The Tyranny of Neoliberalism in the American Academic Profession

Faculty members suffer from the ideal of the entrepreneurial worker.
By Evelyn Morales Vazquez and John S. Levin

The academic profession and academic work have changed significantly in the last three decades. These changes are a consequence of external pressures and structural changes in public higher education institutions. In the case of public research universities, the shifts in institutional missions have coincided with the rise of neoliberal ideology, which numerous scholars link to an increase in managerialism, accountability, and surveillance.

According to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, neoliberal ideology gained prominence under the leadership of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The ideology’s main goals included improving national conditions for free markets, increasing global competition, and establishing new national and global economic configurations. Under neoliberalism, as King’s College London faculty members Louise Archer and Christina Scharff have argued, professionals are idealized as entrepreneurial subjects characterized by their capacity to maximize their human capital, compete in the marketplace, and, most importantly, adjust to precarious work conditions and job insecurity.

In the academic context, the tyranny of this ideology relies on the idealization and needs of faculty members as entrepreneurial workers. Characteristics of this ideal worker include flexibility (cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral), competitiveness (not just in relation to others but also in relation to internalized expectations), entrepreneurial spirit, economic rationale, adaptability to precarious environments, and emotional detachment. This notion of the ideal worker sets the standard for accountability and performance in neoliberal higher education. For example, performance-based research funding and reward systems now determine the kind of research projects, academic units, and professional behaviors that are valued. Public research universities pursue institutional prestige while they ignore the detrimental psycho-emotional effects on the faculty.

Changes in funding and reward systems (for example, promotion and tenure) are evidence of the symbolic violence that neoliberal values and managerial practices promote. This form of symbolic violence strips away authenticity in the work of professionals, resulting in what sociologist Richard Sennett refers to as the corrosion of character. Neoliberal practices have been taken for granted by faculty members, no matter their academic disciplines, career stages, or personal expectations. Some even aspire to a role as entrepreneurial subjects. These practices colonize the academic profession through the establishment and propagation of evaluation systems and metrics of accountability that recognize only the characteristics of the ideal entrepreneurial worker, and quantifiable actions such as publishing and securing grant funding. This distorted perspective of academic professionals does not take into account what faculty members think about changes in their work environment; it ignores personal reflections on the academic profession and its purposes.

The infiltration of neoliberal ideology into public research universities, particularly the increase of managerialism, surveillance, and accountability, is enabled by the assumption that there is no alternative to symbolic violence, precariousness in work conditions, or denial of humanity for academic professionals. The consequences of the rise of symbolic violence affects the psycho-emotional life and well-being of faculty members, causing stress, anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, loss of autonomy, and uncertainty in relation to their profession.

The Study of Academic Identity in Neoliberal Times

The strengthening of competition, managerial practices, and accountability has contributed to a growing disregard of the human dimension of the academic profession, particularly the personal histories and professional aspirations of faculty members. For example, reward systems highlight superficial competency and measurable behaviors, including numerical scores on student evaluations, impact factors of publication citations, and number of awards for research, teaching, and service. These systems define the ideal faculty member as one who is aligned with audit cultures, managerial practices, and standardized, homogenous values.

This conceptualization of academic work acknowledges merely a fragment of the selves of faculty members. Such fragmentation denies the roles that personal histories or professional goals play in how faculty members experience their work and their academic identities. Our study of academic identity counteracts fragmented subjectivity by emphasizing the role that social relationships, personal experiences, and emotions, as well as academic disciplines, professional status, and institutional contexts, play in the construction of, change to, or conflict in academic identities.

Reconsider and Reorient Professional Role

While Australian scholar Anthony Welch argued a decade ago that resistance to neoliberal initiatives or insistence on core professional academic values, such as collegiality rather than competitiveness, would preserve the ideals of the university, his appeal has not borne fruit. Faculty, along with their academic administrator colleagues, are professionals who need to reflect on their behaviors in order to understand and reconsider the roots of detrimental changes to their personal and professional well-being. They need to recognize psychic injuries and negative emotions, including stress and anxiety, that faculty have experienced. In 2015, a group of feminist Canadian and US scholars published an article in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, “For Slow Scholarship,” that called for resistance to the conditions of the neoliberal university through collective action; yet there are too few responses of this kind. We need more research and scholarship to inform leaders and policy makers—including faculty in positions of influence, such as department chairs and faculty senate officials—that the stakes are both personal and institutional. Our research is but one step.

Evelyn Morales Vazquez is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education Administration and Policy Program at the University of California, Riverside. Her current research focuses on the study of professional identities and emotions in the academic life cycle. John S. Levin is a professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside. His forthcoming work is on the management of the academic profession.