If I were to ask my colleagues what they think about neoliberalism and its impact on today’s colleges and universities, many of them would report that they’ve either never come across the term “neoliberalism” or that they are unsure what it means.
This is interesting in and of itself.
But if I ask, “have you ever noticed how market-speak has infiltrated our discourse?” I imagine most of them would say, “yes.”
Over the last decade or so, it’s become commonplace to hear about our “competitor schools,” the importance of ensuring “value for the money,” and the need for students and their families to see a “return on investment.”
At one of our College-wide planning sessions a year or so ago, faculty listened as one of the chief members of our marketing department emphasized the significance of the College “brand.”
The placement of banners on the side of the road, the construction of fancy dorms and fitness centers, and the increased focus on student satisfaction surveys all indicate that more and more, tuition-driven schools like mine view students as consumers whose “business” we need to attract and sustain.
In this competitive “market,” we need to focus on efficiency, ensure that our academic program is “sustainable,” and be flexible in the face of external pressures and demands.
But what is “neoliberalism,” and how does it relate to the shift in discourse I’ve sketched above?
While neoliberalism centers on minimal government regulation and the relatively unfettered operation of markets, it goes well beyond a series of policy objectives.
It is better understood as an ensemble of ideological forces and norms whose primary aim is to construct a specific kind of social reality, one in which every aspect of human life is managed and evaluated in relation to market demands. In the United States, this ideology took hold in the late 1970s, became dominant in the 1980s, and has been guiding our thought and behavior ever since.
Neoliberalism seeks to extend market logic to social realms where markets did not exist before.
Needs formerly met by public agencies, or via government provision, or through personal relationships in communities and families, are now to be met by companies selling services in the marketplace.
On this view, the State is the market, efficiency is the highest value, and the market always knows best.
Any intrusions into the market should be avoided given that they restrict proper operations and prevent individuals from freely engaging with the marketplace.
Neoliberalism emphasizes the values of individualism, self-reliance, consumerism, and personal gain; and these market values shape what we regard as rational and responsible forms of human agency.
It is rational, for example, to focus on increasing one’s “human capital,” and irrational to engage in pursuits that are not valued in the marketplace.
Thus, within the neoliberal university, students’ central goal is to land a well-paying job and become “a productive member of society”: i.e. a high wage earner and a terrific consumer.
Professors’ central goals are to get tenure, be promoted, and attain status, prestige, and a higher pay check.
Interestingly, philosophers have had relatively little to say about the influence of neoliberalism on higher education in general, or professional academic philosophy in particular.
This is problematic, especially in light of the fact that philosophy (as well other fields in the Humanities) often are perceived as unnecessary when it comes to getting a well-paying job and participating in the marketplace.
While philosophy once was thought to play a crucial role in educating people for their role as citizens, today’s emphasis on economic innovation and competitiveness make philosophy seem like a waste of time and effort for many or even most.
Now, while I do believe that an education in philosophy provides excellent training for the world of work, this is hardly the primary or central reason why it is valuable.
But in the context of the neoliberal university, it is hard to convince people that they can “afford” to concern themselves with knowledge for its own sake.
And unfortunately, many colleges and universities are responding accordingly and have begun to eliminate both philosophy programs as well as the (sometimes tenured) faculty members who populate them.
Clearly, if, as professional philosophers, we want the discipline to survive and thrive, we need to pay more attention to this problem and to consider how we might respond to this increasingly market-driven environment.
An issue that has received even less consideration, however, is the impact that neoliberalism has had on professional philosophy itself.
Far too few academic philosophers stop to question the ways in which neoliberalism has infiltrated our practices of teaching and scholarship.
And yet, neoliberal ideology has had a significantly negative impact on these areas, as these APP posts from 2013 and 2015 clearly show—
One key result of neoliberal ideology is a shift toward managerialism and quantification.
As universities become increasingly dominated by market mechanisms, organic social processes are turned into codified, rote processes.
Administrators and faculty members alike are encouraged to frame all matters in quantifiable terms, in relation to input-output efficiency and “sustainability.”
Due to this increased focus on efficiency, systems of shared faculty governance become overshadowed by hierarchical, top-down decision-making models.
Purely instrumental, economic metrics are used to evaluate academic departments, universities, and faculty members.
A department’s “performance” is measured by the number of graduates, the number of students taught, and the number of publications produced by faculty members.
Scholarly “outputs” are measured in terms of “usage” and “impact factors,” and this kind of information is then used by administrators to grant or deny promotion and tenure as well as merit pay.
The upshot of all this is that colleges and universities are increasingly governed by free market rhetoric together with intensive, coercive managerial control practices.
And because merit increases, promotion, and tenure decisions typically focus so heavily on research, faculty members come to view other aspects of their work—such as teaching and service—as vanishingly important.
Often there is little incentive to work closely with graduate students, let alone undergraduates; and there also is little impetus to engage with the broader community or discuss the implications of one’s work for public concerns.
Perhaps what is most striking about all this is that these pressures to view our work in relation to market norms and values is not simply imposed from outside the profession.
Instead, as professional academic philosophers, we do this to ourselves by perpetuating the very kinds of market norms and values that neoliberalism encourages.
One obvious example is the Philosophical Gourmet Report’s rankings of philosophy departments and the “scoring” of individual faculty members.
The fact that people take these rankings seriously, and that young people use them as a guide when applying to graduate school, creates a climate that hardly is conducive to the pursuit of higher learning.
