RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

My colleague David Owen has circulated among us, Literature teachers, a juicy article by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder, “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). This is a very bitter indictment of the intrusion of what they call ‘management’ and I call ‘bureaucracy’ into the university, clearly far more advanced in the Netherlands as regards the occupation of our professional world by private corporate interests than in Spain. They call for the counter-occupation of the university and its transformation into a real ‘public university,’ by which they don’t simply mean ‘state-sponsored’ but working to benefit the citizens. I’ll refer here extensively, then, to the article and try to answer back in some way, from a different yet similar (Spanish) university context.

Halffman and Radder offer a very through dissection of the negative effects that the “regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation” has forced into what should be an institution geared at the production and dissemination of knowledge for the common good. The saddest part of this catastrophe is that, as they show, we all contributed to letting the Wolf in about 25 years ago when the younger generation decided to do away with the sluggish ivory-tower university and show to society what we are capable of. Since, basically, society still thinks we live in that old-fashioned ivory-tower, we have allowed their delegates, the bureaucrats (who hate us for the supposed ‘privileged’ nature of our jobs) to control our production and, frankly, to limit our capacity for thinking. How? Well, by turning us, as Halffman and Radder explain, into sheep who meekly obey all the absurd regulations imposed on us for the sake of hanging by the skin of our teeth onto the possibility, more and more remote, of producing knowledge, as it is our vocation.

From their comments, I understand that the Dutch university is far more privatised than the Spanish university, as we still run, basically, ourselves our own institutions, despite the growing control by external forces, like the ‘Social Councils’ (not to mention the companies funding research). Anyway, here are six “excesses” they identify, quite familiar too (mostly) here in Spain, followed by my comments paraphrasing their words:

1. “Measurability for accountability”: we need to produce, produce, produce to keep up with changing indicators that only result in an “illusion of excellence”; so much over-production leaves with no time to actually read and think.
2. “Permanent competition (for ‘quality’)”: this is a mechanism devised to keep everyone on their toes, for it is easy to see that knowledge is generated by collaboration and networking.
3. “The promise of greater ‘efficiency’”: Competition increases (rather than decrease) the cost of running the universities as we waste time and resources vying with each other for students and funding.
4. “The adoration of excellence: Everybody at the top!”: rather than help many to do research, top researchers get more and more resources, leaving nothing for the rest (nor for discredited, cheaply-funded science)
5. “Contentless process management”: the bureaucratization of the university means much more work for teachers/researchers, who become admin servants
6. “The promise of economic salvation”: the universities lose their autonomy in research by following the orders of the private companies that fund projects; non-profit-oriented fields, from philosophy to mathematics, are dismissed as a financial burden.

We, Halffman and Radder write, have internalised the Wolf and feed it by, I’ll add, living to fill in our C.V.s rather than to transmit knowledge. Yet, since we lost long ago the support of society, to a great extent because of the many indolent ivory tower inhabitants, there’s very little we can do to explain our plea and gain sympathy. Nobody cares. How, then, do we change matters? The authors of the “Academic Manifesto” suggest up to 20 measures, actually 21 as they also support Pels’ (2003) call to replace “the publication rat-race with more meaningful, slower-paced and more considerate research.” Publish, in short, only when you have something to say and after carefully thought out research. Anyway, the 20 measures are (quotation marks for verbatim citation, otherwise my paraphrasis):

