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Academentia: Our universities are being strangled by managerial bureaucracy — we must return to the academy

Academentia: Our universities are being strangled by managerial bureaucracy — we must return to the academy
Illustrative image | Sources: EPA / Nic Bothma | Adobe Stock

My vision for the university is where faculties again become self-governing and self-propelled, where quality is valued over quantity, and where students engage with the best professors available. Too much policy and rulemaking are conceptually restricting, if administratively necessary in a litigious society.

Keyan G Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg. This is an edited version of his remarks at the launch of his book, Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Managerialism and Academentia, on Thursday 6 May 2021.

“In today’s universities, massive power has been centralised in the hands of managers and the so-called ‘Executive’… The devastating fire at the University of Cape Town on 18 April 2021 raises questions about the character and governance of South African universities.”
So wrote Jeremy Seekings in Daily Maverick of 28 April 2021.

This is the ravaged environment within which Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia is being launched.

Contemporary Campus Life’s analysis of managerialism as a cause of academentia is framed by exigencies imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. My argument is that the virus has brought about an ecological correction that affects all human and animal kinds, one that management (as distinct from management theory) can learn from.

My satirical critique of market-driven neoliberalism as applied to institutions is offered as a metaphor to analyse the excesses, contradictions and obstructions in contemporary university governance. Such governance is examined via the quirks of unresponsive administrative systems. These affect lived relations within the academy, in teaching and research practice, science and reasoning. I argue, as does Seekings, that these have life-threatening implications. The academy is not a necessarily safe space.

My metaphorical style is the form of the griot (the African oral storyteller). My prime question asks why the heady aspirations of the new beginning heralded by 1994 permitted our entrapment within new soulless bureaucratic structures. Institutions, after all, are aggregates of people, of ourselves. So why have we found ourselves re-imprisoned?

Conventional inquiry falters in the era of fake news and sham science. Inquiry is best leveraged, says Mike Chapman in the book’s preface, with the weapons of the satirist — irony, exaggeration, ridicule and humour. These literary techniques are deployed as a reminder that the mind-numbing controls of tick-boxing ultimately do not defeat human resilience, imagination, or the antidote of laughter. Bitter laughter is the critical role delivered by newspaper cartoonists, as discussed in one chapter.

The book exposes anti-democratic tendencies, and questions anti-humanist bureaucracies. It identifies what needs to be done when knowledge is packaged as information rendered transparent to the metaphysics of the market.

In addition, in light of killer viruses like Covid-19, the book also examines cultures that kill, and why this is so. The study concludes on a positive note about new ways of doing things.

Our mass-based universities — in trying to operate within what students call administrative justice — have overregulated the academy. This has resulted in the structural violence of the new managerialism that constitutes academics as factory workers and students as clients.

On sending a picture of the book’s cover to anthropologist David Coplan, who is cited in it, his response was “I see you’ve turned your peeves into a rock ’em exposé; good for you.” David was in hospital with the dreaded Covid-19. I responded: “Really sorry to hear that you have been incarcerated in that other Foucaultian prison, the hospital, as I deal with my own institution’s self-styled, new, improved, upgraded performance management system (PMS) that was advertised like Smarties on every internal email transmitted.”

Another senior academic complained about the sudden deluge of work that has made him grumpy. He was looking forward to retirement in 10 months and 12 days. Well, the book has a section on “Grumpy Studies”, arising out of these kinds of experiences.     

On reading the blurbs on the back cover, my previous student, now my head of department (HOD), mischievously commented on Jonathan Jansen’s blurb, “we need to get this printed on a mug, maybe a few T-shirts…?” In fact, such a T-shirt had been given to me by my School on the publication of my previous irreverent book, “Making Sense of Research”. So, another one would be par for the course while students drink from the mug of research trivia. Another wrote tongue-in-cheek: “I do hope you’ll raise the issue around the PMS (performance management systems) (good acronym).”

To which David replied, “How did we get along all this time without personal minders?” A law professor wrote, “I follow two Twitter accounts, one satirical of university rankings, called ‘university wankings’ and another called ‘Associate Deans’ (‘Making fun of middle management’).”

A Dutch professor working in the US observed of the book: “Looks great, managerialism, audit culture, academic productivity squeeze. Very British too. At University of California plenty bureaucracy, rules galore. You learn to ignore it. Is actually peanuts compared to society here overall. Quite mad.”

We are not alone.

Now, to the costs of managerialism:

My key conceptual source is derived from TL Martin’s Malice in Blunderland. His compendium offers pithy statements by economists, managers and academic administrators about the ways through which we always mess things up just when things are going right.

This postmodern theorist’s examples explain the illogicality of management systems, which he locates in the realm of blunderland. Martin’s book assisted me in applying all those pithy observations that describe why things always go wrong, as in the revealing laws devised by Murphy, Parkinson, and Peter, that no one pays any attention to anymore. So, in our dementia, we keep making the same errors over and over again, no matter the consequences. The psychological result is academentia, and the loss of our ability to work efficiently and ensure campus safety. 

My exorcism of this state of mind is to write about it in a satirical style.

In calculating the annual cost of PMS, let’s take a hypothetical university that employs 5,000 academic, administrative and support staff.