Another example of “how measures colonize behavior” is the increasing tendency of professional philosophers to count citations and place great importance on a journal’s “impact factor.”
It seems clear that many of them have come to believe that these metrics do truly reflect the quality of research.
No doubt this obsession with rankings contributes to increased competition, decreased collaboration, and even poor philosophy.
If a journal article appears in a high-ranking journal or is authored by a “famous” philosopher at an “elite” institution, many professional philosophers will assume it is of high quality before they even read it.
This “cult of celebrity” leads us to be overly concerned about prestige and cultivates a competitive spirit in the field; and anybody who has ever read nasty comments from a reviewer or responded to a hostile question at a conference knows that some of this competition hardly qualifies as “healthy.”
In addition, because promotion and tenure or merit pay decisions often are based on number of publications, there is an incentive to divide up one’s research into numerous small pieces and publish each as a separate article.
This incentivizes philosophers to write more and more about less and less.
It also discourages the kinds of research that require years of intensive thought, as well as research that is interdisciplinary or draws connections between several fields.
And encouraging philosophers to publish in the most prestigious journals tends to result in research that is focused on the tried and true, and which employs conventional methodology.
Rather than asking new questions, challenging the status quo, or pushing the limits of philosophical investigation, such research tends to focus on puzzle solving and debating established theories.
The research that professional philosophers churn out, and their methods of investigation, also strongly suggest that we suffer from “science envy.”
While I applaud philosophers’ efforts to engage with the sciences and use empirical findings to guide their work, there is a very common tendency to discount particular subfields and treat them as “not real philosophy.”
Indeed, many professional philosophers believe, deep down, that what they do is less important than the sciences.
When it comes to the philosophy of mind, for example, work that incorporates neuroscientific findings is viewed as far more rigorous than work that engages with phenomenology and lived experience.
And work which points out that the pursuit of science is not truly value-free and instead is guided by all sorts of biases—e.g. work done by feminist philosophers of science—often is viewed with great suspicion.
But why, exactly, has science assumed such a central place in society at large and in philosophy in particular?
To what extent has neoliberalism, with its emphasis on technology and economic innovation, influenced our assumptions about knowledge and knowledge production?
It begins to seem as if most of us have not given these questions even a passing thought—although these APP posts on scientism do make some serious headway towards answering at least the former question:
Nor have professional academic philosophers had much to say about the corporatization of the university, for example, or the defunding of public institutions.
A quick online search indicates how few articles address how neoliberal thinking impacts pedagogy and student learning.
We haven’t said much, for example, about how the push toward online learning or reliance on large lectures is driven primarily by economic considerations rather than educational ones.
The research conducted by education-scholars suggest that when students think about their education in narrow, purely instrumental terms, this erodes their capacity for critical thought, historical analysis, and broader systemic relations.
Arguably this is especially disheartening for those of us who have dedicated our lives to philosophy and want to encourage students to question to question the commonsense beliefs, values, and assumptions that prevail in their society.
Likewise, there has been relatively little moral outrage over the increased reliance on part-time and full-time contingent faculty, who in many ways form a caste separate from that of full-time, tenured, and tenure-track professional philosophers.
—A notable exception is APP:
As professional academic philosophers, we not only tolerate these inequalities; some of us revel in the fact that we’ve made it through the competition and come out on top.
But the fact that these individuals are essentially being exploited should be especially troubling for those of us who think that advancing progressive morality and politics is a central task for real philosophy.
We also have had little to say about professional ethics, including moral issues surrounding conflicts of interest in promotion in tenure cases, the review of journal articles, and the mentoring of graduate students and junior colleagues.
—Again, except for APP:
While some of us are critical of the way in which academic philosophers relate to each other, we have not spent much time theorizing the ways in which the dynamics that characterize much of professional philosophy reflect social relations that have come to dominate contemporary life.
In fact, many of us have become so accustomed to the ruthless competition and obsession with rankings that we feel we need to accept that this is just the way things are.
Perhaps it is not surprising, though, that relatively little critical attention has been devoted to the ways in which neoliberal ideology has impacted professional philosophy.
After all, neoliberalism’s “best trick” is to cultivate social amnesia and convince people to remain attached to a set of ideologies and market values that detract from their well-being.
The pervasiveness and normalization of capitalist economic logic, and the expansion of exclusively instrumental rationality into all spheres of human engagement, including higher education, create the impression that this is simply the “natural” approach to the world—that things could not be otherwise.
Indeed, there is good reason to think that rather than promoting critical thought and advancing the professed goals of the discipline, neoliberal ideology deforms the patterns of thinking and feeling of professional philosophers.
It encourages us to care about things that we don’t really care about (e.g. journal rankings), to downplay the importance of things that we should care more about (e.g. our relationships with our colleagues and students), and to view much of what we do in purely instrumental terms.
And it encourages us to view all of this as inevitable, and to regard falling in line as simply being “realistic.”
In so doing, it distances us from our love of philosophy and our intrinsic desire to know and understand our surroundings.
For many of us, it results in decreased motivation, cynicism, and frustration.
In short, it makes it more difficult for us to engage in real philosophy.
As professional academic philosophers, we should devote radically more critical attention to the impact of neoliberalism on higher education in general, and the discipline of philosophy in particular, and further consider ways that we might challenge and resist all or at least some of its detrimental effects.