1. An administration style open to academic staff, students and supporting staff (we do have that at UAB, yet the impression is that most decisions are made by higher instances…)
2. The administration supports the staff, and not the other way round (we justify the work done by the bureaucrats); also, point 9. the university administration must be accountable to the academic community and not vice versa
3. “Limiting wasteful control systems” (self-explanatory–consider all the resources wasted on checking what we do, and how they punish those who work harder)
4. “A ban on mergers”: currently happening in Spain at Department and ‘Facultat’ levels, though not yet at a university level; we have the opposite problem–too many universities.
5. A less intensive focus on our own institution, a more open vision encompassing all local universities; this is complemented with 6. “No wasteful competition between universities”
7. “A ban on university marketing” to attract students, followed by 8. using the university media to transfer knowledge to society, not for our own marketing
10. “No real estate speculation”, think of the universities in Barcelona occupying areas in central locations and gentrifying them…
11. No top researchers allowed not to teach (fine by me, but also limit teaching so that whoever wants to do research can do it); accompanied by 15. Rejecting ‘productivity’ as the main “research assessment criterion” and, this is a good one, 16. “Introducing the Sabbatical Year” so that once every 7 years we can stop, read and think.
12. “Free education” but also 13. a limitation of student population so as not strain public resources and 14. promoting “vocational training” as a professionally attractive alternative to the university.
17. Freeing research from its bondage to content-oriented interests, both in production and assessment (18), which also translates as giving researchers time to follow long-term lines and not only projects with immediately applicable results.
19. Make society both a partner and the target of our activities, by 20. establishing an open access system to distribute knowledge.

Now, here’s the problem–what do you do if the managers/bureaucrats and society do not care for any of the above? Halffman and Radder call for “resistance” and “shaking off our fear”, yet what they offer sounds often like desperate measures: 1. leaving the university, 2. legal action, 3. “Muddling through” and even “work-to-rule,” 4. sabotage, 5. collective refusal, 6. trade unions, 7. mass demonstration, 8. establish contra-indictors as counter-measures (and disseminate knowledge about our real working conditions), 9. striking, 10. occupying the university, 11. parliamentary and political action. Working, as I do, in a ‘Facultat’ (or school) were 9 and 10 are recurrent but totally useless events, I can only proclaim my scepticism. Also, in view of the fact that more than 50% of our staff are temporary workers and those of us who are tenured are gripped by our… throats by a system that has frozen our salaries and only offers tiny inducements by passing assessment exercises (or the very unlikely chance of promotion to full professor). Actually, it occurs to me that the full professors, the ‘catedráticos’, are the only ones in a position to lead the resistance that the “Academic Manifesto” calls for. So, if any of them is reading me…

In the meantime, here’s reality: one of my most brilliant students announced to me today his intention of moving to Denmark, where the Government funds post-grad students, including the foreign ones with a nice student’s record. When I showed my sadness that his leaving would only contribute to enhancing the current Spanish brain drain, he could only answer to me that he sees no future in Spain. So–why don’t we ask the Danes?

Resistance may not be totally futile but when have the sheep ever banded to eat the Wolf? I think of Naomi Wolf’s (oops!) description of the ‘shock and awe’ doctrine to keep whole populations subjected to the current appalling political and economic regime, and I think this is it–we’re too shocked by and in awe of the Wolf.

Anyway, thanks Willem Halffman and Hans Radder for the effort and, above all, the call to amass and use courage.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. Visit my web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

4 thoughts on “RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

  1. It is both nice and sad to see that the Manifesto reverberates in so many different places. We originally wrote it to address the situation in The Netherlands, but apparently this management style has spread much further than we realised.

    I know the Manifesto does not have answers. We merely wanted to ask our colleagues to stop complaining and DO something, and hence explored some of the traditional options for political action.

    In the meantime, much has happened in The Netherlands. Students at the university of Amsterdam have organised a lengthy occupation of university buildings and activist groups of students and staff have sprouted at many other Dutch universities. That movement calls itself ‘The New University’ and ‘Rethink’ and it is thinking about what this new university should look like, what it should do, how it should be financed and held accountable. The unions have also woken up and the movement has a few sympathetic members of Parliament, so some of the strategies we suggested have now been deployed. The outcome …is a matter of a lot of thinking and organising.

    Some information about the movement is available in English. Search for “De nieuwe universiteit”.

  2. Thank you Willem for the reply!! That’s very kind of you. I’m glad to read that things appear to move in the right direction in the Netherlands. Since the onset of the crisis and because of the catastrophic situation of the public university in Spain there have been several strikes and mass demonstrations, all to no avail. Our Government(s) will simply not listen. I’ll check the information you mention.
    Thanks!
    Sara

  3. No, indeed, you’re not afraid at all, as I know very well. But, then, you’re also a tenured teachers which is not the case with more than 50% of the staff in Spanish universities… The wolf is not easy to sidestep for them. Sara

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