The corporate university and its threat to academic freedom

Neoliberalism has facilitated the emergence of the 'corporate' university, which dangerously prioritises market rationality and public relations over academic freedom.

Sean Phelan
9 January 2016

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

One recent example was the revelation that New Zealand Police effectively tried to censor the gang research of the sociologist Jarrod Gilbert by barring his access to “basic and uncontroversial police data” and by insisting that they "retain the sole right to veto” the publication of any research findings. The reluctance of the New Zealand government to say anything about the substantive issues involved in this case offered little in the way of contrast. Its lack of interest in the principle of academic freedom matched its previous nonchalance about press freedom.

But the picture is not entirely bleak.

The media disquiet in New Zealand and the subsequent police apology to Gilbert – after he was initially deemed unfit to carry out research because of “his association with gangs” – suggest a public recognition of the democratic importance of academic freedom, at least in cases in which it is blatantly under attack. However, to properly understand how academic freedom is threatened in New Zealand and elsewhere, we need to hone in on some of the general features of the Gilbert case. And we need to grasp the existence of a much more insidious threat to academic freedom within the university itself.

The Gilbert case illustrated that organisations are inclined to suppress any information or arguments that might damage their brand and reputation. Gilbert’s research was regarded as a potential public relations risk, because it opened the police to critical scrutiny that might eventually result in negative public attention.

In this media-driven age, such concerns about public image are hardly irrational or trivial. Organisations know that public perceptions of their competency and integrity are dependent on their media profile and visibility. And when an organisation is dependent on government funding, senior managers will be extremely sensitive to how negative media coverage might be interpreted and utilised by policy-making elites. 

The behaviour of the police in the Gilbert case invites parallels with an academic context, because of the extent to which marketing and promotional concerns have become driving forces within universities across the world.

The argument is not a new one.

Critical scholars speak of the neoliberal university to emphasise the market rationality that has become internalised in the decision-making of university administrators, and eroded institutional identifications with other values. We can also talk about the interchangeable figure of the corporate university, in which the university is managed and run in a fashion that becomes indistinguishable from any other corporation.

It would be simplistic to suggest that the corporate university represents an ideological vision spontaneously brought into being by a managerial class. As recent changes to the governance of New Zealand university councils – rescinding the guaranteed representation of both students and staff – suggests, the desire for a corporate university is often a state-led political project, pushed by governments who want to reduce public funding to universities, and reconfigure the university as little more than an engine of economic growth.  

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

Although there will undoubtedly be expectations, we should not expect universities to normally use heavy-handed and overt methods to suppress academic freedom. Even in situations where academic freedom is stifled, universities are culturally, institutionally and even statutorily obliged to assert their commitment to academic freedom. And generally, it would also be simplistic to think that academic freedom is threatened by university surveillance mechanisms that parse academic scholarship looking for ideologically suspect arguments. 

Academics are certainly governed by surveillance mechanisms, but these increasingly take the form of bureaucratically elaborate audit regimes which purport to measure the quality of academic research. These auditing exercises treat the actual substantive focus of the research as a secondary matter. Indeed, a scholar could conceivably publish a damning critique of the neoliberal university in a prestigious academic journal and still be championed in a university environment where neoliberal reason is flourishing.

So long as these critiques are kept safely in relatively unknown academic publications, the ability of individual scholars to write critically about the university, or most other matters, is likely to remain largely unencumbered. However, the potential threat to academic freedom comes into clearer view once these critiques are articulated in the media and public spaces that preoccupy the corporate university.

The capacity of scholars to freely voice arguments that question the existing social and political consensus – and which therefore might be criticised and attacked by others – runs up against the corporate university’s desire for positive media coverage. The corporate ‘we’ starts to operate as a kind of disciplinary mechanism, regulating what can and cannot be said in the name of the university.

The result is a model of the public university, where scholars act as ‘brand ambassadors’, who can say what they like as long as it does not damage the official brand identity. In tandem, incremental changes to university research policies discourage scholars from asserting an explicitly politicised identity, in favour of the officially approved figure of the academic expert, who does not stray too far from their specialist brief.  

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

The point is that we live in a historical moment where some of the most repressive and corrosive features of the social order have been internalised 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 projected outwards.

What is at stake is ultimately an alternative conception of the public university, one where an ethos of intellectual and political disagreement is cherished, both within the internal deliberations of the university and in its relations with others. This university becomes a stage for a different kind of publicness, one which can never be grasped by – and which should actively contest – the imperatives of the corporation.

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