Abuse of Power and Neoliberal Academia

As I follow the wave of #MeToo stories while hoping the movement is going to spill over to higher education, I find myself reflecting on the larger issue of the different forms in which power is abused in academia. Academia has changed quite radically in the last thirty years. What is the relationship between the reality of abusive behavior, be it sexual or not, and the emergence of the neoliberal university?

Abuse of power is above all related to power structures. The difference between earlier times and now is probably not the amount of power that organizes academia and that can, and will, be abused. The difference is how that power operates and how it manifests itself. In a system in which the (permanent) academic staff and above all the full professors have all the power, we can expect that the abuse will mostly manifest itself from, and around, these positions. The more hierarchical the organization, the clearer the toxic effects. You could call this the feudal-patriarchal model. Women and people of color were (and are) most exposed to these effects simply because their very presence challenges the unspoken and often unconscious race, class and gender logic of privilege and power that has been woven into these institutions of higher learning throughout centuries.

With the more recent economization of universities and the new public management, these older structures were weakened but did not disappear completely, the power and status of the full professor/chair is not completely broken. This old structure was merely superimposed by a new one: the power of managers, of metrics, of competition culture. This is the neoliberal model. It has the most severe effects on those without permanent positions who now have to juggle both the pitiless and alienating demands of output, impact, exploitative teaching conditions and the competition for research money. Yet, they also still have to deal with the old hierarchies because they still depend on those full professors who will have major influence on decisions about permanent faculty positions and who are needed to write letters of recommendation that might open other doors.

Neoliberal metric management plays a role here not only because it is one factor pushing for the organization’s “flexibility” in the form of more short-time contracts. It also plays a role because it equally affects the experience of the permanent staff and produces a pervasive feeling of insecurity that can, and will, be passed on to the lower level. Managers have the possibility to bully the permanent staff and full professors. Full professors can now also use the metric system and audit culture to intimidate those below them. There is a whole new world of instruments to put people down and tell them they are not good enough and threaten them if they don’t comply with the impossible metrics. Everything that is counted can be used and abused against everyone.

The thing is, however, that the culture that this kind of management produces has an abusive edge even when there is no clear abuse. It incites a toxic system, a pitiless winner or loser mentality. It colonizes all our minds. As the authors of an article about slow scholarship have put it: “Counting culture leads to intense, insidious forms of institutional shaming, subject-making, and self-surveillance.”

In the old days, especially as a woman or belonging to a minority, there was a big risk that your academic career, often even after achieving the level of full professor, depended on bullies and abusers (and unfortunately, there still is). You could also, especially if you were a white middle class man, be lucky and make your way being supported by powerful academics who acted like decent human beings. The benevolent patriarch, secure in his position, could hold a hand above you and give you the space you need to thrive and eventually find your way. Nowadays, even the (benevolent) patriarch often won’t be able to circumvent the negative effects on his self-understanding of a metric system that diffuses a permanent threat of insecurity and “not good enough”. The biologist Stefan Grimm’s suicide as a reaction to an abusive management system in the UK illustrates this point vividly.

Of course, there is still room for human decency in academia, but it is a struggle to keep that in place and not let it be completely swallowed by the pressures of the neoliberal system. The inherently abusive character of this system will tend to work itself through the organization from top to bottom with the most severe effects always reaching those on the bottom of the hierarchy, those struggling for their position, with women and other minorities having to deal with the biggest share of the poison. Recently, Ali Colleen Neff has written an impressive and heartbreaking account of the common intersection of old and new forms of power and abuse for those struggling to find their place.

What today’s diverse academic communities and increasingly diverse student bodies need more than ever are working conditions that encourage scholarly cooperation as well as university education understood as “the practice of freedom” (bell hooks), a practice of mutual respect, curiosity and understanding in order to enable vigorous, open-minded and often uncomfortable academic debates about the most pressing problems of today’s societies. The neoliberal model of academia, unfortunately, is not fit to provide such a place. Its main characteristics rather invite and enforce the opposite: a culture of competition, fear, self-promotion and bullying.


One thought on “Abuse of Power and Neoliberal Academia

  1. Dear Natalie,
    This post and your earlier one in Folia kept me thinking. Too often people abusing their position and therefore the power attached to it, get a way with their behaviour. Although I certainly can see that the neoliberal system isn’t part of the solution, I am also hesitant to frame the abuse of power mainly from this perspective because it suggests that the problem can be solved best by changing the system. Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of getting rid of neoliberal (management) politics in universities and elsewhere, but a more concrete solution lies with our selves. We should all be open to “reading” the signs of power abuse and talk about it with our peers, full professors (who should also discuss it with other full professors), heads of departments, deans, works council (OR/COR), etc.

    I am aware that we can debate about what “abuse of power” exactly is, and that some positions come with certain rights as the result of hierarchy. But this doesn’t mean that we should look away when we suspect that people are abusing their power. To me this also means that we should STOP using the following responses/arguments when we assume and even know that someone is abusing his/her power:

    – his/her research is excellent so we (the department, the university) just need to put up with it (saying: it’s your problem that he/she bullies you, not ours).
    – it’s so difficult to fire people working in academia/ I’ve never seen any professor getting sacked, it’s no use trying to make a case (saying again, this is not really my problem and I am not going to spend time on this).
    – he/she has always been that way (basically saying: so there’s nothing we can do about it and there’s no point in making a complaint).
    – he/she does always gets what he/she wants (saying: he/she is totally intimidating others, but he/she can do so because he/she is brilliant).

    To end on a positive note. Fighting power abuse means that we would work towards a sense of academic community where there is a strong feeling that we do things together in a collegial atmosphere without any place for bullies.


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