Thursday, 17 September 2009

Neoliberal U – Australian version.

It is always interesting to be an onlooker at the internal workings of another university, as opposed to viewing the public face of an institution at a conference, and I was fortunate this summer to spend time at an Australian university which has frequently been cited as a trailblazer for the neoliberal academy. Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university employee. Normally, at my own institution, I would have scorned such an opportunity. However, this was a chance to be a fly on the wall and to decode the culture of another university's management.

The presenter was offering the participants the benefit of his experience in effective networking and collaboration. The advice he extended seemed to be geared to the rather younger academic than the assembled mid-career constituency rather reluctantly gathered before him, as he revealed that, early on, he had decided to “surround myself with excellence”. How to do this? One brief role play required us to imagine this scenario – you are at a conference and find yourself at lunch standing next to the keynote speaker. What 'chat up' line would you use, in order to make yourself memorable to this heavyweight, who might subsequently facilitate your self promotion strategy? Apparently, the route to advancement is mediated through high quality academic partners who “make you look good”. I listened with my jaw progressively slackening; I had never been exposed before to such shamelessly direct exhortations to actualise self-serving sycophancy.

Building your network should feature high on your one-page career plan, which should be complemented with evidence of your esteem indicators. Your network should be viewed as an asset, and as essential to your CV as any actual professional accomplishments. However, networking and collaboration were defined in extremely limited ways. Partnerships were only viable if they led to outcomes – publications, grant application etc. There seemed to be no room for conversation, mentoring, interest groups, blogging etc. Instead, you were to be measured by the size and geographical spread of your network, and critically, by the status of its participants.

This presenter viewed networking as purely strategic. On the other hand, for many of us , it is experienced as a series of happy accidents, fortuitous collisions of minds, and sometimes bodies, at conferences. Collaborations are driven as often by personal or romantic liaisons as they are by pure intellectual attraction. Seminars, collegiate encounters and academic partnerships are as often organic as they are planned. I was startled at the apparent contradiction between the stated aim of the workshop – collaboration – and the rather vulgar focus on individualism which animated this particular model of the developing academic career. I wondered how this sat with the HR representative in charge of the academic development program, positioned at the back of the room – how was this aligning with the wider mission of the university which surely is not just a vehicle for furthering the priorities of the individual?

At Neoliberal U the individual academic is also responsible for managing their time so that the proliferation of demands must be accommodated unproblematically. In the presenter's own department, he has forbidden staff to claim they are too busy to take on new projects, organise seminars, work with new partnerships. The individual should just learn to 'work smart'. The self-managing academic must become the over-worked academic apparently.

I was also concerned that institutional impediments to networking were discussed, but I felt they were unlikely to be addressed. University managers have, for some years, sought to dismantle academic culture and sense of community. It is threatening to managerialist governmentality, and subject affiliations are seen as dangerously off-message. Part of this strategy has been the removal of social spaces where academics might actually mingle and coincidentally realise commonalities and opportunities for research. RAE culture in the UK has, because of the inbuilt competition, set limits on inter-unit collaboration.

I did come away with some good ideas and a recognition of a few truths about networking and collaboration. Go to conferences and talk to people you don't know, not the other people from your institution. Look for collaborations outside of your own department within your university. I think I knew this already, but maybe I'll go ahead and do it. Look for me on the NTU website as employee of the month sometime soon.

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