My calculation is 5,000 staff x one hour’s PMS training = 5,000 hours consumed on just one day of expensive Zoom use. Add to this perhaps another 5,000 hours in PMS consultation with ones’ line managers, twice yearly, plus another 20,000 hours filling in the form twice annually. All this just to persuade folks to do their day jobs, though most top academics and senior administrators work after hours also, overtime not compensated for.

So, my response to David Coplan, happy in his non-PMS sequestration is, do enjoy your retirement. And, do keep the doctors busy so that they can fill in their own PMS forms and charge you (or your medical aid) to tick all those boxes, while actual patients are screaming for attention. 

My point is this: institutions everywhere are over-bureaucratising. While the minority percentage of dead ducks who consume institutional resources on the employment bus will always be with us — like death and taxes — the issue is how to retain the energy and commitment of the majority of efficiently performing staff. Their undoubted productivity is interrupted by these kinds of so-called talent management impositions. Measuring efficiency is not going to make the underperforming ducks any more productive, as form filling becomes thereby a core key performance indicator that places values on the measuring activity itself, rather than the real work that most of us want to do.

The issue is what to do with the lame ducks on the faculty bus who will always find ways of evading due diligence no matter how many forms everyone is required to fill in.

There simply has to be a better way.

And there are, but that requires universities to be managed as dynamic organisms rather than like cybernetic machines.   

The reviewers and commissioning editors through which this book passed described it as “not scholarly”. But what is scholarly? Thousands of studies have been published on what makes good management practice. Though written by eminent professors and published in scholarly journals, they are largely ignored by the universities that employ them. They are rewarded for their publication productivity, but not their insights. Ignoring their homegrown talent, the bean counters rely on the advice of scorched earth private consultancies whose tick boxes are contributing to the destruction of the whole planet. Covid-19 is not an aberration; it will become the norm, as the causes of viruses are not being addressed, only the symptoms.

This is the age of denialism and anti-vaxxers. Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS denialism was the start of a global semantic pandemic given teeth by superstitious pot-banging presidents across the world. They behave like snake oil salesmen of old, and their sycophants, like at Jonestown, are dutifully following them in the hundreds of thousands, often to their own deaths, still disbelieving that they had contracted the dreaded Covid-19 virus blamed on everything but wet markets. Like during the Aids pandemic, the death industry never had it so good, productivity is now measured by coffins manufactured.

But the PMS continues.

OK, so what’s the solution? Well, recently perusing the shelves of a tented Kalahari Lodge lounge overlooking a huge pan, I found Ricardo Semler’s book, Maverick. He explains how his Brazilian company, Semco, evades blundering. He emphasises its humanistic success, decentrally managed as an adhocracy, a flexible, adaptable and informal form of organisation constituted of specialised multidisciplinary teams grouped by function. Adhocracies discourage pompous and self-serving “All protocols observed” (p)syc(h)ophantic practices so beloved by some of our self-absorbed politicians.

On the same dusty shelf was Jonathan Culler’s book, On De-construction. Where the Brazilian CEO was dumping over-regulation for flexibility, productivity and job satisfaction, meshed with democratised production units, deconstruction is still deconstructing structure only in literary texts. Culler’s method needs to be extended to contexts like how to enable adhocracies on the factory floor — and in academia. The punitive and energy-sapping neoliberal conditions under which everyone is forced to work while accounting for every second and toilet break, notwithstanding family and other responsibilities, is the ally of viral pandemics. Of course, such a non-structure has to negotiate structures, corruption, and pure bloody-mindedness — of which there is no global shortage.

Academentia includes the annual campus burning orgy, the NSFAS debacles, entitlement and the “Blade must fall” chants.  The way Semco built its new management style wasn’t based on high theory, but in opposition to Taylorism and Fordism. It started from the bottom, developing theory from practices implemented by workers themselves in the firm’s factories. This means it’s not a static or dogmatic conveyer-belt methodology, but a lived framework that is continuously organically renewed. This dynamic learning offers an intercultural kaleidoscope of practices geared to empowering the collective.

Semler writes that technology has simply accelerated our malfunctions and increased the intensity of our miscommunication. Technology changes overnight, but mentality takes generations of blundering to alter. Business people forget their own identities and become what they invoice. Universities similarly find identity in their international rankings, fundraising and publication audits.  

My vision for the university is where faculties again become self-governing and self-propelled, where quality is valued over quantity, and where students engage with the best professors available. Too much policy and ruling-making are conceptually restricting, if administratively necessary in a litigious society. We need to realise that computers are unable to rectify mismanagement; they often create a polluting electronic tsunami of more confusion.

What to do with those recalcitrants on the bus is the real issue. This is the minority wagging the productive majority. Such passengers, who are alert to the exploitable contradictions, have worked out that PMS democratises towards the lowest common denominator.

But this does not have to be. Our real challenge in overcoming academentia, dis-economies and inflexibility, will occur with the restoration of democracy, collective accountability and creativity. Productive academics need time to think, read and write (in addition to advising on fire prevention, human relations and crowd control). Academics work best in adhocracies, uninterrupted by tick-box management and surveillance systems.  

What would best swing quality upwards? The answer, performance management systems designed by academics themselves would recognise and measure the quality of what we actually do. No fires or chants would be necessary. DM

Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Managerialism and Academentia (HSRC Press, 2021) is available at Exclusive Books and via Loot, and is distributed by Blue Weaver, Cape Town: [email protected]

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