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Book review / Speaking of universities

Book review / Speaking of universities

Stefan Collini.
Verso Books, 2017; 298 pp;
ISBN: 978-1-78663-139-8.

by Charles Reeve

“Imagine the Possibilities,” declared my clothes dryer’s manual. I would have been baffled (what flights of imagination might a dryer inspire?) but for artist Cary Young’s video Product Recall, a meditation on imagination’s ubiquity — and thus banality — as corporate branding trope: General Electric’s “Imagination at Work,” or “Imagination is Everything,” the motto of my institution, OCAD University. Not that Young’s video includes OCAD, but how sad that the country’s oldest and largest art and design school slots neatly into such clichéd corporate branding. Even sadder, though, such flatfootedness is completely predictable, as this important, if somewhat frustrating, book shows.

Certainly, as Collini documents, academics have worried from day one about keeping scholarship unfettered. And the conception of universities as vocational training grounds has its own legacy, as when tertiary education prepared young people for careers in civil service or the Church. But things have changed. If, for centuries, spiritual reflection grounded some of humanity’s deepest thinking — Saint Augustine, Immanuel Kant — university as career preparation today eschews such aspiration. As Alex Usher suggests, universities have embraced the role of middle-management training that industry foisted upon them when it decimated that stratum and the mentoring it provided, turning education into all vocation and no avocation.

A voluminous literature surrounds this shift, every proponent of purportedly relentless realism countered by defenders of “independent thinking and expression.” Collini himself has said much on this topic although, as his earlier book What Are Universities For? shows, what universities are for troubles him less than what they are not for: as in, they are not for benefitting shareholders by selling curricula that are an education in name only at inflated prices to a desperate public.

Speaking of Universities builds on this discussion by addressing a new ideological turn, akin to (and linked with) Marga­ret Thatcher’s comment that her greatest achievement as Britain’s prime minister was New Labour — her point being that her re-fashioning of the political landscape forced capitalism’s critics to think within capitalism’s confines instead of envisaging alternatives. Collini sees a similar shift in the pushback against the neo­liberalisation of universities: as we seek to resist the evisceration of post-secon­dary education proposed by Robert Dickeson et al. and the corrosion of democracy that Simon Marginson and others argue accom­panies it, we cast our resistance in that ideology’s terms. Thus, when criticizing attempts to assess universities by measuring research productivity or teaching outcomes, we propose different “metrics” rather than insisting that what matters most about universities isn’t measurable. Listen closely when next discussing this topic with colleagues and see if someone doesn’t suggest “alternative metrics” within three minutes.

Still, “metrics” remain sufficiently un-familiar that their mention catches at least some peoples’ attention. However, other neoliberal watchwords have slipped smoothly into academia. “Centres” and “programs” have replaced departments and “collaboration” has displaced cooperation, in every case signalling the ascendance of problem-focused research ini­ti­atives attached to discrete, limited-term funding streams and clear metrics against which to measure return-on-investment — rather than basic scholarship driven by casual, unquantifiable intellectual exchange. That is, none of these distinctions is merely semantic: each has real-world implications. So we must increase the care with which we choose our words when speaking of universities.

That can’t be enough, however, and Collini’s discussion stops too soon, lacking suggestions about what’s next: lobbying politicians, commandeering senates, animating unions, or supporting colleagues who try to effect palace coups by moving into administration. But if we criticise without proposing and enacting solutions, then nothing changes. We’ll continue to be governed by costly administrators who find mottos like “Imagination is Everything” attention-getting, even though Googling the phrase leads to hundreds of websites of “inspiring quotations” (or, worse, “inspiring quotes”) that, compounding the sin, generally attribute the phrase to Albert Einstein, although he almost certainly didn’t say it. And therein lies the significance of the current language of universities: as cause of what ails education, and as very telling symptom.

Charles Reeve is president of the Ontario College of Art & Design Faculty Association.

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