- Transparency in Neoliberal Academe
If austerity is the measure of responsible academic conduct in the age of neoliberalism, then transparency is its watchdog. It is widely touted today as that which protects the public from both the misuse of academic resources and poor governance of the university. The public has come to expect increasing levels of transparency in the administration and governance of higher education both as a means of accountability and a mode of publicity. Implied in these calls for more transparency is a mistrust and cynicism regarding higher education in America. But transparency carries with it a lot of baggage.1
For one thing, calls for transparency always carry with them an implicit opposition to privacy and secrecy. Namely, increased transparency entails decreased privacy; and more publicity means less secrecy. The roots of the latter, in particular, can be connected to the rise of the modern state as one grounded not on secret practices, but rather on transparency, or more accurately, publicity. The emergence of representative governments in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century established a consideration of publicity and transparency as protections against bad administration and misrule.2 As such, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, and Immanuel Kant played a large role in establishing the social, political, and ethical foundations of transparency. And it is these foundations that need to be recalled in order to gain some perspective on the role and function of transparency in higher education theory and practice today.
The general questions raised in this essay are fairly transparent ones. Namely, what does it mean to call for “transparency” in the conduct of higher education? And is this a good thing? That is, is transparency something that contributes to the well-being of the university and those whose lives and education are connected to it—or is it something that works in the opposite direction? For that matter, what do we mean when we ask for “more” transparency from our colleagues? And how is this different from those whose aim is “perfect” transparency in the conduct of academe? While there is no doubt that transparency often can bring about greater levels of understanding and [End Page 341] trust regarding the workings of academe, it is also the case that it can do the opposite. Namely, increased calls for transparency can also become a hotbed for cynicism regarding academe. This is particularly true when those asking for more transparency are not members of academe.
In this essay, it will be argued that even if the questions regarding transparency are transparent ones, responses to them are better classified as opaque. The social, economic, moral, and political issues surrounding calls for transparency in higher education involve a complicated and vexed dynamics. From one perspective, transparency of administration to faculty is one of the most important gauges of shared-governance. Administrators who do not share with faculty important decisions and the rationales for them are in many ways de facto bad administrators. However, from another perspective, transparency by administration to government and those outside of higher education has become one of the most destructive forces to the modern university, especially when university-life is reduced to performance measurement and based upon mistrust and cynicism regarding higher education in general.
Consequently, it will be argued that transparency is one of the most-contested and controversial aspects of higher education today. Unpacking its dynamics within the university today reveals it to be at once the measure of effective shared-governance as well as the perennial watchdog of the neoliberal academy. Transparency in neoliberal academe often pulls it in two opposing directions: one moves toward greater levels of efficiency, surveillance, and austerity as well as preservation of the economic interests of the academy, whereas the other aims toward protecting the interests, rights, and dignity of faculty as well as toward ensuring the academic integrity of the institution. As such, the push and pull of transparency between conflicting sets of interests greatly complicates its role in the academy.
Let’s begin though with an overview of the major philosophical foundations of transparency. We’ll start with more recent analytic work on...