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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2002

Corporate U. Thrives on Alienated Scholars

Alison Hearn
I was on faculty at Trent University during the recent struggles there. These struggles concerned the dismantling of Trent's college system, and, more significantly, the role of external corporate and political interests in university governance. As members of CAUT no doubt know, after a protracted court battle, Trent's bicameral system of governance was effectively nullified. (See "Trent Appeal Court Dissent Highlights Threat to Autonomy" by Donald Theall, Bulletin, December 2001.)

Since September 2001 I have been a faculty member at a large, private university in Boston, Massachusetts, where debate about university governance doesn't exist. I have gone, quite simply, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

My new university is a corporation plain and simple. A board of 22 "executives" and the president make all major decisions. There are at least 28 deans and associate deans, the majority of whom are professional administrators, not academics. Mid-level administrators are thick on the ground.

The faculty senate has ample representation for administrators, but none for students or staff. It is advisory to the president only. Individual faculty members are independent contractors, negotiating their own "deals." Pay deferential between faculty members of the same rank can easily range into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The university administration just launched a $3-million promotional campaign, which includes a university-sponsored "brainteaser" to be featured at every Red Sox game, while college faculty council meetings are regularly cancelled because there's "nothing to talk about."

The fact that the corporate/market model has replaced traditional forms of university governance in the U.S. and Canada is indisputable and alarming. But the lack of substantive debate about this fact among members of the professoriate is more alarming still.

At Trent, and other universities in Canada and the U.S., students have put themselves on the line, demanding the chance to participate meaningfully in debates about the governance of their institution. But those who should be the most concerned about these issues - my colleagues in the professoriate - are, for the most part, eerily silent on the matter.

When pressed, I have found my Canadian and American colleagues begrudgingly articulate a response to these issues which runs something like this: "I don't really care who is running the show, or what the university signifies in the outside world, as long as I get paid and left to do my research and scholarship in peace."

But where is the "scholarship" in this position? To scholars, intellectuals, learned teachers, cultural workers, union members, knowledge professionals, technicians - no matter the rubric - I ask: For whom do you work? To what ideals do you profess loyalty? What is the nature of your obligation toward the university administration and the broader political and cultural discourses about the university? What is the nature of your obligation to your students? And, finally, what is the nature of your obligation to each other?

There is no doubt that answers to these questions are hard to think through. Discourses about the university are crosscut with different agendas and assumptions these days. The corporate discourses of bureaucratic efficiency, service provision, excellence and accountability are ascendant and lie uncomfortably on top of older, residual discourses of the university as civilizing force, reasonable end in itself, and producer of an informed and responsible citizenry.

Nowadays when we ask such things as 'what is the university?' we often find ourselves up against the unspeakable, outside of discourse. At best, we navigate in between residual and emergent points of view, often waging battles at cross-purposes in different languages about what we do and who we are.

In the age of the corporate university, members of the professoriate find themselves cast, at best, as middle-management executives, or, at worst, simple salesmen or technicians hawking the wares of the knowledge industry. And yet very little writing about the nature of the contemporary scholar or intellectual formulates an understanding of him/her as a specific variety of thinker and teacher - partially defined by and embedded within very determinate, and almost exclusively externally defined, institutional parameters.

Can it be that members of the professoriate feel they are immune to the determinations of their context?

Most work on the professoriate focuses on our peculiar psychological propensities. The scholar is the ultimate isolated individual: alienated, anti-social, self-obsessed, preoccupied, lofty, monk-like and anxious. Reined in by the academy we become elitist, ambitious, cutthroat, petty, territorial, judgmental, condescending, meanspirited, aggressive - not to mention paranoid, with persecution complexes.

We behave badly, aggressively, hierarchically, brutally, unfeelingly. We develop infantile and un-thought-through assumptions, for example: "those who are good teachers are lightweights because they clearly enjoy being around people" or "those who publish the most are heavyweights because they publish the most."

True scholars are in pursuit of the "life of the mind" and are "committed to the work." More than anything, members of the professoriate seem to be invested in their own singularity as scholars. David Damrosch has called this "the archaic hyperindividualism of our prevailing academic ethos."

Stanley Fish, in his essay "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," writes of the professoriate's predilection for self-abnegation. Academics suffer through the indignities of no money, little recognition, no resources or outside support, social marginalization and material deprivation, because we like it. It is in the suffering, Fish argues, that we can effectively mark ourselves off from the outside world, specifically, our own loathed administrators and the world of business. Within the psychic economy of the academy, Fish argues, "oppression is the sign of virtue."

