Openly Vague

By Matthew Cheney

Open Knowledge Institutions: Reinventing Universities by Lucy Montgomery, John Hartley, Cameron Neylon, Malcolm Gillies, Eve Gray, Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, Chun-Kai (Karl) Huang, Joan Leach, Jason Potts, Xiang Ren, Katherine Skinner, Cassidy R. Sugimoto, and Katie Wilson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021.

The authors of Open Knowledge Institutions, all participants in an April 2018 workshop in Australia, sought ways to reimagine the idea of the university, broadly speaking, with an emphasis on more open practices.

“Openness” has been a buzzword for some time now, apparent in phrases such as open source and open educational resources. I, for example, work in Plymouth State University’s Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative. Open is a friendly word—agreeable and generous. However, like other agreeable and generous things, it easily gets taken advantage of, co-opted, hollowed out, or reconfigured. At the end of this book, the authors quote Evgeny Morozov, who said in a 2013 New York Times op-ed that openness “has become a dangerously vague term, with lots of sex appeal but barely any analytical content. Certified as ‘open,’ the most heinous and suspicious ideas suddenly become acceptable.” Rather than answer such criticism, this book embodies the vagueness that Morozov, whom they dismissively label a “professional skeptic,” warns against.

Even when the authors define terms, they don’t say much. A reader who reaches the end of the book still wondering what exactly an open knowledge institution (OKI) is would get my sympathy for feeling frustrated by the unhelpful definition in the glossary: “An institution (below) that solves one or more of the collective action problems involved in producing knowledge as a common pool resource”—with “below” referring to a definition of institution as “rules for coordination. Not [a] synonym for ‘a legal entity’ or ‘long-standing organization.’” Common pool resource is defined as “an economic good that is rivalrous but nonexcludable. Requires governance. Fisheries and forests are classic examples.” If we uncross the references, then, an OKI consists of rules for coordination (not synonymous with legal entities or long-standing organizations) that solve problems of how to produce knowledge for things like fisheries and forests. The perplexed reader might then turn to the index, but there is no entry there for open knowledge institutions. Paradoxically, the authors profess a commitment to transparency yet render their object of study effectively invisible.

Regardless of what one thinks about whether the university as a concept desperately needs to be reinvented, many universities are currently being reinvented by politicians and businesspeople. A more progressive, less rapacious vision would be welcome, but this book does little to help us think through such reinvention because it provides no meaningful analysis of power. Although we may hate to admit it, universities will not be reinvented by good ideas; they will be reinvented by blocs of people able to work in coalition to shape systems, policies, and procedures—to, in short, exert power. By contrast, most administrative solutions to the problems of higher education seek to diminish the power of faculty and shared governance and to consolidate power among deans, provosts, presidents, and boards.

It’s not just an analysis of power that Open Knowledge Institutions fails to provide. While the book includes sidebars discussing fourteen case studies, it does not analyze the cases with any insight or describe them in a way to make their spotlighted achievements useful to someone seeking to increase openness in their own work. The book doesn’t offer steps toward anything that can actually be put into practice. Instead, we read page after page of statements like these: “Encouraging and supporting a broader range of mechanisms for learning can enable OKI universities to engage more learners within more creative pedagogies”; “As OKIs, universities must build trust and incentive-reward mechanisms for participants from academia, industry, and wider publics”; and “Decisions to impose control must be driven by a clearly articulated need for coordination, consistency, or trust building with the target of a more diverse network.” The book’s most developed and concrete discussions are of open-access publishing, which is not surprising since that practice has existed for quite some time and provides substantial examples. Even there, though, the presentation is sketchier than what you could find in sources available through a quick internet search.

