05 February 2016

Universities are not a democracy

A while ago, I was attending meetings with a new executive group tasked with consulting, proposing, communicating and managing a university-wide change plan.

So far these meetings have revealed that people from the marketing profession dominate the change management group, and their language and approach presents some difficulties to people who believe a university is (historically perhaps) anchored in the idea of a "social contract"; it being a public good, an arm of the Fourth Estate, a collegiate of intellectuals... etc. That conservative view seems antagonistic toward the relatively recent neoliberal ideas that give rise to the likes of powerfully resourced marketing departments in universities - running with the assumption that comodification of knowledge, measurement of practice, academic capitalism and economic rationalism more broadly, are appropriate ways to conceive of and direct practice within a university.

I have tried to avoid speaking into these tensions at such meetings, but when the group leaders project such unswerving confidence in themselves, without so much as an acknowledgement of other ways of knowing and doing, I feel it necessary to at least hint at the tension for them.

So I asked about the #shapermit campaign - a considerable effort on the part of the University executive, to "crowdsource" comments, feedback and suggestions toward forming a new strategic plan.

When the resulting first draft plan was put out, I did a simple analysis of the contributions made to the #shapermit hashtag and the resulting draft and final Strategic Plan. Predictably there were two things observable:

  1. The apparent effort to facilitate public deliberation online had failed
  2. Of the few counts where contributions of substance were made, they did not receive a public response and were not reflected in the strategic plan.

A snapshot of the use of the #shapermit hashtag in Twitter between August and September 2015 (around the time the draft strategic plan was distributed)
With the engagement level in #shapermit campaign in doubt, I ran a word search over the draft and final plan, looking for keywords for the the world I live in:

  • Open Education: 0
  • Open Academic: 0
  • Open: 9 (but no substance)
  • Online: 2 (no substance)
  • Internet: 0
  • Inequality: 0
  • Equality: 0
  • Equity: 0
  • Indigenous: 2 (Our approach includes implementing learning and teaching of Indigenous Knowledge systems.)
  • divestrmit: 0
  • occupy: 0
  • student debt: 0
  • Youtube: 0
  • Google: 0 
  • Blackboard: 0 
  • LMS: 0

Trying a few keywords that potentially bridge some of my world:

  • Digital: 27 ("We fully embrace the digital world in all its dimensions and possibilities.")
  • Innovation: 31 ("We are champions of innovation and inclusion.")

It's an interesting way to read a strategic plan - by word search. I think it helps avoid being lulled into its constructed narrative, allowing you to jump around the decontextualised soundbites - and see them in a different light and with different (possibly more honest) meaning.

Despite assurances that research to inform the plan had been done, including an ethnographic study (not seen, not published, not reviewed) I've so far concluded that the group in charge of forming the plan has, for various reasons, been disconnected from the world I work in. The online consultation process of #shapermit did not get a quantitative response; and the quality reveals a concerning absence of issues and ideas that are important to me. There are two ways of reading this it would seem: my world has diminished or the university world is not my world. To be honest, senior executives and their teams have seemed very distant to the things my peers, friends and family hold to be important. There are many reasons, but three big ones:

1. Severe workforce casualisation (now approaching 70%) and extreme wage disparity (now at 1:20) not accounting for secretive executive salaries
2. A deep distrust for rotating Vice Chancellors and their consultants borne out of their direct involvement in the first issue over the decades, and their lord-like status over the resources of a university
3. Dense hierarchies and systems all with mixed, conflicting and hidden agendas

The meeting where I was raising some of this questioning of #shapermit started getting warm, and the last serious word said before we defused the situation with pleasantries was from one of the marketing people:

"A university is not a democracy, you may like it to be, but it's not. There is a senior executive that makes decisions and forms plans. Our [your] job is to implement those plans".

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