The corporate university and its threat to academic freedom

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Canterbury University Library, New Zealand. Claude 12 / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. The principle of academic freedom is increasingly viewed with institutional indifference, if not contempt, across the world.

A recent example was the revelation that New Zealand police did attempt to censor sociologist Jarrod Gilbert’s gang research by denying him access to “basic and uncontroversial police data” and insisting that she “retains the exclusive right to veto” the publication of The New Zealand government’s reluctance to say anything about the substantive issues involved in this case offered little contrast.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy.

Media concern in New Zealand and the ensuing police apologies to Gilbert – after he was initially found unfit to conduct research due to “his association with gangs” – suggests public recognition of the democratic importance of academic freedom, at least in cases it is openly attacked. However, to fully understand how academic freedom is threatened in New Zealand and elsewhere, we must focus on some of the general characteristics of the Gilbert case. And we must realize that there is a much more insidious threat to academic freedom within the university itself.

The Gilbert case illustrated that organizations are inclined to suppress any information or argument that could harm their brand image and reputation. Gilbert’s research was seen as a potential risk to public relations, as it opened up police to critical scrutiny that could potentially result in negative public attention.

In the media age, such concerns about public image are far from irrational or trivial. Organizations know that the public’s perception of their competence and integrity depends on their media profile and visibility. And when an organization depends on government funding, senior executives will be extremely sensitive to how negative media coverage might be interpreted and used by political elites.

Police behavior in the Gilbert case invites parallels with an academic context, due to the extent to which marketing and promotion concerns have become driving forces in universities around the world.

The argument is not new.

Critical academics speak of the neoliberal university to emphasize the market rationality that has internalized into the decision-making of university administrators and eroded institutional identifications with other values. We can also speak of the interchangeable figure of the corporate university, in which the university is managed and directed in a way that becomes indistinguishable from any other society.

It would be simplistic to suggest that the corporate university represents an ideological vision spontaneously born from a managerial class. As the recent changes to the governance of New Zealand university councils suggest – voiding guaranteed student and staff representation – the desire for a corporate university is often a state-led political project, driven by governments that wish to reduce public funding to universities. , and reconfigure the university as a simple engine of economic growth.

How is the principle of academic freedom threatened once business and market logics have become normalized in university policies and practices, and in the subjectivities of individual academics?

While there are undoubtedly expectations, we shouldn’t expect universities to normally use blunt and overt methods to suppress academic freedom. Even in situations where academic freedom is stifled, universities are culturally, institutionally and even statutorily obligated to affirm their commitment to academic freedom. And generally speaking, it would also be simplistic to think that academic freedom is threatened by academic oversight mechanisms that analyze academic research for ideologically suspect arguments.

While academics are governed by oversight mechanisms, these increasingly take the form of bureaucratically elaborate audit regimes that claim to measure the quality of academic research. These audit exercises treat the actual substantive purpose of the research as a secondary issue. Indeed, an academic could possibly publish a damning review of the neoliberal university in a prestigious academic journal and still be defended in an academic environment where neoliberal reason is flourishing.

As long as these reviews are kept safely in relatively unknown academic publications, the ability of individual researchers to write critically about the university, or most other subjects, will likely remain largely unused. However, the potential threat to academic freedom becomes clearer once these critiques are articulated in the media and public spaces that preoccupy the corporate university.

The ability of academics to freely express arguments that challenge existing social and political consensus – and which could therefore be criticized and attacked by others – collides with the corporate university’s desire for media coverage. positive. The corporate “us” begins to function as a sort of disciplinary mechanism, regulating what can and cannot be said on behalf of the university.

The result is a model of a public university, where academics act as “brand ambassadors,” who can say whatever they like as long as it doesn’t damage the official brand identity. At the same time, gradual changes in university research policies discourage academics from asserting an explicitly politicized identity, in favor of the officially endorsed figure of the academic expert, who does not stray too far from his profession as a specialist.

Arguments in favor of academic freedom are sometimes dismissed as nostalgic, as if they assume a mythical golden age where academics demanded absolute rights to speak, with no regard for the consequences of their speech. Such replicas simplify both the historical picture and the contextual dimensions. Yes, of course, the claim of academic freedom is never absolute, and never independent of the power dynamics of a particular society.

The point is, we live in a historic moment when some of the most repressive and corrosive features of the social order have been internalized in universities. If academics want to speak freely, honestly and passionately about the pernicious effects of neoliberalism and corporate rationality, their gaze cannot simply be cast outward.

What is at stake is ultimately an alternative conception of the public university, a conception which maintains a philosophy of intellectual and political disagreement, both in the internal deliberations of the university and in its relations with others. This university becomes the scene of another form of advertising, which can never be apprehended by – and which should actively challenge – the imperatives of the company.


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