When Academia Adopts Corporate Production Metrics

A little more often than now and then, some ruse, hoax, or stratagem upends academe. Recently, a small pod of researchers scandalized “cultural studies” by publishing, in prestigious journals, a plethora of counterfeit studies: make-believe research addressing preposterous issues such as the relation between the intimate anatomy of pets and the gender identities of their masters or the need for a feminist updating of Mein Kampf. Less spectacular exposés have occurred throughout the recent history of higher education, whether the famous Sokal hoax of the 1990s, which embarrassed the global scientific community, or the works of my own college roommate, a product of the Irish Boston immigrant community, who masqueraded for months as an enraged black poet. When the cover for such shams is eventually blown, the conservative press enjoys a feeding frenzy, railing against professors who, more often than not, draw their salaries from public funds. Is the story quite so simple? After all, even hard-core leftist professors should be clever enough to avoid looking ridiculous in the evening news. What does this recurrent phenomenon tell us about higher education—and about contemporary conservatism?

Probably the most widely observed law is that of unintended consequences. The donors, alumni, and commercial contractors who influence universities, many of whom drift to the conservative side of the political spectrum, may unintentionally create conditions that induce the kind of excesses exposed by satirizing hoaxers. Despite their reputation for leftist thinking, revenue-hungry colleges and universities spend much of their time trying to navigate around a cleft within American conservatism. Whether through public events such as Rotary Club or alumni association meetings or whether through a host of in-house documents—“mission statements,” “strategic plans,” and “vision statements”—that take long to write but attract only a few readers, campuses present themselves both as ivory towers in which noble thoughts find a safe haven and as factories stamping out the “human capital” required to ensure western dominance in a high-tech future. The first vision might be described as the philosophical conservatism of Cardinal Newman, the second, the establishment conservatism of Lee Iacocca or, if not Donald Trump, perhaps Tim Cook or Rex Tillerson.

Few college or university presidents have read Cardinal Newman. They find it easier, especially in difficult financial times, to opt for the production line version of conservatism. The donor queue, they recognize, is longer among CEOs than among philosophizing prelates. Eager to give conservative boosters what they think they want, campus leaders compensate for declining public support by seeking more students (or, as they prefer to say, “clients”), more tuition, and more output. Forgetting that Euro-American industry has a labor, social, and religious, as well as economic, history, they import into higher education a stripped-down version of the industrial model in the hope that producing students will convince the public that higher education is practical—i.e., that it evidences what cautious old Cardinal Newman discounted as “utility.” The conceptual instability of this approach is seen in mixed nomenclature within university propaganda. Incoming students are “clients” but the institutions go on to “produce” degree recipients. Industries, however, may “produce” goods to sell to clients, they do not “produce” clients.

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What has all this to do with fake scholarship and academic bombast? The substitution of industrial-style conservatism for the idealistic conservatism of Newman—i.e., what Newman calls “the habit of pushing things up to their first principles”—produces knock-on, or secondary, effects that lead to the overproduction of absurdities. First comes the Balkanizing of comprehensive universities—schools that claim to cover most recognized disciplines—into an array of institutes, centers, and programs where much of the funding comes from outside supporters rather than from institutional budgets that are open to public scrutiny. Such centers offer an escape from the claustrophobia of traditional academic departments, yet they also must continuously seek support, please donors and grantors, and produce—whether what is produced is good, bad, scientific, ideological, or merely attention-getting. Mimicking their production-obsessed parent university, centers and institutes pump up a blimp-load of research from a thin tithe. In my own university, we have a swollen “water campus” that arose as a response to Hurricane Katrina but that is now something of a paradoxical joint habitat for academics supporting conservative “sportsmen” who want to preserve their endangered hunting grounds and for liberals hoping to make anxieties about climate change look more practical than apocalyptic.

Interacting with the rise of institutes is a pseudo-capitalist version of academic tribalism. Administrations impose industrial-style economic models on discipline-based departments, setting them against one another in the competition for resources. This arrangement encourages small groups of professors to band tightly together, to resist outside criticism, to develop in-house jargons, and to become ever more defensive, parochial, and, worse, elitist (it being impossible that ignorant outsiders could understand the products of the departmental mandarins). Academic journals, similarly, develop clienteles, cadres of reviewers, and, in a word, gangs. Fraud becomes easy for anyone even close to insider status; youngsters are easily corrupted by the promise of frequent publication opportunities in exchange for being a team player. Thus, an emphasis on academic products rather than ideas seems to fulfill a “conservative” mandate but leads to zaniness.

The scholarship singed by the recent spoof arose from the liberal arts rather than the “STEM” (or, worse, “TED”) disciplines. Science has become the approved template for measuring academic productivity. Cardinal Newman may stress the seeking of first principles, but in donor- and revenue-driven academe, “science” has become confused with “product” or “effect.” The sciences routinely produce studies with hundreds of co-authors, many of whom have never read the study that they are credited with writing, by way of ensuring that everyone looks productive. Including everyone also ensures that no one will criticize the published work. As the science-originated multi-author, multi-reviewer model spreads, syndicates—dare I say “conspiracies”?—arise within all the disciplines. Researchers who are also publishing scholars “referee” contributions for publishers whose success improves those referees’ publishing prospects. Such an arrangement is efficient but not truthful; it produces, per one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines, but it does not judge. It also replicates the industrialist-conservative ideal of voluntary self-regulation—an ideal that may not always work, as the costly Takata air bag recall showed. The primary values ingrained in the self-regulated academic publishing system are speed, loyalty, and conformity. The primary result: scholarship that is at its best when, as is often the case, no one reads it.

In considering any of the sometimes arcane, sometimes trivial doings behind the ivy-covered walls, the hard question “why should anyone care about this?” easily arises. Occasionally, the answer is obvious. A patient would be well-advised to think twice before popping one of the countless pills promoted on late-night television but tested on only a half-dozen prisoners and a tiny tribe of graduate assistants in order to ensure that a researcher earns tenure, that a corporate donor sees results, and that departmental productivity metrics are met. With regard to the more abstruse “products” of scholars in the liberal arts, a more theoretical, if more old-fashioned and somewhat humorously religious, question occurs. That question is: will there be work (or tasks or jobs) in heaven? If there are journals, studies, and other academic products in the great beyond, the supply line behind them is likely to be infinite and the need or demand, in so happy a place, minimal. St. Peter is less likely to pay for a subscription than to receive complimentary copies; the pressure to meet production quotas will be low. From St. Thomas More we have learned that the utopian throws into contrast the folly of what we regard as commonplace or normal. Presumably the scholars in the saintly academy will prize honesty rather than voluminousness and truth rather than metrics.

(Photo credit: Charlie Chaplin in the 1936 film Modern Times.)


  • Kevin L. Cope

    Kevin L. Cope is Robert and Rita Wetta Adams Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He is the founder and editor of 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, the Co-General Editor of ECCB: The Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography, and the author or editor of dozens of books and articles. He received his doctorate in literature from Harvard University in 1983.

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