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As has been noted here in the past,and more than once, by other members of this site, business-inspired organisational models based on esoteric ideas like ‘performance’ and ‘results’ have permeated and even come to define the contemporary university, much for the worse of everyone involved.  We know it here in New Zealand chiefly in the form of the much-maligned Performance Based Research Funding system, which has given many scholars a new four-letter word, ‘PBRF’.


Illustration from The New Yorker, 12 October 2009

Not only is this style of management and organisation leading to a fundamental change in the way that universities are staffed (more and more people are teaching part-time with little access to benefits, research funding, or other essential things), but it also discourages innovation (many scholars will only publish in the highest-rated journals, which tend towards conservative content in areas that are well established and amply covered), takes valuable time away from teaching (which causes students, who have already been severely let down by performance-managed primary and secondary schools, to suffer as well at the altar of the management ethos), and causes scholars to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying their existence (or at least their dwindling salaries) rather than doing to kinds of work – reading, writing, thinking, teaching – that they should be doing, the kinds of work that they have been doing for centuries.

All of this, it turns out, and as a great many of us have long expected, to be rooted, fundamentally, in very bad science and on the worst kind of exploitative capitalism.  On a recent read through a recent edition of The New Yorker, I happened upon an article discussing the beginnings of the ‘scientific management’ craze in the early twentieth century, a movement that has led, and fairly directly, to the universities of today, which are run like businesses, despite the very obvious fact that this is a very bad model for running an educational institution.  The founder of the movement, which has now pervaded the social sphere to an alarming degree, one Frederick Winslow Taylor, an industrial engineer from Philadelphia who later earned the nickname ‘Speedy Taylor’, based his work on a series of studies that were badly flawed or simply fabricated.  Jill Lepore writes:

Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side …  Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago [that] Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success.

So all of this – the publishing quotas, the rating of journals, the need to court and treat students as customers – is based on lies, on inflations, and on the sort of sloppy, dishonest science that we in the academy should be dedicated to combating.

Again, to the surprise of very few people, the decision to apply capitalistic models of what is valuable and, thus, ultimately is allowable within society, is as disastrous for education as it is has been for health care and the environment (carbon-trading schemes, anyone?).

What the solution is for universities, save for open revolution, is anyone’s guess – and who has time for rebellion when trying to publish books and articles that no other scholar is going to have the time to read?  If anyone out there has a brilliant idea as to how to begin to undo the damage that Taylor and his later supporters – like Louis Brandies (and the trade unions called foul on ‘scientific management’ from the very first, which in itself is damning) and Lillian Gilbreth, who for unfathomable reasons brought the principles of scientific management into the home – have inflicted on the universities of the world, I’m all ears.