The professoriate is defined by its willful masochism, its purposeful embrace of pain and marginal status. This results in strange behavioral inversions whereby what would be seen as pettiness and bad behavior in any other context gets excused as mere eccentricity, or as the inevitable by-product of a burdensomely brilliant mind.

This taken-for-granted "hyperindividualism" also fuels the practices of combat and competition between scholars, disciplines and faculties. Damrosch argues that, through our graduate teaching and the socializing rigors of graduate school, we select for and happily propagate these twined attributes of alienation and aggression. We cling to these legitimating notions of singularity, separateness and isolation. We moan about having to overcome our differences, about having to tolerate people we neither respect nor like, in order to work together in departments or disciplines.

It is odd that, given the impact of deconstruction and post-structuralism on the academy during the past two decades, the ideology of the isolated and alienated professor/scholar remains, for the most part, unexamined. Why is this so? Perhaps because this ideology protects us from recognizing the degree to which we are made by the institutions we occupy.

We might have to admit that we are really just people who get paid to think for a living, and cop to the fact that we occupy, what Stanley Aronowitz has called, "the last good job in America." And, we might have to confront the claims of people outside the academy who see us as "slackers-in-residence," or as overpaid members of the "loafing class."

The fact remains that dominant external interests have always played a determining role inside the university. Our desires and our needs, as members of the professoriate, are mediated, and, in many ways, defined by the institution that provides for our general cultural legitimacy, not to mention our livelihood. We ignore the implications of these determinations at our peril.

The ideology of the isolated, alienated scholar covers a multitude of sins. Most notably it serves to protect many in the professoriate from addressing and, most important, from defining their obligation to each other, their students, and staff. By "obligation" I do not mean "accountability" in the corporate sense, nor do I intend it in a legal or contractual sense.

Rather, I mean obligation in an open-ended communitarian sense. This is a notion of obligation that recognizes, both the impossibility of complete individual subjective freedom, and the impossibility of full and final mastery of the networks of obligation in which we are enmeshed. Simply, it posits that we are always, already "obliged." The notion of obligation is foundational to the idea of the university, to a kind of community that never finally and fully identifies with a determinate set of values or definitions, but one that is involved only in an ongoing, and necessarily fractious, state of questioning and becoming.

In its earliest incarnations the university involved thinking and learning in groups, which would come together and come apart, always and necessarily provisional and temporary. The notion of the isolated scholar/teacher is a fairly recent product of the reformed research university which emerged in the later half of the 19th century. Since that time, and certainly nowadays, ideals of collegiality and reciprocity, utopian notions that thinking together can, as Lauren Berlant has said, "build worlds and institutions," claims that the university involves processes of both making common and making dissent, appear very rarely.

I join with Bill Readings in a call for a kind of institutional pragmatism: "This pragmatism recognizes that thought begins where we are and does away with alibis." We must cease justifying our practices "in the name of an idea 'from elsewhere'," especially when this "idea" excuses us from working to define the nature of our responsibilities to each other, our students and staff.

Caught inside the discourse of the corporate university, its academic "star system," its technophilic drive towards the virtual classroom, its incessant calls for strategic alliances with the private sector, members of the professoriate risk losing even the option to discuss academic freedom. We must renew, with vigor and commitment, debate about the nature and relevance of the university as a cultural site in the age of transnational corporate dominance.

Surely it is only in the consideration of our mutual obligation and our obligation to our students and staff that we might begin this debate, and, thereby, come to fruitfully challenge the unwanted meanings proffered by the model of the corporate university. As long as members of the professoriate invest in the ideology of the alienated scholar, autonomous from his institutional context, we unwittingly legitimate the foreclosure of meaningful discussion about the idea of the university itself. In so doing we tacitly capitulate to logics not our own. If we are in this together, what do we owe each other?


Aronowitz, Stanley. (2001) The Last Good Job in America: Work and Education in the New Global Technoculture. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield.

Berlant, Lauren, with Andrew Hoberek. (2001) "Citizen Berlant: An Interview with Lauren Berlant," Minnesota Review #52-54: 127-140

Damrosch, David. (1995) We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Fish, Stanley. (1994) "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, pp. 273-279. New York: Oxford University Press.

Readings, Bill. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Alison Hearn is currently a tenure-track assistant professor in communication studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.