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Guest Blogger: Ksenija Berk responds to University, Inc.

From Dori:
Ksenija's response to my posting, University, Inc. provides some insight into how the University system operates among the Central and Eastern EU nations. I elevated her comment to the blog site in order to generate more comments on how University systems work in other places.

Ksenija's Post:
What is to be done?

Well, I think the first step is to recognize what’s going on and discuss all the threads, misconceptions, manipulations and often so swiftly disguised in the system we are often completely unaware of their existence. I share the views Dr. Michael Hertzfeld and the role of contemporary Universities in global societies. I would like to add another “eroding” issue that has not been discussed so much lately, because somehow we all assume it has been erased from our Universities a long time ago that of  the “white-male dominancy”. But we could not be more wrong.

Do you really think that the collapse and demise of totalitarian regimes has brought freedom and democracy to the Universities everywhere? This time I want to raise my voice and show irregularities happening in so called “equal” members of European Union, who could not differ more. In several ‘newcomers’ to the EU most of the University professors practically stayed the same (I must be fair to those who have always been bright examples), not to mention the educational programs ( I don’t even want to go there). One can’t expect things can change over the night and the same goes with people, as with the University professors in this particular case. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks! Why do we always assume people can change? Some people can’t change and the others do not want to. Many of them are still practicing the white-male dominancy thing, based on the hierarchical system of power and they see “quota-system” just as an exception to the rule, using it as a convenient shield and excuse, while laughing at the world with fists clenched in their pockets.

What’s really worrying me is when I have realized that many students still do not have any legal chances to complain, protest or change the situation. They are terrified of never finishing their studies if they ever dare to question their masters, for they know what happened to those few courageous ones who have at least tried to make a difference with some actions as critical writing in the media or informing the international community. They have never been expelled as I would expect - no, the masters have rapidly learned all the tricks of the new system - they just never get the chance to defend their already written diploma theses' and get inevitably lost in indescribable complicated bureaucratic procedures.

I think this is the right time to bring some positive change here!

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Second thing I’d like to share with you is the new issue of transversal web journal on knowledge production and its discontent.

When knowledge production becomes the raw material of cognitive capitalism, what becomes of the old factories of knowledge, the universities? With the rising importance of knowledge, they move to the eye of the storm, become objects of desire of neoliberal transformations, objects of competition between regions and continents, but also subjects of struggles against these transformations and competitions. Though the university as a privileged site of struggle has – except for a few moments in time – been only a myth, in recent months there seems to be a rising tide of conflicts around it, in different places around the globe.

<a href="http://eipcp.net/transversal/0809">http://eipcp.net/transversal/0809</a>
eipcp - european institute for progressive cultural policies



University, Inc.

Last Wednesday, I attended a lecture entitled, Why Ethnography Matters, Intimate Detail in Political Process, at U of Melbourne by Dr. Michael Hertzfeld of Harvard's Anthropology Dept. The thesis of his talk was how anthropology has an important role to play in salvaging/improving "what the University is intended to be--a place of argument, discussion, exploration, and opening up new possibilities" through its focus on gaining "intimate knowledge." It is the process of gaining this intimate knowledge through a long term and deep understanding of, for example, kinship, local language, and gesture (i.e. ethnography) that the University can be saved from becoming factories.

He started with a description of the modern University. He posited that, under the guise of neo-liberal efficiency, the University's role as a place of "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" is being eroded by systems of (1) simplification, where in the positivist fashion fewer data is considered better data and thus "plurality of fact" is ignored; (2) accounting, where metric based monitoring of performance through the quantity of knowledge outputs mismeasures that you are actually trying to measure: the quality of knowledge, which could be accomplished through one "earth-shattering" paper; and (3) hegemony and representation, by which the University is seeking to gain the power attached to business by pretending it is a business, but it is by nature something else.

In terms of simplication, he tied it to the way politics are done in the media and how faculty promotion evaluation is done in the Academy. In both cases, there is a bias toward the simplifiction of information, which unfortunately leads to a reduction in knowledge. The U.S. Healthcare discussion gets reduced to the simple facts of "reducing customer choice." The promotion of a faculty member gets based on whether he or she has published 10 articles in tier one peer review journals and two books over a period of 6-7 years, regardless of the actual quality of the content. He demonstrated how at Harvard the process is different, or at least was different. They would ask 25 leading experts in the person's field to describe the quality of the person's body of work (i.e. the content), not just the enumeration of stuff done.

I found most immediately useful his discussion of what Marilyn Strathern describes as "audit culture" inside and outside of the Academy. He started with the origins of accounting based on the "confessional" practices of the Catholic Church as described by James Aho's Confession and Bookkeeping. The movement of audit from a term in the financial accounting sector to other professional sectors in the 1980s is addressed in Strathern's edited volume. The concept has come to me at a crucial time as I am ramping up on my position as Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, and therefore am encountering first-hand the artifacts, processes, and outcomes of Swinburne's own audit culture. Each faculty member has to complete a workplan, which is a glorified timesheet. There is then a professional development audit and course evaluations from students. All this auditing does provide greater transparency into the expectations for the University; but it also as Foucault states a "relationship of power between the scrutinzer and observed: the latter are rendered objects of information, never subjects of communication." This makes very clear to me the core of my new role: take these technologies of auditing and make sure they are being used to enable faculty and students to be rich subjects of communication.

