Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades: Clashing Cultures? The Neo-Liberal University

Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades: Clashing Cultures? The Neo-Liberal University

In regard to campus personnel, academic capitalism has translated into the rise of “managerial profesionals” and a decrease in nonprofessional employees, owing in part to subcontracting and privatization. Campus managers are exercising growing discretion in regard to the positions, time, and work products of full-time faculty, who are increasingly managed professionals. At the same time, campus managers are expanding the numbers of nonfaculty professionals over which they have substantially greater control than faculty, thus leading us to call them, “managed professionals.” Finally, campus managers are reducing the number of full-time nonprofessional employees through some of the same means private sector managers use—contracting out services (e.g., maintenance) and selling out a range of campus functions (e.g., food service) to large private enterprises.

Restricting Labor’s Power

Despite a managerial discourse of fiscal constraints and the need to reduce labor costs, the combined effects of the above patterns is not only a shifting but an increasing of expenditures on campus employees. The effect of managerial practices is not to reduce labor costs generally, but to reduce the workforce and power of labor that is most resistant to managerial flexibility, and increase the workforce in those areas over which managers have the most discretion.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, as we move to a postindustrial economy, public higher education managers are working out of twentieth century industrial models of labor practices and control. They are seeking to delimit and reduce the rights of employees, justifying their actions in terms of increased cost efficiency and the need to meet consumer and market demands. After a century that saw the establishment of various employee rights (a range of benefits, due process in hiring and firing, full-time positions, job tenure, eight-hour workdays, forty hour work weeks, and increased ownership of the products of one’s labor), academic managers seek to reverse these developments, to varying degrees, for professional and non-professional categories of employees.

In the case of faculty, moving to the market has involved several managerial practices that have reduced the power of full-time faculty on campus and have increased the power of administrators to manage academic work. Full-time faculty positions have stagnated and in many places declined, as campuses increase the hiring of part-time and contingent academic employees. Even in some of the most favored academic units, the proportion of full-time to contingent faculty is declining. In medical schools, for example, the ratio of clinical to basic science faculty has gone from 1.8:1 to 5.5:1. Moreover, invoking pressures for greater accountability and contributing to global economic competitiveness, academic managers have pushed for greater faculty productivity in ways that impact the units in which faculty work and the ways in which faculty spend their time. Few were the academic divisions in the 1990s that did not experienced some form of reorganization. In such restructuring processes, faculty may be consulted, but the guiding hands are those of visible academic managers seeking to more closely align the academy to the not-so-invisible demands of the private corporate marketplace. At the same time, academic managers exert pressure on faculty members to change the way that they spend their time. Faculty are being told to teach more lower-division undergraduate and fewer upper-division and graduate courses; at the graduate level, they are being told to teach in ways that are more responsive and relevant to the marketplace. Similarly, faculty are being encouraged to do more commercially relevant research. Finally, academic managers are laying greater claim to the proceeds of faculty work, extending their ownership rights to various intellectual products, including course materials created by faculty. The promise of material gain, and competition from proprietary and corporate higher education, have led academic managers to emphasize the expanded use of instructional technologies, to offer more courses and programs (especially professional/vocational ones) at a distance or online and to do more and more contract education (as they do more contract research). Thus, academic managers are commodifying education, moving programs and processes to the marketplace more to generate revenue than to meet any clearly defined social or educational need, with the effect of organizing more to retrain people in business (who can pay higher tuitions) than to recruit and retain underserved student populations.

Nonacademic Professionals

In the case of nonfaculty professionals, moving to the market has meant a rapid overall expansion of numbers. Of the three categories of professional employment—administration, faculty, support professionals—the latter category has grown at several times the rate of faculty, where the numbers of full-time employees have declined. Thus, professional employee costs are being shifted rather than contained, with growth in support professionals substituting for growth in faculty (administrative numbers have also increased, but not at the same rate as support professionals).

However, “support” is not an adequate or accurate label for these nonfaculty professionalsbecause they do not simply support, but in some sense supplant faculty. In some cases, such professionals are central to the production process in instruction and research—e.g., in instructional technology, distance education, computer technology and research administration. Thus, they are more part of a new matrix of production in higher education than they are simply support of the “production workers” (faculty). In some cases, support professionals interface with external markets more than they service internal constituencies—e.g., in fund raising (“development”) and technology transfer. Again, then, they are more geared to generating external revenue than to providing internal support. In some other cases, support professionals are part of a growing accountability infrastructure—e.g., in assessment, institutional research, and faculty development. Therefore, although they do not exactly supervise faculty, they also do not work in support of them. As a category of employees, the work of these professionals is quite distinct from the service and interests of faculty. It is quite closely connected to the service and interests of academic managers who are moving public higher education toward corporate markets and corporate models of quality assessment and employee accountability. In their work lives, these employees are very much linked to management (e.g., nine-to five workdays, eleven month contracts; hired, evaluated, and fired by administrators). Yet, in their national organization and work orientation, they are professionals (e.g., professional associations, meetings, and knowledge bases). Thus, the name, “managerial professionals.” There is the potential for these employees, by virtue of their professional orientation, to develop alternative conceptions of where public higher education needs to move; yet many of these professions are linked directly to the current shift toward corporate markets and increased accountability of faculty to measurable outcomes, with little evident commitment to significant social functions of public higher education.

In the case of blue and pink collar employees, university managers are reducing the costs of these categories of labor, even as they shift and expand labor costs in the less unionized categories of technical and nonfaculty professional labor. The principal means of reduction consist of outsourcing and privatization, utilizing corporate strategies to reduce salary and benefits costs by eliminating full-time positions at the bottom of the employment hierarchy. More than just a simple reduction, however, is going on; there are also important shifts and reallocations taking place within this workforce.

Challenges Arising from Restructuring

In conclusion, the current restructuring of public higher education poses significant challenges to labor and to the interests of most people generally. Academic capitalism, as with capitalism generally, reduces the calculus of public interest to the economic health of capitalistic enterprises. Directly connected to managerial privilege, academic capitalists, as with capitalists generally, seek to constrain the security, scope, and autonomy of labor, in the name of revenue generation. Thus, with academic capitalism come increasingly managed professionals, managerial professionals linked to the market and to accountability, and nonprofessional categories of employees who are managed out of existence. The principal challenge to labor is to redefine the public interest, to recapture and advance new definitions that promote various forms of social, political, and economic productivity. In public sector enterprises, where unions are strongest and are growing, it is time for labor to move beyond the wage-and-protection approach to bargaining, so-called old unionism, and to promote a more politically focused and active unionism that speaks to matters of broad public interest. The potential is there. We believe that in public higher education, as in health care, a backlash is building up across the country against the excesses and the social and ethical emptiness of privatization in these socially central institutions. The challenge is for employees of all categories in public higher education not only to resist the current move to corporate markets, and to seek to survive in this context, but to pro-actively work to move the institution in new directions.

This article is excerpted from “The Neo-Liberal University,” published in New Labor Forum, Spring/Summer 2000. Authors Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes are faculty members at the University of Arizona, Center for the Study of Higher Education.