About the neo-liberal University and why it is not so bad as they say

Some days ago I had an exchange with my colleague and friend Victor Mijares about the use and misuse of the term “neo-liberal University” in some academic blogs. As an Italian and a Venezuelan respectively, who have worked for several years in our home countries, we had some reserves about labelling the contemporary academia as “neo-liberal”. Now there is a paper widely circulating on social network, titled “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University”. Most of what the paper say is true and reasonable: academics are more and more stressed, they face very difficult working conditions and we should develop strategies of resistance in order to cope with stress and privilege quality over quantity. However, although I agree with most of what the paper says, I have decided to be for once the devil’s advocate.

I believe that I have the right to make this provocation, also because I am in a far less privileged position than the authors of the paper. As they themselves recognize, they are all tenure-track staff from North American Universities, and only two out of eight are relatively junior staff (assistant professors). I gained my PhD in Italy, a country that is at the periphery of the social sciences debate. After having been one year unemployed, my first non tenure track position, paid 12,500 Rands per month, forced me to move to Pretoria in South Africa, before moving back to Europe to take another two-year position in Germany. My current fellowship is relatively well paid but will expire next April and is non renowable. So, I am one of those academics at risk of being expelled altogether from the academic market.

I could focus on the paper’s advocacy for “a collective feminist ethics of care” and how it reproduces the contradictions of most so-called feminist scholarship – in fact embracing gender stereotypes about women as supposedly caring and compassionate, so that being ambitious and career-oriented becomes non-feminine. But my main preoccupation is with the critique of what is labelled the “neo-liberal” academia and with the idea that it is the fact that the academia is neo-liberal that is at the heart of our problems.

Let’s face two inconvenient thruth. First, whatever our salary and working conditions, making a job out of thinking is already a very big privilege, compared to most other possible occupations in a society. This is after all why most of us stick to the effort of getting an academic job, rather than changing career. Second, the main reason why academics face a climate of exasperated competition is that many more young people are today able to go to University and to gain a PhD than it was the case a generation or two ago. In a sense, the academic job market has become more difficult not because of more neo-liberalism, but because of more equality of opportunities in our societies. One of the main reasons why academics of the older generations had a lot of freedom in their work and the possibility to focus on knowledge for the sake of knowledge was that relatively few people went to University. On the one hand, this made easier for those interested in an academic career to find a tenured position. On the other, it meant smaller classes, composed of students from relatively well off and educated families, which were easier to manage. In an even longer historical perspective, societies were a portion of the citizens could indulge in the pleasure of thinking for the sake of thinking were often societies shaped by extremely striking inequalities and by the impossibility, for those born in the “wrong” place, to change their condition and compete with others for more desirable career paths. I cannot avoid wondering, are we academics protesting because we are losing our rights, or are we protesting because we are losing our privileges and becoming more as “normal” workers, subjected to the fluctuations of the market?

The authors of the paper argue against the pressure for continued productivity, and emphasize quality over quantity. This is in principle a very just issue. But this very frequently made remark always stumble against the problem of how we do evaluate quality. Quality is a very subjective issue. Moreover, because the social sciences are less “scientific” than the natural sciences, often “fashion” orients very much our appreciation of quality. The crude quantitative indicators adopted by “neo-liberal” Universities are a solution to this problem. They are arguably a bad solution, but they have at least the merit to protect junior academics from being at the total mercy of the arbitrary and unaccountable assessment of their senior colleagues, when it comes to evaluating their work. And this bring me to talk about the underdiscussed genus in this academic market debate, the neo-patrimonial University.

For the profane, neo-patrimonial is an used and abused label developed from Max Weber’s theory of state legitimacy applied to the study of politics of the developing countries, especially Africa. Let me be very unrigourous and skip most of the recent sophisticated debate on neopatrimonialism in political science. Simplyfing very much, neo-patrimonialism is a system where a facade of modern bureaucratic administration, based on impartial rules, coexist with the fact that personalized relationships and patron-client networks set most of the real “rules of the game”.

The debate on “neo-liberal” Universities is very much dominated by academics based in North America and in the UK. This is to me not only because these countries dominate the social science debate: it is because, arguably, Universities in other countries are not neo-liberal, or are neo-liberal at a lower degree. But are they better because they are not neo-liberal? My answer is no, and I think that many of those who have worked in these Universities would agree.

The University were I grew up with did not fully conform to the picture of the neo-liberal University. There were no quantitative indicators of productivity and most of the tenure track staff did not feel any particular urge to publish regularly or to rise research funding. Moreover, there was a preference for “less useful” disciplines – disciplines without an immediate practical application, such as history – over more practice oriented disciplines, such as contemporary political studies or development studies.

