Trickle-Down Managerialism: Accountable Faculty in the Financialized University of Managers

By J. Paul Narkunas


Trickle-down economics offers the promise that wealth will eventually flow to all sectors of society. I argue that rather than wealth, managerial processes and actuarial practices driven by finance and by big data firms have been trickling down and reorganizing higher education—what I call “trickle-down managerialism.” Financial firms invest in higher education through student loan programs, educational platforms, and for-profit institutions, and oversee the normalization of conceiving education as a return on investment. Nonprofit institutions increasingly emulate the management strategies of for-profit higher education institutions, such as reliance on adjunct instructors and digital platforms and a profusion of managers. The actuarial emphasis on benchmarking and promoting best practices furthers managerial control over curricula and learning, and I contend that it undermines faculty power, governance, and academic freedom. The unbundling of tasks enabled by digital platforms facilitates the outsourcing of faculty decision-making to machine-learning digital platforms, exemplifying digital Taylorism. To critique these operations in concrete contexts, I analyze the reliance on quantifiable metrics of “student success” for measuring curricula and faculty courses and weigh how journal-impact factors and journal ranking lists outsource faculty decision-making on reappointment, tenure, and promotion to automated machine-learning processes.

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