The conference as site for neoliberal behavior

During the conference ‘Thinking about the University’[1], the university was framed variously as location, change agent, institution, producer, concept, tradition, employer, workforce, resigned guardian, soon to be ex-monopolist on information and, currently, nightmare. The rhetorical style, however, was uniform. Here I discuss how performing neoliberal criticism isn’t incompatible with neoliberal behavior.

Using concepts as commodities

The debate about ‘university’ was structured as a competition between concepts. One was ‘Humanism’, the other ‘Neoliberalism’ (I’m using the nomenclature from the conference here, what was meant by it will become clear in the rest of my report.. At only one moment in the conference, Neoliberalism was explored on its agency. Was it a myth? A conspiracy? An ideology? An invisible hand? Rationality? Forms of reason? A modality of governance? Can we grab it? I got the impression that it was sold as the antithesis of Humanism, most conference participants were in favor of. Humanism was framed as critical, ethical, curiosity driven, aimed at the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whereas Neoliberalism was framed as utilitarian, immoral, society and/or market driven, aimed at the pursuit of knowledge for the economy. If Humanism were to overcome its internal differences and unite, said our host, professor Belrose, the future would be brilliant. Still, Neoliberalism, is on the verge of winning, with consequent risks for our democracies. 

During and after the conference I wondered, does it make sense to structure the debate this way? It seemed to me that ‘Humanism’ and ‘Neoliberalism’ were used as containers, with ‘othering’ as a consequence. ‘Othering’ is the process in which we define what is ‘not us’ in terms of an easily as ‘not us’ recognizable surface and a ‘not us’ content that doesn’t deserve further examination. While ‘othering’, we define ourselves in terms of ‘not our enemy’ and deny firstly that we too might have characteristics that we despise in the other, secondly that the other can have the same characteristics that we love in ourselves. This reduction can be seen as a commodification of concepts, which makes them easier to sell in the academic theories market.

Advertising concepts

The concepts were, as a consequence of othering, framed as either super attractive or super unattractive. Humanism represented academic freedom, activism, ambiguity, analytical thinking, associated with progressive and leftish, autonomy, captivating stories, citizenship, classical training, creativity, constructive, craftsmanship, creativity, criticism, curiosity, debate, decadence, democracy,denounce/expose universals, discursive, distinguish foolish from wise, doubt, education, emancipatory, empowering, ethical questions/thinking, experience of the excluded, facilitator of the public, fidelity to the truth of the event, free agenda, guardian, guild like, inspiring, intellectual, interpretation, intrinsic value of knowledge, ivory tower, knowledge of the human, liberal arts, life of freedom, love of learning, political work, practice of thought, professional, professor, public intellectual, radicalization, rhetoric and eloquence, self governance, self regulation, selected guardians, showing specifics, soul building, study of the demos, subversive, super specialism, talent, truth to power, uncertainty, understanding codes, understanding socio-historic conditions.

Neoliberalism, in turn, represented accountants, administrators, anti-professionalism, assessment, calculation, cash, CEO, commodification, competition, corporatization, culture of evidence, deliverables, disinvestment, economy, efficiency, external metrification, fees, hedonistic, indicators, investment, managerialism, performance agreements, power, privatization, production, quantified control, rankings, return on investment, sellability, service, stakeholder value, testing industry, transparent work load models, value for money, value maximalization, worth. 

But as history shows, Humanism has been more than this package (its a-religious past was forgotten) and less than this. As some admitted during the conference, not all of the labels above have ever referred to a robust social reality and together they nostalgically and melancholically point at a romanticized image of a Humanist university that has never been. In the same vein, the terms used to refer to Humanism’s rival are hardly confined to the realm of Neoliberalism, as the histories of Communisms, Bureaucracies and Fascisms show. And Neoliberalism was born out of the concern that governments spend too little to get the economy going, not out of a blind obsession with budget cuts. When disclaimers are absent, we can speak of advertising.