The final chapter, titled “Action,” spends most of its pages not on actions but on dithering about whether the “technical” or the “political” or both is the “way forward” and then reaching the insight that an “open knowledge system will open more knowledge than a closed one.” The closest to anything resembling action that the chapter gives us is a two-page list of “leaders” who can “go first” in “a complex evolutionary pathway toward OKIs”: the government, professional associations, scientific and scholarly publishers, universities, researchers, teachers, students, funders, professions, communities, international organizations, standards setters. What can these leaders do? Nothing specific. Scientific and scholarly publishers, for instance, “can create innovative ways to combine commercial interests with maximizing open access, and may actively pursue cooperation with other concerned parties such as professional associations.” (Sure, they can innovate toward openness, but it matters, doesn’t it, whether those publishers are, for instance, Elsevier or a small university press? Predatory corporations are more than happy to maximize their profits on your open access.) Meanwhile, instructors can “develop new curricula in keeping with the more open nature of knowledge and growing diversity of university populations.” (Look at all those friendly words hanging out together without explaining what such curricula might be or how the actual labor of developing new curricula will be accounted for!)

The astonishing emptiness of these recommendations highlights problems endemic to this book and to so many proposals that well-meaning academics whistle into the wind. Open Knowledge Institutions has no real politics, no understanding of political economy, no theory of labor, and no analysis of power. It has all the weight of Google’s now-discarded motto, “Don’t be evil.” Here in the United States, even our small states have a mix of research universities and liberal arts colleges, public and private institutions, and two- and four-year institutions. Nothing applicable to all those varied types of institutions is going to have any teeth, yet what we need more than anything else are ideas sharp enough to bite through the gristle of all that ails our sickly bodies of education.

Open Knowledge Institutions advocates for “three key themes”: diversity, coordination, and communication. Each gets a short chapter of platitudes, with some examples here and there. The examples are admittedly interesting but never really get into the nitty-gritty of implementation. Anyone who has spent time at a university likely agrees that diversity, coordination, and communication are frequent challenges, but you won’t find any solutions to those challenges here, or even much delineation of them.

Consider just one of the three themes. Diversity, like openness, is a wonderful word, one that almost everyone who is not an avowed white supremacist superficially supports. This book claims diversity can “manifest in a number of ways,” including in policies “of equity, diversity, and inclusion in relation to staff, students, facilities, codes of conduct, and sharing of knowledge and data [that] underpin diversity and openness in research”—a statement that provides little more than tautology. Later in the book, the authors do suggest a way we can measure the effectiveness of our diversity efforts within the open knowledge institution. A table titled “A Framework for Organizing the Evaluation of Universities as OKIs” lists three words (diversity, coordination, communication) and then three ways of viewing them (aspiration, action, outcomes). For diversity, one aspiration is a “diversity and inclusion policy” followed by the action “engagement with diversity programs” leading to the outcome “staff/student diversity.” If only institutions that struggle with diversity knew to create policies and then engage with programs, all their diversity problems might be solved!

Pages and pages of bland, innocuous, empty statements lead not simply to a failure of a book; it is that, but, more important, Open Knowledge Institutions does real harm in contributing to the sense that openness is ethereal, something unconnected to practical values and actions that can aid the people of the university.

Openness alone is not good for much—it needs other values to inflect it. In my own work, we have agreed on five values to help guide our understanding of openness: solidarity, cooperation, coalition, refuge, and regeneration. These terms and how we define them have proved meaningful enough that we can measure what we do against them, because in moments where we wonder what we should do, we ask ourselves what would uphold and strengthen these values.

In addition to values, though, we also need actions. We need to revitalize our culture’s understanding of knowledge and learning as public goods, and we will not achieve that simply through assertion. I am writing this review ten years after the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that was messy, often undefined, and sometimes contradictory but also had enough energy and force to change the conversation about economic inequities, inspire young people to get active in their communities, and offer models for new ways of relating to each other. Perhaps we don’t need to open knowledge institutions so much as we need to occupy them.

Matthew Cheney is assistant professor and director of interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University. He is the author of Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form and Blood: Stories. His email address is [email protected].