In terms of hegemony, Hertzfeld discusses how Universities are racing to become "nationalized centers for closed minds" because they have accepted the discourse of business (which holds the seat of power) without realizing that they function quite differently. For example, business needs the systems of auditing because the profit motive incentivizes dishonesty in relationships. Here he mentioned the Madoff scandal. Although there are examples of academic fraud (for which the academic citation system is the auditing mechanism), the "open secrets" of the University system tend to be less grave. We don't aways teach as well everyday. Our meetings are not always productive. These need to be monitored so that we can offer support for learning and teaching as responsible and accountable educators. But one would have that if one had knowledge about the people in the faculty. This is where the grow, grow, grow model of education (as factory) is a significant problem. He mentioned that while anthropology teaches many popular classes at UMelb, they are "rewarded" with higher student/teacher ratios instead of more faculty positions. They are "rewarded" with having to teach two units of the same course instead of a larger lecture hall to accomodate all the students. There are indications of the same issues in my faculty at Swinburne.

There is one interesting blind spot in Hertzfeld's reading of what is going on the Academy related to the University as Factory model. It is also the "democratization" of the University that has resulted in this phenomenon. Meaning, when Universities were the domain of elite cultures, they were places of discussion, debate, and contemplation among gentlemen scholars who had shaped the University as an extention of the private luxury for the intellectual leisure described in the novels of E.M. Forster. If the modern education system for everyone else (who was not elite) was to prepare/discipline subjects for life in factories, then it makes sense that when Universities began to cater to the non-elite, they probably had both internal/external pressures to transform the culture to become more businesslike. It is the parents of the middle and lower classes that demand that their investment in their children's educations pay off in high status employability. If you are an elite, you already have high status and your family wealth protects you from the necessity of employability. From the perspective of faculty, the elite University culture of contemplation and discussion was "the ole boy network." It was and remains extremely hostile to women and people of color because of the assumptions of sameness and priviledge that is not shared by the transmodern teaching staff. The emancipatory part of the mechanization of the Factory is the fact that these auditing systems have a greater chance at being neutral and thus allowing those outside of the elite group to advance through the system.

So now what do we do? The purposes of the university in terms of places for "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" should not be lost in the conversion of the University to a Factory. The price of dehumanization is too high and if education is about the transmissions of knowledge (i.e. information contextually embedded in individuals, time, and space) across time and space; it is very distinct from an ethos of information transmission. Yet, we do require that the large education systems that exists have a means of monitoring the effectiveness, fairness, justice, as well as humanness of the system. Perhaps as an anthropologist in a role of Associate Dean of teaching and learning, can help develop monitoring systems that are not coercive, but rather springboards to deeper intimacy of knowledge witiin the academy.


Design Policy as Mission Impossible

Note: These views present my personal thoughts and in no way represent the views of the National Design Policy Initiative or any of its participants.

Change Observer's Brad McKee has written an article about the "impossibility" of a U.S. National Design Policy. This is following Allison Arieff's article in the NYTimes about design policy and its "ambitious" goals. From the vantage point of the organizer of the Initiative, I fail to see the impossibility or ambitiousness of the efforts. People said getting the participants in the Summit together would be impossible. It wasn't and they continue to work together and independently for the Initiative. People said getting a conversation with the Dept. of Commerce would be impossible. We continue to have conversations with them. There are three major fallacies in people's understanding of the Initiative that makes it seem impossible.

The first is focus on me as the organizer of the Initiative. I have worked really hard to get the media to focus on the multiple participants in the Initiative. There are over 20 who have a much more interesting view of what the Initiative means and what is possible. Yet, each article focuses on me. If I had to imagine myself as an individual trying to make this all happen, perhaps I would see it as impossible. But there are professional organizations, design education bodies, government designers involved. There are businesses, students, even government officials that want to help. It is the collective energy of all the participants that make this possible. It is up to all to make this happen. I am just the switchboard operator who connects the right actors for the right purposes.

The second is the conceptualization of design policy as the document of regulations that will be "forced upon" designers. The reason why I set up the Summit as I did (i.e. as a workshop not talking head session) was so that we can get the policy proposal document out of the way. The document only serves as the blueprint for the participating design organizations to coordinate, channel, and prioritize their activities as we more deeply engage with government partners. It's the activities that are important. If the government never signs a "US Design Policy" bill, it is fine as long as the proposals are written into other legislation. The proposals would not be forced upon designers but would come out of the partnership with the design community representatives across professional, education, and government design and government policy makers. The problem with regulations that effect designers today is that designers are not at the table. When you are at the table, your role in shaping the regulations means that you can buy-in to the plan and guide its implementation. This is the reason for the formalization of an American Design Council as a partner to government with a seat at the table.

The third has to do with not understanding the history of possibility. Perhaps as an African American, I am particularly sensitive to the notion of something being impossible. Because if it had not been possible for slavery to be abolished, I would still be a slave. If  the marches and the protests of the Civil Rights Movement had been impossible, then Civil Righs Act of 1964 would not have been passed and I might not have gotten the education and opportunities that I have today. At the back of my mind, there is always the knowledge that the quality of my human existence is directly related to many of my ancestors ignoring the claim that something is impossible. The Initiative has yet to have a journalist of color write about it. I wonder if their perspective would be different.

The extent to which the Initiative is about me; it is how I believe that nothing is impossible and have used that to convince the design organizations that this is possible for them as well. To say something is impossible is to cut off the possibility of being able to determine one's own future and share that future with others. To say something is impossible is to demonstrate on one hand a lack of imagination or on the other hand a desire to see something fail, like the way we like to watch car crashes or celebrity meltdowns. 

One of my favorite lines in the movie Mission Impossible was given by Anthony Hopkin's character, "This is mission impossible. Should be a walk in the park for you." It is about the dedication and tenacity of those involved who will make a U.S. National Design Policy seem like a walk in the park, but it starts with the recognition of its possibilities.