Monday, December 15, 2014

Tenure in the university and personnel decisions

The accelerated corporatization of University structures breeds new forms of vulnerabilities within Universities, essentially altering the mission, vision, and organizing structures of Universities.

Universities, having had to raise funds in the face of reduced state funding and public support, have to increasingly depend on donors to carry out their vital functions.

Moreover, in order to participate in this continually reinvented game of branding and unique selling propositions, which in turn are essential to further fund-raising, Universities have to keep generating the perceptions of speed, innovation, and change.

To sustain the brand image of the university, new programs must be introduced, new buildings must be built, new initiatives must be launched, and new labs must be built.

The glamor and appeal of the university are maintained through the deployment of an army of mid-managers who implement newly borrowed metrics, come up with new set of indicators, and introduce ever-new initiatives.

These new initiatives, curriculum changes, and new centers are the face of the corporate university.

Amid all of these market-oriented transformations, the function of the university professor is reduced to serving the economic functions of the university, aligning herself/himself with the corporate ideology. Performance metrics and benchmarks are established as the new norms for running universities. Boards of trustees, most of them being picked because of their corporate backgrounds are put at the helm  of decision-making, given free reign in imposing top-down decisions that are often framed by their corporate logics.

As the recent events at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, depict, almost all of these corporate-type trustees have very little knowledge of and respect for the ways of the university as a site of knowledge generation and as a ground of teaching. Instead, functioning under the expectation of running the university in the corporate model, many of these trustees come in with the attitude that they are going to fix the University, cut the overheads, slash programs, and develop new money generating schemes.

Tenure, a concept that is integral to the life-world of the modern University, wedded to the fundamental commitment of universities to promote open conversations and debates, has fallen victim to this newly emerging climate of corporatization.

Having to respond to the pressures they regularly experience from donors and powerful corporate actors, universities are no longer protected spaces for academic work, increasingly being subject to donor pressure. Academic administrators, reduced to functioning more as managers, PR people, and accountants rather than as academic visionaries, find themselves amid campus storms as they seek to perform to corporate metrics amid faculty pressures for respecting faculty governance.

Stories of donors threatening to move their money elsewhere depict the ways in which this newly emerging corporate model of funding universities is fundamentally changing the very nature of universities and the very processes of pursuit of knowledge. As we witnessed through a number of failed tenure or hiring cases across the globe, tenure and hiring decisions have increasingly become areas of donor control. As the Illinois case revealed, donors hold the kind of power over university administrators that place these administrators in subservient roles rather than being in positions of leadership from which they can follow their commitments to the academic purpose of the university.

Enter in this landscape the language of personnel decisions. Administrators such as Chancellor Wise find in the language of the "personnel" decision the kind of power that allows them to make hiring and tenure decisions along the interests of powerful donors while at the same time claiming their commitment to academic freedom. Personnel decisions render non-transparent university decision-making processes, with faculty being left out of the decision-making processes. Fundamental violations of academic freedom can be carried out under the facade of personnel decisions. As long as a claim to some policy can be made, a faculty member can be un-hired, maintaining the facade of commitment to academic freedom.

Universities, rather than being sites of contestation, argumentation, and debate, are increasingly being structured into a monolithic corporate narrative. The stories that the powerful donors want to tell are also being shaped as the stories being told through the academic structure of the university.

The hijacking of the university structure by neoliberal capitalism has also meant that the very interrogation of the violence embodied in these capital-driven forms of organizing remains absent from universities. The engagement with data, evidence, and reasoned argument is clouded by the impetus to narrate particular stories that are palatable to and convenient for the dominant power structures.

Serving the economic logic of powerful donors is the new language of the neoliberal university.

This new language and its communicative ideals of public relations, stakeholder engagement, and relationship building are fundamentally threatening to the very idea of a university. For academics across the globe, the challenge ahead lies in continually lending their voice to struggles for academic freedom, in sifting through the propaganda of personnel decisions in rendering visible the lack of arguments, the absence of transparency, and the corporate influence over university decision-making processes. If we as faculty aspire for our universities to continue to remain vibrant as sites of discussion and debate on ideas, even the inconvenient ones, we will need to commit ourselves to continually questioning the opaque decision-making processes, the lack of transparency, the deployment of tropes such as "personnel decisions," and the general absence of logic in how management decisions are made.

We will also have to play active roles in shaping the next generation of university leadership and in having our voices be heard at the highest levels of decision-making, including in the selection of trustees and in having faculty representation in boards of trustees.

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