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  • The Neoliberal University. A review of Jeffrey Di Leo, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy
  • Christopher Breu (bio)
Di Leo, Jeffrey R. Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Academia has been embattled for the last forty years. Uncoincidentally, this same time span has seen the rise of neoliberalism as a cultural ideology, a political practice, and, most devastatingly, as a series of increasingly global economic policies. Given the violence of neoliberalism on US society, from the destruction of the middle-class, to the growth of economic inequality, to the warehousing (in prisons, in schools, and in devastated neighborhoods) of a growing surplus population, it is not surprising that it has had a similarly destructive impact on the American academy. As Jeffrey Di Leo puts it in his timely new book, "academia today resides within a culture of neoliberalism" (133). Perhaps the first manifestation of the impact of neoliberalism on the American academy was ideological and cultural rather than economic. This was the era of the so-called culture wars, beautifully detailed in Andrew Hartman's recent book, A War for America's Soul. While the battle, in this context, seemed cultural rather than economic, and seemed to be spearheaded by neoconservatism rather than neoliberalism, in retrospect it was clearly the first of a two-part assault on public education in general and higher education specifically, as Christopher Newfield points out. While humanists seemed to hold their own in the culture wars, as far as the general public was concerned, the war was won by conservatives, who may not have had the argumentative subtlety of many of their academic sparring partners, but knew how to make an effective soundbite (the seemingly evergreen rhetoric of "political correctness") do their work for them. As Newfield points out, the culture war had the effect of softening up public support for public education, so that when the explicitly neoliberal economic war was launched in the new century, the academy was vulnerable and had few resources, rhetorical or otherwise, to combat it.

It is into this twenty-first century context—in which economic neoliberalism has savaged the ranks of tenure-line professors, destroyed many of the tenets of shared governance and academic freedom, overseen the concomitant growth of administration and tuition, and undermined the public support for higher education—that Jeffrey Di Leo's book Corporate Humanities in Higher Education makes its intervention. Di Leo's stated intent to tackle neoliberalism head-on. Whereas many recent books of institutional critique still seem focused on the culture wars (see, for example, Gregory Jay's The Humanities 'Crisis' and the Future of Literary Studies), Di Leo recognizes and understands the challenges presented by neoliberalism's transformation of higher education:

Neoliberalism is recalibrating academic identity. The paradigmatic neoliberal academic is a docile one. He is the product of an academic culture dominated by the recording measurement of performance, rather than the pursuit of academic freedom or critical exchange--an academic climate that renders him risk averse and compliant. Neoliberal managerialism constructs and functions through manageable and accommodating subjects. These docile neoliberal subjects excel when they 'follow the rules' regarding say 'outcomes-based curricula' and the 'culture of continuous improvement,' but risk failure when they begin to question the neoliberal academic practices to which they are subjected.


Di Leo's argument thus importantly engages not only the economic costs of neoliberalism, but more precisely the subjective and institutional effects of such economic costs. While this shift may seem to put the emphasis back onto culture, it is culture with a difference: what Di Leo is most focused on are the institutional and discursive effects of neoliberalism as a political-economic policy and practice on the university and its mission.

In this sense, Di Leo's book can be situated in relationship to a distinction that Wendy Brown makes in Undoing the Demos between neoliberalism in its first phase (from, say, 1980 to 2000 or so), in which the neoliberal logics of human capital and homo oeconomicus are applied to the logic of exchange (hence the star system, the commodification of various academic processes in the '90s); and its...

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