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Down and out in Wannabe University

Professor went undercover to find out how a large US university really worked. She found an institution in the thrall of auditing, corporate ideology and obsessive rankings

Wannabe University spends hundreds of millions on construction projects every year. It tries to attract top professors, researchers and students through slick advertising campaigns. It aspires to be a university at the top of the rankings. And it disagrees with the methodology of the rankings that it doesn’t score well on.

Sound familiar?

It should, says Gaye Tuchman, in Copenhagen to talk about her new book ‘Wannabe University’.

»The university is disgustingly representative: We are all wannabes,« she says.

Behind the mahogany curtain

‘Wannabe’, of course, is slang for ‘want to be’, a person with an ambition to be someone or something that they are not.

Gaye Tuchman, herself a University of Connecticut professor, did six years of field work in Wannabe, a fictive name for a real 20,000-student US university, actually half way down the rankings, that remains anonymous despite repeated attempts by the University Post to have her divulge it.

Anonymity was one of the conditions of her gaining access to its coffee rooms, lecture halls and staff meetings.

»Universities have the naïve assumption that they are terrific. Some are so bad at PR that they think that if they present the best face, then this is the face you are going to believe. So long as you don’t use your right to access documents under the Freedom of Information Act, people don’t ask questions about what you are doing,« she says.

Observing in silence

As it happens, Wannabe University staff and faculty knew full well what Gaye Tuchman was doing when she sat in at meetings, »tapping loudly on her outdated laptop,« she says.

But like a fly on the wall, she blended in to the surroundings, all the time observing how decisions were made on work processes, budgets, restructures, hires, and layoffs.

Wannabe, like other US universities, is under the spell of the business world: Knowledge is subordinated to profit, the buzzwords are the latest fads from the corporate sector, and powerful managers override professional skills in a drive for efficiency, economy and effectiveness.

Joke every 20 minutes

But the efficiency gains are illusory, just window dressing to make the university look better by scoring higher on the tables.

»One way to increase your ranking is to mess around with the size of classes. You get points for the number of classes under 20? Offer a one-credit course with under 20 students taught by non-academic staff that consider it prestigious to teach first-year students,« says Tuchman.

Relatively fewer points for classes of over 50 in the US News and World rankings?

»You might as well make one class with 450!«, she adds.

Trouble getting chummy with your 100-student class?

»Use humour!« an administrator suggested. »It is always good to show a picture of yourself as a child. Use small talk. Tell a joke every 20 minutes!«

Job merry-go-round

Top managers and administrators at Wannabe rotate with other universities, switching jobs and allegiances every five years or so, a bit like high-octane chief executives of the largest companies on the stock market.

»There is something to be said for this: Internally promoted managers find it hard to fire people. It is difficult to fire the parent of a kid who plays with your kid,« says Tuchman.

The trouble is, she says, that managers and top administrators no longer have the interests of their current university at heart.

»Administrators plan their career in terms of moving on to the next university. I asked the provost (pro-rector… ed.) of Wannabe. Why did you take the job here? ‘I heard it is a good place to move from,’ he responded. And he was right! Provosts from Wannabe have indeed become presidents of the best public universities«.

Don’t ask questions

In recent years, universities have expanded their layer of middle management. In Wannabe, as elsewhere, more staff has been hired to take care of patenting, PR, to seek contributions, process students, and most ominously according to Gaye Tuchman, audit the teaching faculty and other staff.

The expansion of auditing seems on the surface to be benign, if not mildly neurotic. A bit like simply “waking up in the morning and stepping on the scales to see what you weigh,” as Tuchman puts it.

The trouble is, the auditing and accounting, and the related centralisation of key university functions, is undermining teaching and research, Tuchman believes.

»One person outlines a course, another designs the slides, a third performs in class, and a fourth assesses it. This is killing thinking«.

Audit culture

Professors often grew up doing well on tests. This personality type is easy to seduce into becoming an accessory to their own redundancy.

»But the pride in being at the head of the pack can keep people from noticing that their rear is being pinched,« says Tuchman.

Younger assistant professors play along with the increasing demands of the audit culture, complying with the new conformity in the hope of achieving tenure. As one assistant professor at Wannabe let it slip: »I don’t want to give an opinion, because I don’t know what other people think.«

Textbook rip-off

Tuchman argues that Wannabe, inspired by managerial ideology has put in place an accountability regime, structuring courses like an assembly line, standardising products to increase output, and thereby allowing further spurious quality assessments that don’t really measure what they are trying to measure.

But the premise that the practices of the business world are taking over universities, may not be accurate, write Tuchman’s critics. The inspiration is the other way round. The work-ways of the academic world are actually feeding into business, US professor Andrew Ross argues in the Chronicle for Higher Education.

For high-wage employees at least, a traditional academic work mentality has taken on in the real business sector. The 24/7 cycle of generating ideas, the loose, overlapping live-work schedule, the custom of sharing knowledge and the need for sabbaticals: all these elements are in fact inspired by universities, he writes.

Universities aren’t factories

So how far can the assembly-line inspiration actually go? Are businesses, or at least successful, knowledge-sector businesses, actually doing something else?

»While the pure assembly-line model works best for online education, it tends not to work for in-class teaching and research,« Tuchman explains to the University Post.

And it is precisely the attempt to introduce assembly line accountability and standardisation that ends in the irrational, unintended outcomes, she explains.

The future of education

Take the textbook market for example. Using the same textbook seems good. They even come with power point slides for the teachers, and tests – complete with answers. But this is not good for real teaching and learning. And “a new edition now comes out every three years, so students can’t resell the old ones”, she says.

What about Europe? Are we with the Bologna process attempting to go down the same road of standardised curricula, textbooks and degrees?

»In Europe you haven’t got as far as us, but if you all go through with Bologna, then you will get to where we are.«

Make a stink

In Copenhagen, at the lecture by Gaye Tuchman, media professor Stig Hjarvard asks about the shrinking autonomy of the professors.

»Accountability! How can anyone be against this?« he asks rhetorically, before asking his real question: »What are the countermeasures? What do you recommend?«

More resistance, Tuchman urges.

»I believe in making a stink, and making it as hard for them to implement the accountability and managerial system as possible. Because I don’t think you can stop it…«

Buy Gaye’s book Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University.

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