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Speculative Diction

Review: A Penny For Your Thoughts


In this post I’m taking a look at the latest book from Claire Polster and Janice Newson, A Penny for Your Thoughts. Polster and Newson have been researching and publishing about corporatization in Canadian universities for (literally) decades, with some of Newson’s earlier work going back to the 1980s (also check out The University Means Business). This book is a compilation of essays and articles the authors have written since the early 1990s. Some of these pieces I’d read before, but I was glad to get the chance to revisit them. Bringing them together in one volume with additional context and commentary by the authors creates a helpful resource for anyone interested in this topic.

The book addresses a number of themes and issues associated with corporatization, many of which show up in current higher-ed news coverage, including: privatization of research funding and corporate influence through funding; competition between researchers and universities and the effect of this (such as increased budgets for marketing); student consumerism; objectification and commodification of knowledge; expansion of the non-academic workforce within the university; commercialization of research; targeting of research funding to areas of “strategic priority”; the demand for “flexible” labour, including an increasing reliance on part-time and contract faculty to take up teaching work; fragmentation of the academic workforce and unbundling of academic work; and increased time pressures and stress.

The authors’ goal is not just to offer critical research on how Canadian universities have changed over the past 35 years or so. They also set out to provide an accessible analysis that can underpin university members’ responses to the changes that have happened—and continue to unfold—on campuses across the country (and elsewhere). I found this reminiscent of Norman Fairclough’s Language and Power, a book designed to bring more people into a project of critical (language) analysis that can inform activist projects and education as well as academic research.

Polster and Newson’s approach emphasizes that these are not “new” problems we’re facing; the issue is more that troubling trends haven’t been addressed adequately over time. Their historical view is helpful because often, a “crisis” framing encourages us to perceive all issues as recent developments. They also bring our attention not just to what has happened in universities, but importantly, to the question of how it’s happened, i.e. the processes and practices involved.

Asking “how?” is a ways to highlight the complex (and contradictory) nature of the change process. While it may be easy to look for a place to pin the blame or responsibility for changes we don’t like, it’s more productive to try to understand the dynamics involved. We shouldn’t assume there are clear cause-and-effect relationships when it comes to universities and organizational change, because “rather than arising from a single cause or through a uniform process”, changes happen as a result of “multiple, complex, and often mutually reinforcing pressures”, including the (unintentional) outcomes of decisions made 10, 20 or more years ago. Agency and responsibility are also complicated: changes aren’t only caused by “external forces” that are somehow invading the institution of academe and altering it for the worse, nor is it only administrators (for example) who participate in making changes happen.

This isn’t a book designed to provide specific, applicable tactics—the authors present it more as a foundation on which to build local efforts that can counter problems appropriately in context. Some of the broader strategies put forward by Polster and Newson include greater solidarity and collective action among academics; improved communication with the (non-academic) public whose interests are served by the university; and direct challenges to the adoption of specific practices or approaches, rather than seeking “input” into their implementation. But what their analysis also shows is how, where corporatization’s effects are most clear, the resistance that’s required is made difficult by the very problems it aims to counter. Here I’ve used three examples to illustrate the point.

Effects on academic work: The individualization encouraged by some of the trends in academic work makes it more difficult to motivate collective action. The atomizing effect of competition, for example, affects academics’ relationships with their colleagues, while their increased workload reduces available hours. Lack of time and focus even for one’s primary academic work means that less time can be devoted to issues of institutional and professional politics. What strategies can be used in the everyday by academics who already have a hard time achieving “balance” in their lives? If it’s a responsibility of academics to push for the changes that need to happen, how is that responsibility taken up in the context of the changes they describe? And who is going to be able to do this work? After all, it needs to be inclusive.

In addition the role of faculty in change processes is not straightforward. The university is not a playing field where participants are divided neatly into teams with different competing interests and static amounts of influence, so it’s necessarily a challenge to try to capture and analyse the complexity of the relationships involved. Some faculty members have benefited from processes of corporatization, but those benefits have been unevenly accessible between individuals and across fields and disciplines, further contributing to various kinds of stratification. It’s important to examine how and why that’s the case—who benefits, for what kind of work, and how it’s all happening.

The university and the public: Polster and Newson take the position that the university should be a publicly funded institution supporting work that benefits a wide range of groups—not just those who can afford to pay to have their concerns addressed. The special nature of the university lies in its position outside those pressures that elsewhere affect the nature of knowledge work. In return for supporting this arrangement, there is collective, public benefit from the knowledge that is generated through research and education. This state of affairs is being eroded by private-sector influences (such as corporate funding) that limit the usefulness of university research by placing parameters on what can be researched, and who can access the knowledge that results. Because the public have a direct interest in the nature of academics’ work, “the extent to which [academic] professional autonomy serves and preserves the public interest must be made specific, concrete, and visible” so as to encourage public support and engagement.

