by Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young

Photograph Source: Felipe Gabaldón – CC BY 2.0

Recently, the idea of Academentia has entered the public domainAcadementia combines academia –  those working in post-secondary education – with dementia, i.e. the progressive impairments to memory, thinking, and behaviour which negatively impacts a person’s ability to function.

In short, Academentia describes a state of organisational insanity in which university academics can no longer function as academics and scholars. Academentia occurs in neoliberal universities run by faceless crypto-corporate apparatchiks of Managerialism. These crypto-corporate apparatchiks are managers who have taken on the ideology of Managerialism. Their entire existence depends on the managerial apparatus, e.g. the marketing of the PR-University – not on supporting research, teaching, and academics.

As enforced by these corporate apparatchiks of Managerialism, university academics are obliged to compete by means of publishing in the so-called top journals, and to stockpile (quantity over quality) ever greater numbers of publications than their peers.

In a second step, academics are exposed to the ideologically-driven aca-managerialists, former and/or present academics who now function mostly as corporate managers administering the neoliberal university. These aca-managerialists enforce, for example, journal rankings.

In a third step, aca-managerialists combine journal rankings with the number of publications that are being generated by academics to create a so-called performance score which, ironically, works “for” (or more correctly: “against”) academics. The loser receives a standard HR-email saying: “sorry, you have been unsuccessful on this occasion” and the unspoken HRM motto: “my way or the highway,” which is often linked to FIFO: “fit in or f*** off!”  

The managerially-enforced aim is to get the most points – the highest score – on an Excel file generated by as-if corporate apparatchiks. The above mentioned aca-managerialists (top) and the university apparatchiks (below) might be called “as-if” managers because they behave, operate, and think “as if” they were in a real corporation – not a university.

In any case, those academics who get the most points – the highest score – win the enforced and eternally played game of neoliberal competition and they get the best jobs in the most prestigious universities. These universities are ranked by another set of corporate apparatchiks, thus creating a handful of winners (top universities) and thousands of losers (the rest).

The rest, i.e. the losers are forced to live in the timeless hallucination of becoming another Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, or MIT, which, in turn, has become a useful ideology for corporate apparatchiks to streamline their universities, i.e. cranking up Managerialism. And so, the eternal wheel of ideology, neoliberalism, and Managerialism moves on.

Successful players “can” move to the next level where they compete for research grants. Whoever brings in the most money (usuallyframed as “industry grants”) wins a job and prestige – becoming a tenured professor, the highest-priced trophy in the authoritarian and hierarchical order.

Inside the neoliberal university, careers are thoroughly tied to the fetish of the so-called top-tier journals. This ingenious – and, perhaps more correctly, “insidious” – system applies even to those who are structurally disadvantaged by the managerialist arrangement.

Over the years, one thing has become the most obvious: the single-authored journal article – profitably trapped behind the so-called pay-walls – is now considered the pinnacle of scholar productivity – forget books!

In today’s academia, peers are forced to compete in a brutal fight to the death – at least the death of careers, sanity, mental, and even physical health. Yet, the neoliberal game as overseen by corporate apparatchiks has serious consequences for people’s lives. The ability to earn an income in academia depends on playing the crypto-corporate game – and on playing it well.

Yet, the game has become ever more rigged. Meanwhile, corporate apparatchiks are getting ever better in pretending that all this is based on some “objective” measurements – The Slavery of the H-Index, as the National Library of Medicine calls it.

Beyond all that, it is much easier to play the managerialist competition game from the position of a permanent job in academia with “built-in research time”. In the neoliberal university, “built-in research time” has become a luxury that is increasingly preserved for the select few. Today, tenured academics make up a measly 30% – and, the rest is exposed to McDonaldization – an oppressive system that runs many universities.

And, of course, the make-up of the secureitariat – academics in semi-secure positions – is disappointingly white, male, able-bodied, from middle or upper-class background, and mostly educated at a few elite Northern universities.

By contrast, the ever-increasing academic precariat – even recognized by the staunchly pro-business and pro-neoliberal OECD – is overloaded with women, people of colour, disabled, and working-class people.

The key to a “possible” transition from the highly insecure, overworked, and underpaid precariat into the semi-secure academic proletariat is to publish in an (always mentioned) top journal. Yet, the longer academics remain in the precariat, the more the odds are stacked against them.

