Rethinking the University, Day 1, Part 1

I rode into Minneapolis today on Metro Transit to attend the first day of a conference entitled “Rethinking the University: Labor, Knowledge, and Value.” The conference is a graduate student production that grew out of the AFSCME strike at the University of Minnesota last fall. The strike prompted a lot of questions about the various labor groups that make up the modern university: faculty, students, technicians, clerical workers, etc. so in the best academic tradition the grad students decided to host a conference on the topic and this is what they came up with. Overall the presentations were good.

Panel 1 - Labor in the “Knowledge Factory”

Randal Cohn started off the morning with a paper, “Artificial Discipline,” on the history of design education by listing three broad movements that have characterized design education since the start of the 20th century. Starting with the design history of Nikolaus Pevsner in Pioneers of the Modern Movement, then moving forward to the design method school exemplified by Herbert Simon and Christopher Alexander, and culminating in the design research school. The final part has fully institutionalized itself as a separate academic program, with the attendant research program and a distinct mode of inquiry. Cohn asked where these developments have left art/design education in the university. The art/design distinction naturalizes the scientific authority of design education over artistic inquiry and leaves us asking whether art has been left behind, and feminized, as the creation of beauty and wonder.

Lisa Disch asked us to “Rethink the place of politically committed academic labor in the corporate university.” She outlined the typical progressive academic labor curve started by committed students and faculty. Establish an academic program, then a get greater legitimacy through an official department, create academic journals around progressive topics, form professional associations, etc. But who does the work to get these programs started? Most of the time it is uncompensated labor that is work beyond the normal burdens of faculty and students. And yet this labor is often appropriated by management/administrations to promote the diversity of a school or some other marketing program. Furthermore, these new fields are institutionalized on unequal grounds from programs that are perceived to be financially useful to the university. There is a de facto separation between well-funded, private sectors of the university and underfunded, progressive/public sectors. So what should we do? We could abandon the uncompensated labor behind these causes as was done with the advanced feminist study program at the UofM or we can continue to raise questions from within the university.

Barb Winkler “Laboring in the Knowledge Factory” described her experiences at South Oregon University in the women’s studies department. In the 1970s and 1980s the problem was legitimizing women’s studies as a scholarly activity. Now the challenge from administrations is to be more profitable, and entrepreneurial. Over the last year she has been working on a program to show the value of women’s studies to the administration of her school by bringing community members together for a conference/review of women’s studies. Again this work is largely uncompensated by the administration and carried out during her sabbatical.

Frank Donoghue concluded the first panel with “Against Publication,” which I thought was the most interesting paper of the panel. According to Donoghue and drawing on the recent report of the MLA about tenure, the current academic publishing system has gone crazy. Since 1968 the number of institutions that have ranked publication as central for hiring and tenure decisions has doubled. The MLA links this to the labor shortages of the 1970s; publication was an easy metric to measure, seemingly objective, and easily incorporated into reports and tenure decisions. Over the same time period the university press has been in serious decline. The result is a discipline that only has the time to read monographs in order to evaluate hiring, and tenure. The abundance of publication encourages all of us to read far more narrowly than we would like. A third factor, the contraction of library budgets, may make the entire system unsustainable. We need to rethink what authorship means to us. I particularly enjoyed his quote from a university president around 1910 that said “scholarship [publication] was a professors private endeavor” and shouldn’t be managed/considered by the university.

Panel 2 - Fictions of Autonomy

Kathleen McConnell introduced us to “Advanced Fantasy, a brief history of free universities.” In 1971 there were approximately 110 free universities, on average they had been in existence for 2.5 years. A few years later most of them were gone. Lichtman (sp?) characterized the content of these schools as one-half “craft” work, one-quarter academic, and one-quarter “head trips.” They free universities appealed to students desire for self-discover and self-invention. The neoliberal university coopted many of the free university inventions, including some of the radical academic programs such as gay or women’s studies, but also the rhetoric of education as a form of self-discovery. Education was, and still is, conceived as a form of personal enlightenment. Left behind, or ignored, were the questions of public goods and community. These schools were reluctant to impose problems of communal activity on their students because it was all about freedom. If we replicate any of these experiments today we may have to change this aversion to imposition.

Chris Roberts talked about “The university as temple of truth and Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation.’” For Weber, writing at the end of WW1, the state was no longer adequate as a support for research or education, a new justification for science needed to be found. The keys to this new alignment were objective scholarship and political non-alignment. Weber didn’t want science to be sucked back into the disastrous passions that had led to World War

  1. He called for an ascetic rejection of the outside world with the goal of keeping the lecture hall a sacred space, like a temple. The result has been the skepticism of modern scholarship that studies the beliefs of people outside the academy, and, at the same time, claims to not partake of those beliefs.

Eli Thokelson asked about the “Will to knowledge and the university.” Where did the university come from? How do we reconcile the contradictory visions of the university as a reproducer of hegemonic culture and the site of intense cultural protest? Today we have committed to a fantasy of the university as a repository of all human knowledge. Knowledge is reified and commodified in the knowledge economy, but it is also unfinishable. There are three categories of definition of the university: functional - the university commodifies knowledge, maintains social class; nominalist - the university is a heterogeneous collection of unrelated departments kept together only by its name as an institution; and idealist - a realization of universal knowledge.

Ingo Schmidt concluded the morning sessions with “Manufacturing Capital Fetishism” which was basically an attempt to understand why people continue to support neoliberalism when it has no benefit to them. Economics has become the new religion of the contemporary world. Self-fulfillment has been reconceptualized as economic fulfillment and consumption. Class has been unmade or discarded throughout the world. And the Chicago Boyz, in economics, have convinced university management that economic decisions are paramount.