Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the empty university

I'm reading a book by a guy named Bill Readings, called The University in Ruins, published in 1996. It's the book I've been waiting for, examining the contemporary situation of universities, basically through a Situationist lens, with a good dose of Lyotard. I’m amazed that this book is 15 years old, and yet none of the current discussion of university crisis in the US refers to it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be amazed, since this book makes almost all of the current debate absolutely pointless.

A key term for discussing universities in the late 1990s was excellence. It is, as Readings explains and illustrates, an entirely empty term. Excellence is not a criterion, has no referent, and is not a unit of measure. It does not define an ambition or an achievement. It is not ideological, because it does not name what sorts of things should be said or done (and what should not be said or done). It is distinctly anti-cultural, because it refutes any reference of the activities of universities to culture or nationality.

The term gained its currency because universities, especially in the United States, are now bureaucratic corporations, and are expected to operate entirely as bureaucratic corporations. The best analogy, he says, is to compare contemporary universities to the National Basketball Association. The NBA organizes activities that are entirely self-referential. Although fans of the sport attach themselves to particular teams and players, and provide financial support for the activities the NBA organizes, as he says, the won-loss record of the Philadelphia 76ers has nothing to do with the city of Philadelphia. Universities, like sports teams, are branded enterprises whose sole purpose is to get consumers to give them money because of their brand name and the consumers’ desire to associate with the brand name. There is, otherwise, at present no other purpose of universities.

What the use of excellence to name the activities of universities achieves is provide a bureaucratic rationale for managerial decisions. Since it is precisely not a criterion for judgment, but an empty qualifier, it can be used rhetorically in any situation to provide what looks like a justification for any decision. Since universities have no purpose, every managerial decision is essentially an arbitrary exercise of power – the power of the administrator (as Readings says, in the contemporary university the major figures are the presidents and provosts), or of market capitalism.

We’re hearing less about excellence these days, for which I’m grateful, because it had long ago lost its amusement for me (when Marvalene Hughes was president, she could almost literally not utter a single sentence without saying it. She also never figured out who I was, despite seeing me in Academic Senate meetings for several years). The word that seems to be replacing excellence is the equally empty success, especially in the phrase student success.

All of this is making me want to write something called, approximately, “A Lousy Essay on Student Failure.” It’d be tongue-in-cheek, you see.

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