Their time is almost completely taken up with administrative tasks, managerial assignments to constantly develop new teaching skills (new methods, new classes, new subjects, etc.), an endless job searching which includes the forced re-application for their own “insecure” positions under the neoliberal ideology of competition that brings the best to the top (as defined by corporate apparatchiks, of course), and the emotional, psychological, and physical toll from all of this.

Obviously, all of this sends the chilling effect of job insecurity towards junior academics facing hefty – and at times, unbearable – teaching burdens and marking loads, poor working conditions, measly pay, workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and plenty of other forms of managerial abuse in an environment defined by managerial despotism.

Quite often, the pressure to publish in “top” journals means tailoring research to the demands of those journals and their editors – the gatekeepers. This reduces and perhaps even eliminates critical scholarship that is non-mainstream, different, disruptive, and otherwise unintelligible to the journal gatekeepers and their henchmen (the ever compliant reviewers and article-rejecters of the old boys’ network). Worse, the entire process is policed by the upper echelons of the profession.

A view from below highlighting the pathology of the entire system is not rewarded by university apparatchiks. Many academic articles are a mere shadow of what the German philosopher Kant calls what ought to be. Instead, they follow the strict and standard 7,500 words’ format requested by editors and journal publishers.

If Marx, Einstein, Alan Turing, and Keynes were alive today, they would be shocked to see how far the profession has degenerated. No longer does it shape society or seek to change the world. Today, most academics aspire to score more points to stay in the game, to move to the next level, and outdo their peers, in short – competition wins over scholarship.

Neoliberalism (a broad ideology) and its evil twin brother Managerialism (a narrower and more company- focused ideology) have taken over academia like the German army once took over Poland. Both have an identifiable set of ideological, economic, and political ideas which have been applied across many institutions – including universities. Both are associated with privatization and deregulation, letting the market run public services in the name of efficiency, and are governed by the supposedly all-incentivizing profit motive.

In the university sector, neoliberalism has led to the removal of the state funding of universities – replaced with privately- (read: corporate) paid fees. This has generated a proliferation of degrees-for-profit, particularly in Master’s Programmes like the MBAs – a profitable cash-cow for universities.

Given all this, it is rather unsurprising that academics say about corporate apparatchiks who are running the universities, “they are heartless bastards who keep on trying to torpedo the careers of academics.” Another academic said about the peer review process of journals, “this is a self-indulgent crap … they put this manuscript in a drawer and do not ever bother to come back to it.”

When a person has spent months, and even years, working on their manuscript, reviewers’ comments can be devastating. The internet is awash with reviewer abuses and jokes. It demonstrates the real and psychic powers of reviewers over the profession. It’s not clear what produces this kind of behaviour once academics are placed in the position of being an anonymous referee. Yet, one might attribute this to the peculiarly toxic conditions of neoliberal academia which are increasingly being pushed into the precariat.

The term university precariat describes a new class of academic workers created by the neoliberal market economy who are suffering from the so-called flexible contracts – the managerial code-word for insecure, underpaid employment based on temporary jobs – as well as workplace despotism. These workers often work under agencies with no non-wage benefits like pensions and sick pay, and a lack of basic socio-economic rights.

Of course, the impact of the neoliberal universities has been felt particularly strong in teaching subjects – particularly those deemed “useless” to capitalism. This is framed as having a marketable degree. Philosophy, is a good example. Unsurprisingly, university apparatchiks constantly threaten to shrink or even close entire philosophy departments. There is even a popular blog called Daily Nous with a special section on Cuts and Threats to Philosophy Programs.

Simultaneously, the propagation of market-driven, seemingly popular and profitable post-graduate degrees has led to intense competitions on the academic job market. Today, hundreds of qualified applicants compete for an ever decreasing number of jobs. Meanwhile, academic jobs themselves have been transformed from jobs-for-life into short-term, insecure, and temporary contracts.

This is the McDonaldization of academia which includes the rationality of irrationality. It is on the pretence that favours seemingly rational forms of university administration (performance management, KPIs, H-index, etc.) while simultaneously enforcing the irrationality – or better: pathological – ideology of Managerialism.

In the US and UK, a whopping 70% of all teaching staff are on temporary contracts. Quite often, their work does not even cover the summer months and is without benefits like sick pay and pension contributions. This newly-created academic underclass of neoliberalism struggles to make ends meet. In the most extreme cases, academics in the US and UK experience homelessness and an early death.

Yet, academics in permanent jobs have also been deeply affected by the Neoliberalization of universities, often defined as hard Managerialism, by systematically destroying the space through which professional autonomy is exercised. This is achieved via the imposition of oppressive performance targets that are often invented with made-up performance criteria.

