positions in the very departments struggling to meet the needs of larger numbers of undergraduates who will amass tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.

Why is this administration shaking more out of students while giving academics such a squeeze? To fund new research niches and other entrepreneurial ventures purportedly necessary to keep UVM competitive with other universities pursuing the same course and even the same research niches: complex systems, neuroscience. In other words, there is nothing unique about what is happening at my institution. It is another example of what [End Page 545] Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades (2009) call “academic capitalism” as a public university adapts to and even embraces the neoliberal agenda of privatization, cost shifting, and austerity while a significant share of institutional resources is transformed into a growing administration’s personal wealth and directed into projects valued for their (largely illusory) revenue-generating, trickle-down potential. As a Rutgers University 2011 budget report (2010) plainly puts it, the “best practices” for today’s market-minded administrators include “high tuition with program differentiation,” “large out-of-state enrollments,” and a “focus on programs” — branded as “spires of excellence” — “with greatest revenue potential.” Faculty at UVM can readily recognize each of these “best practices” as the components of our institution’s restructuring. In fact, it was in rejection of the administration’s plan to launch spires of excellence, to be funded with another tuition hike and staffed with lines diverted primarily from the humanities, that faculty voted three times in the spring 2010 semester.

Just as there is nothing unique about UVM’s game plan for restructuring, there is also nothing particular to my campus about the language that has accompanied this transformation — memos inviting the campus “community” to join the “discussion” of the president’s “vision” through “town hall meetings,” “listening tours,” and “working groups” of “campus leaders.” Such ideographic words pluck at populist heartstrings while diminishing actual democracy: a recognizable Robert’s Rules process is supplanted by administration-scripted events designed to conclude in vague consensus. Certainly, observes Gary Scholtz (2005: 5) of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), these “stakeholder” versions of shared governance are preferable to a university president who consults no one at all; they also, he points out, mark a troubling departure from the AAUP’s 1966 “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities,” which delegates “primary responsibility” to faculty in all academic matters.

Yet the most frequent complaint I hear from colleagues about our present administration is not that they are undermining faculty governance. Rather, it is that they are poor — very poor — writers. Consider, for instance, this opening to an administrative memo titled “The Road to Excellence — Advancing Academic Distinction at UVM,” which prompted groans of “Clichéd!” and “Circumlocutious!” and “States obvious!” throughout the English department:

We believe that the University of Vermont community is dedicated to the achievement of the unquestionably high yet realistic aspirations expressed in the [End Page 546] University’s Vision and Mission Statements. Together we aim to advance UVM as a center of learning where diverse, talented faculty, students, and staff create new knowledge that reshapes understanding of ourselves and of the world around us; where social processes are energized through which the best of what is thought and known is passed on from person to person; and where members of our community are imbued with an enduring passion for learning that will not only enrich their lives but also inspire and empower them to work to improve the quality of human life and to...