All this sounds like paradise for the critics of neo-liberal Universities, but in fact it was not paradise at all for us living in such a context. Our lecturers cared little about doing good research and producing, either in quantitative or qualitative terms. When they published, it was usually in Italian and in non peer reviewed formats: their work was read by very few people and had little influence on worldwide academic debates. Since senior staff did not apply often for research funding, they did not have the means to do much original work, and in fact they did not do it. For many senior staff, their most famous publication was often a textbook, that they imposed as compulsory reading to their students. Lecturers treated students in a very condescend way. The fact that they did not feel obliged to answer emails (as it allegedly happens to lecturers in neo-liberal Universities) meant that often the emails that received no answer were the students’ emails. (I remember an infamous case, when I sent a very important email to a senior colleague. I received no answer so I had to take a train and travel one hour just to look for her. Once I found her, I discovered that not only she had not answered my email, sent ten days before, but she had not even opened it).

In this type of University recruitment and access to a tenured position was not determined by productivity but access to clientelist networks. If you are under the protection of a senior academic, you will get first a non tenured position (assegno di ricerca) and then a tenure (a permanent researcher position). Since criticism at the system obliged to give at least an appearance of fairness, competitions were held and publications were apparently considered. But often the criteria of the competition were openly designed to make one candidate win. The obligation to have a certain number of publications was solved by making the preferred candidate publishing with a publishing house or a journal that was managed by his patron – this is why there was little attention paid to the publication outlet and the fairness of peer review.

In this context, tenured track staff were secure about their position, wether they worked hard or not, and the stress felt on junior non tenured staff. Most PhD students had in fact learned to exploit the system: since they had little supervision and they had understood early that the quality of their research work had little impact on their future career perspectives, many of them spent their three years with PhD funding looking for alternative career opportunities, preparing for competitions for getting a position in the state administration or doing internships. The worst situation was that of the post docs and of the adjuncts professors. The latter were very much at the mercy of their patron or desperately looking for loopholes in the system when they had no patron.

After getting my PhD, I could not get a job in Italy because I was not integrated in the clientelist networks of the Italian academia. I participated once in a competition for a post-doc. After being relegated to one of the last places in the applicant list, I discovered when I could access the proces verbal that all my publications but one had misteriously disappeared  from the evaluation of my research profile. This episode, which I perceived as not only an injustice but a humiliation, meant for me the end of any further effort to get a job in Italy.

I have eventually got a job because some well reputed peer reviewed journals accepted my articles without knowing me and because my publications have impressed the anonymous reviewers of my application for a post doctoral fellowship. Individual freedom is born out of capitalism and let’s not forget that this emancipatory side of capitalism still exists, even when we criticize its oppressive and unjust aspects. To me, the neo-liberal University is, yes, stressful, over-productivist, anti-humanist. But it is also a University where someone like me, without personal connections, can have a chance, even if it is just a little chance.

I have not written about my experience just to complain or get others to pity myself for what I have endured in the past. I have written this because this political economy of the academic market does not concern just Italy. In a number of continental European countries, as well as in most developing countries, clientelism and patronage still shape much of academic recruitment. I even suspect that the North American academia itself is a bit more clientelist and a little less neo-liberal than it portrays itself.

In my experience, explicit discrimination based on gender or race is rare in the academia, discrimination based on relationships with senior academics and access to patron-clieant networks is widespread. Very often, it is  the unfairness of selection procedures and the fact that those who are inserted into powerful networks get jobs and fundings while those without a patron do not that cause many young academics to leave Universities. The supposedly “gendered, racialized, classed, heteronormative, and ableist structures and daily practices in the academy” are often the product of clientelism, not of neo-liberalism, which, at least in theory, starts from the presumption that, whoever you are, it is your product, your academic outcome that is evaluated.

The debate on neo-liberalism in the Universities is often Western-centric and anglo-centric. Although its proponents aim at being progressist and at denouncing inequalities, they ignore some of the most striking world inequalities and have little to offer to many academics working at institutions outside the global North.

To some extent, I would even argue that Universities are not liberal enough, especially as far as it concerns internationalization. While there is the assumption that the academic market is a globally open market, very often there are explicit or implicit “protectionist barriers” that curtail opportunities to those who have gained their PhD in countries that are not the centre of the social science production.

The reason why there is not so much outspoken criticism of the neo-patrimonial University compared to criticism of the neo-liberal University is that the victims of a clientelist system cannot speak out. For many of them, complaining would mean violating an implicit social contrat, alienate all possible patrons and in fact ending their academic career. At least, the victims of neo-liberalism can defend themselves and ask for things to improve. And this is one of the reasons why, in the end, I think that the neo-liberal University is less bad than the clientelist one.