AN INSIDIOUS VILLAIN: THE NEO-LIBERAL UNIVERSITY

In just about two weeks I have accumulated an impressive amount of articles on the pernicious effect of the neo-liberal university, mainly in Anglophone countries. Here they are:

*the conclusions of the inquest regarding the suicide of Prof. Stephan Grimm, of Imperial College, who killed himself unable to withstand the pressure of generating 200,000 pounds in grants or else lose his job.
https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/imperial-college-professor-stefan-grimm-was-given-grant-income-target/2017369.article
https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/stefan-grimm-inquest-new-policies-may-not-have-prevented-suicide/2019563.article

*an article also in The Times Higher Education supplement disclosing that “Grant income targets for individual academics (…) exist in some form in about one in six UK universities”, https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/node/128909. Also, an article denouncing how British academics are embracing the “cult of no sleep” (a catchphrase coined by Arianna Huffington), https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/count-sheep-not-metrics. Or insomnia as the solution to an increasing workload.

*several articles posted in Academia.edu about:

1) “Attention decay in science” (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1503.01881v1.pdf), a piece that discuses the decreasing ability of scientists to keep up with so many publications and, hence, the decreasing life-span of newly published papers.

2) “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” by a collective of US and Canadian academics. The title is self-explanatory.

3) Rosalind Gill’s article (draft) “Academics, Cultural Workers and Critical Labour Studies”, in which she argues that “What is urgently needed (…) is a critical take that can move us beyond the individualised, toxic, self-blaming discourses that are characteristic of academics in the neo-liberal University.”

Something is, clearly, afoot, and it has to do with academia’s more fearsome, insidious villain: the neo-liberal university. The academic collective is asking three questions: 1) how can we stop the pressure that neo-liberal demands have put on the production of knowledge?, 2) why have we allowed this pressure to mount to these unhealthy, even lethal, extremes?, 3) how are we personally contributing to upholding values that undermine rather than exalt research? The person who drew my attention to Prof. Grimm’s suicide, a Lecturer at a British university, told me he feared scholars would soon be asked to generate not just grants for their research but income for their salaries.

The neo-liberal villain has made fewer inroads into the Spanish university because we are poorer. If the meagre public money allocated to all of us by the Ministry is even more radically cut, research will have to grind down (well, it is grinding down) for good as in Spain we are lacking the alternative sources–foundations, corporations, etc.–which the neoliberal villain has invited into the folds of the Anglophone university. The building where I work boasts a considerable amount of graffiti inviting private business to go home and leave us alone, I am not so naïve that I have missed the increased creeping in of alien funds and interests into our midst. What I am saying is that its impact is not (YET) as dramatic as it is elsewhere. There are still ways to be a university teacher and do no research, be productive at low-cost (myself), or dip into public funding now and then with no fixed target. I am, of course, talking about the Humanities. I know very well things are much worse for my scientist colleagues.

In a very peculiar way, what I read in all these articles connects with the current debate in Spain about working hours and productivity. The question we are asking ourselves is why we produce less despite working longer hours than most of Europe; the answer is that when you force a person to be tied to their jobs most of the day their productivity slows down. If you excuse me, that is the reason why slavery did not work in the American South: slaves, knowing there was no leisure whatsoever for them, worked as slowly as they managed (and as the supervisor’s lashes allowed them). Even without Abraham Lincoln’s intervention the whole agrarian economy of slavery would soon have collapsed. So, back to my track: people would be far more productive in Spain if they stuck to eight solid hours and, generally speaking, a six-hour working day would benefit everyone all over the world. Also, create more jobs. This applies to academic work, as well.

A few years ago I had a serious health episode, as a consequence of my overworking. I got then told off by my doctor who, whether he lied to me or not, warned me that the ugly symptoms might come back if I overdid it again. I call the recurrent pain I feel now and then ‘my speed limiter’: when it hurts I know it is time to stop; if I can’t stop immediately, then the sooner the better. I have, then, a very good excuse to stay away from professional e-mail on weekends and after 17:00 (if possible 16:30). Also, I have learned to limit myself to a strict daily schedule, 8:30 to 16:30 when at home. I am talking about academic work apart from reading, as I read all as much as I can everyday and weekends. This blog is part of my spare time, not my daily schedule by the way.

I am, as everyone knows, a productive academic and I’m writing all this here to show that there is no reason to subject ourselves to killing work regimes (as I used to do). Also, this summer I have answered all emails from colleagues claiming they had no proper time for a holiday, explaining that I have indeed taken a holiday, as my health is at risk and I am a worker entitled to a number of days off. Never mind how much I have read in my free days, as I would read anyway. I am learning the hard way to set limits (like, this weekend I am not available to a student who is finishing his MA dissertation, sorry).

Perhaps I am lucky that the neo-liberal villain has not yet grabbed me by the throat, I am a tenured civil servant (we’ll see how this withstands the Catalan move for independence) and UAB has no grant target for me–though a few things are questionable about the teaching target. I know plenty of academics who suffer from diverse bodily and psychological complaints connected with our performance at work. When I complained to my partner, ‘who would have believed that being a college teacher would be so stressful?’, he, who does work for a neo-liberal multinational corporation just answered, ‘well, try to do less’.

I am not asking any colleagues to publicly embrace laziness, as many still do in Spain, but to take it easy (or easier). Feminist or not, try ‘slow academics.’ For, after all, as the article I have named, “Attention decay in science”, suggests few colleagues read what we end up producing and it is increasingly harder to stand up in a system that prefers quantity to quality.

Please, consider the sad fate of Prof. Grimm–and the cynicism of an inquest which concludes that “new policies may not have prevented [his] suicide”. And shame on you if you’re thinking that the problem is this poor man was too weak to keep up with the demands of research. For the worst aspect of the insidious neo-liberal villain is how many claim there is no villain –and how it makes villains of us all.

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. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 thoughts on “AN INSIDIOUS VILLAIN: THE NEO-LIBERAL UNIVERSITY

  1. My goodness, I didn’t know about Prof. Grimm…

    I guess we all should try to put limits to ourselves, though let’s admit it is quite difficult at all stages. I am not a university teacher, but being a doctoral student with no grant whatsoever means that I have to work (illegally, mind you, with no contract, no paid holidays, etc) many hours a day because I have to pay rent and bills and food and university fees and books and conferences, yet I still have to write a PhD thesis and articles in a limited span of time if I want all of this (financial, personal) effort to make some sense. And of course, it takes a toll on my health…

    I wish we all coud actually join the “slow academics” trend… Life would be so much enjoyable for everyone. I guess the only thing we can do, besides trying to apply the “take it easier” mentality to ourselves, is to let cases like Prof. Grimm known and, indeed, try to pinpoint the villain as much as we can.

  2. Of course, Sara, I’m writing this from my (as things are) privileged position as a tenured teacher and I am very much aware that things are terrible for PhD students, as I see from the ones I tutor. Part of the harm being done to you collectively has to do with how neo-liberal policies have led to a situation in which nothing is invested in training PhDs – and still people insist, as we are all vocational, in trying to get a university job. It is the cheapest way to run things… also the cruellest. Also, unsustainable in the long run, but, then, neo-liberalism is all about short-term profit. Poor Prof. Grimm -just think he was more or less my age, which means he must have been employed for about 25 years, now thrown down the drain.

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