Market values

Neoliberalism and Humanism were presented as mutually exclusive in their essences. Rightly so? Are there no Humanist traits in Neoliberalism? I guess there are. It’s just as curious about what works why and how, and just as critical about values as Humanism. It’s also ethical in choosing between right and wrong based on arguments. At most, one can say that its performance indicators are different from the ones Humanism would choose. But is Humanism really free from Neoliberal traits in these indicators? I guess not. In academia it’s deemed fully legitimate to create a (niche) market, enter into competition and pursue a monopoly in the field, become a brand and gather honorary jobs such as speaking at conferences. The differences between academic haves and have-nots become visible once a select group is put on stage and the majority isn’t, as the conference at hand exemplified too. The possibility of a genuine exchange was limited as the larger part of the available time was allotted to the speakers and further limited because some speakers left the conference shortly after they addressed the audience, as was the case on the first morning. The disappearing act after lunch of the national contributors, men with administrative tasks, can be interpreted as the subtle but notable message, “I have something to say to you, but nothing to learn from you.” Obviously, the organizing party and international contributors couldn’t leave the conference, but I didn’t notice a lot of engaged interaction with others during the informal parts of the program either. I don’t think this is necessarily a deliberate form of in and exclusion, but I do think the behavior at an academic conference is a matter of playing out a performance, with power differentials, role division and habit – and, again, not very different from how competitors behave in a market.

Indeed, the critique of the Neoliberal university has become its proper market, governed by the same principles that were put forward in the critical analysis of Neoliberalism. Another similarity with how markets work is the reception of newcomers on the market. Tellingly, in the conference booklet the names of the younger generation were concealed under the header ‘Young academics panel’ and, unlike the other speakers’ bios, their bios were missing. At the conference discussed here, the established generation was critical about the pragmatism of the upcoming generation and at times, I sensed an atmosphere of disapproval. The upcoming generation, in turn, expressed some worries about what they perceived as the idealized and romanticized version of academic freedom. As they said: “We try to play the game and keep our backs straight.” They showed a desire to change things they were dissatisfied with, instead of self-marginalize and self-annihilate. Alternatively, they also expressed worries about being sucked into a system with other values than their own. Their statement was that they were affected by the rules set by the older generation, itself not affected by them. Professor Belrose succinctly verbalized the importance of position in the final sentence before drinks: “We radicalize because they can’t touch us because we have a position.” At a more abstract level, there’s always a quid pro quo, a trade off in academia, be it as basic as a salary and the opportunity to maintain a certain life style, as hidden as the tit for tat cartel formation that helps create the market and its star providers, or as inherent as the importance of the method (the Greek ‘way to get somewhere’) one utilizes. That’s not essentially Neoliberal nor Humanist, but Human. I missed that last concept in this conference. It could have been the missing link.

To conclude

I don’t want to belittle the problems nor insult the analysts, but all in all I think that how the issues were framed resulted in a rhetoric in which the arguments of Neoliberalism were deconstructed – read: shown as false – and those of Humanism left untouched (only professor Duck took some effort to try to explain Neoliberalism and mitigate its consequences with the proposal of mixed funding and slow science). To me, it didn’t testify of a lot of self criticism (although professor Head sighted that “We have ourselves to blame” by denying the honor in teaching). Othering can have that effect. At moments, I had the impression that the ‘things can only get worse’ script of the academic haves on stage was enforced, because otherwise the whole anti-Neoliberal narrative would lose its validity. 
The rituals I observed here I also noted at other conferences. The topic of this particular conference and the way it was discussed offered the frame to interpret them as neoliberal. 

[1] The names are fictitious, the (biased) observations and interpretations are mine. This is a reworked version of a longer blog post.

Floor Basten works as an independent scholar for her research company OrléoN. She puts her expertise in narrative sociology to work for organizations that face social complexity and want to work with it. Recurrent themes in her research are researching publics, narrative inclusion and exclusion, transdisciplinary learning, social complexity and democracy. In 2008 she initiated Campus Orleon, a network for research in society. You find her work at and

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  1. Really enjoyed this article (refreshingly critical and reflexive). Although surely the answer is to assert what is politically proper and ethical?

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