These performance criteria are always made to appear rational by university apparatchiks and streamlined (the code-word for standardized and homogenized) performance systems used for assessing and evaluating research and teaching performance. All this deliberately creates Academentia while simultaneously benefiting university apparatchiks with spacious offices, business travel, and corporate cars at their disposal.

Academentia and the neoliberal managerialist/toxic culture, and loss of workplace autonomy are contributing to a tsunami of mental health problems in the academy. For example, UK academics with permanent jobs face the ever-looming spectre of the REF – the so-called Research Excellence Framework.

This enforces a certain amount of publications per academic every five years. REF is then combined with TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) by linking an academic’s overall teaching ability (as measured by the feedback of students) to an academic’s research output (measured by the number of articles in top-journals). This “monitors” academics – the managerial code-word for surveillance, control, and domination. Meanwhile, the managerialist teaching evaluations are often based on student feedback reviews (SFR).

Since SFRs are deemed significant by university apparatchiks, some academics have resorted to handing out chocolates and other goodies to students, and giving out “generous” marks to students’ assignments in exchange for a favourable SFR score. Despite all this, university apparatchiks are addicted to SFR-scores like someone on crack cocaine.

The REF in particular has been made into the be all and end all of UK academia. It might not get you a job but you might lose your job over bad SFR reviews – just like Uber. Virtually everyone in academia has come to learn that university apparatchiks have turned SFRs and REF into some of “the” absolutely domineering currencies of value. Any academic receiving a bad score is marked for assisted dying and often placed on something called a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) – the first step to dismissal.

Even though there are permanent academic jobs in the UK, these are performance-dependent (read: REF-dependent as enforced by university apparatchiks who do not teach and do not engage in research). And, these academics can easily be made redundant by the university managerialist.

Still in the UK, there is an ongoing fight over staff pensions with some universities seeking the removal of guaranteed pensions and making them performance-dependent instead while in the US, tenure is being eroded. In fact, it has already disappeared from most community colleges. Meanwhile, it is undermined in state universities, and designed to become something only for the select few – mostly in Ivy League institutions.

In Europe, autonomy and working conditions are also facing threats to the extent that while universities still receive state funding, these same universities also rely on external measures of scholarly importance and worth. And, in the UK, 25% of government funding is linked to something that is framed as Impact – appropriately called Impact Factor Mania.

Corporate apparatchiks frame “impact” as the idea that universities “must have an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Yet, having impact outside of the academy is not a bad thing in itself.

In fact, that was precisely Marx’s idea when saying “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways – the point, however, is to change it.” Yet, for neoliberal university apparatchiks, this means changing the world into the image of Neoliberalism.

Yet in many cases, the precise meaning of “impact” remains nebulous and therefore open to the arbitrary power of university apparatchiks. In other cases, it has been reduced to “economic” impact – in the neoliberal understanding, of course.

Today, the neoliberal economy is considered to be the sole arbiter of academic worthiness. It views neoliberalism as the ultimate master signifier that eliminates all other values. Under neoliberal capitalism, there no longer is any value to society that counts. In short, there can be no academic activity, culture, morality, education, and even leisure without mentioning its positive impact on growth and prosperity.

The American Association of Universities makes this very clear, “universities serve as economic engines for their communities and regions.” Yet, when it comes to arguments, one might realize that Managerialism is not about arguments. It is about ideology and power, and the desirability of a free market which has become the ultimate imperative.

Yet, for contemporary issues such as animal testing, who should live or die when a pandemic lays the civilisation low, and when environmental vandalism is threatening earth, etc., a philosophical thought is essential. And yet, for university apparatchiks, philosophy is redundant. This is in line with the ideology of neoliberalism and Managerialism as carried out at universities. As a consequence, the current impact agenda registers none of this.

Instead, Managerialism’s ideology of “impact leading to eternal economic growth” forces universities to “engage” with (read: be subservient to) business, industry, and capitalism. Today, virtually all academics must demonstrate their practical worth to an organisation (read: a business) in order to be counted as a valuable member of a university’s community.

Consequently, university apparatchiks have forced academics into an overdrive – both tenured and non-tenured – and academics have become desperate to prove their worth in this Uber-surveillanced and crypto-corporate university culture. What is enforced onto academics by university apparatchiks creates academentia – a state in which academics can no longer function as academics but fulfil the repressive demands of university apparatchiks, as laid out in the Ideology of Managerialism.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism.

Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.

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