One challenge here is that of workload as discussed above. This is even more difficult in a professionally competitive environment, because there is less benefit (and possibly more professional risk) to doing research that doesn’t “pay back” either in funding or in prestige. Yet at the same time, if academics don’t build support with the public, it becomes harder for them to do work that’s in the public interest.

But I think there’s another, more fundamental problem with this approach: it’s too easy to assume that once they’ve been adequately enlightened, this public will support the same vision as academics. What if they don’t respond positively to these arguments? What if they’re not willing to participate on these terms? Why might that be the case and how could we convince them? Chris Newfield is homing in on this problem in his post about the difficulties with the political argument for tenure in the U.S., pointing out that the public may well see no reason to support faculty and that a new approach is necessary. He makes the case that the public must be brought into the argument itself, through the call for better labour conditions for all. Otherwise, faculty working conditions can all too easily be seen as a privilege that’s being protected even as the rights of other workers (including contingent faculty) are eroded.

Addressing underlying social relations: Polster and Newson critique the kinds of strategies that are often put forward for changing or resisting corporatization processes at work in universities—which is helpful, because we do tend to see the same arguments made repeatedly without much effect. Proposed remedies such as gaining more faculty input into performance indicators (for example—in chapter 4), are superficial tweaks that don’t alter the new social relations engendered by the use of these governance tools. In other words, even if faculty have more say in how their work is measured, they’re still subject to a system of measurement that brings its own effects to the mix.

The challenge here is that analyzing and targeting these kind of changes is much harder than reacting in familiar ways by accommodating and adapting to what is most visible, or to the immediate effects of what’s already been implemented. The kind of turnaround envisioned by Polster and Newson might require strategies that seem counterintuitive but could work for achieving a lasting result. It means we may not see results for a long while, just as the current context has itself developed over decades. Yet at the same time, we’re seeing and feeling the effects of those decades every day, and this shapes people’s responses in the present.

What I didn’t see in this book, something I think is a key piece in the “university change” puzzle, is a more in-depth look at how all these developments are affecting doctoral education and professionalization for early career researchers (ECRs). Every trend the authors describe has an effect not only on how academic work can happen, but also on who is willing, able, and allowed to participate, because the conditions of academic learning are the same conditions that affect their work later on and teach people how to work in the “right” ways. So it’s not enough to ask how faculty experiences and careers are changed by marketization, competition, and so on. We need to understand how people learn to be academics in this context, and to show (and intervene in) the politics of that process—because this will affect what the academic workforce looks like in future.

Another reason the doctoral process needs more attention is that it could be the place where “unlearning” begins, and where different kinds of changes for academe are imagined and tried out. The issues described in this book seem overwhelming, and any kind of effective response will need, as always, not just some temporary organizing but a long-term foundation on which to build cultural change. Some of this means re-orienting our ideas about who has agency and who does not: “we need not only think about what administrations should do or have done to them, but we must also consider what faculty, students, and others may do—both on their own and in mutually supportive alliances” and in cooperation with “public interest groups and the Canadian public more generally”.

While present conditions are troubling, it’s clear that we also can’t look to a former, ideal model of higher education as a goal; the university has in the past been highly elitist, exclusionary and hierarchized, not part of a “golden age” to which we should wish to return. Even the idea of a public mandate for universities is a relatively recent development, not really a tradition. Broader accessibility for under-privileged groups is a 60-year development in an institution that has a history measured in centuries.

Although this book doesn’t explicitly provide answers to the question of “where now?”, it provides a re-orientation and a thorough background to some of our current dilemmas, one that’s all the more interesting given that these pieces were written over a long period (and built on work that goes back even further). This kind of historical perspective is what helps us to understand how change happens—which is crucial because whatever we do next will ideally involve taking a long, frank look at how we’ve gotten to where we are.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Jason Brown / August 12, 2015 at 09:54

    Can’t wait to get my own copy. Polster understands the issues in great depth and her writing shows their complexity in a way that grips the reader as layer after layer of of insight is revealed and ideas shared in a way that keeps the reader hooked…..

  2. Jonathan Thon / August 25, 2015 at 17:04

    Phenomenal post Melonie.

  3. Ruth Jargon / December 21, 2016 at 04:18

    But I think there’s another, more fundamental problem with this approach: it’s too easy to assume that once they’ve been adequately enlightened, this public will support the same vision as academics.