Herewith, the text of my contribution to the Western “Alternative” 100 Days of Listening Tour. With thanks to all my colleagues who maintain the “Noah Confidenze” Tumblr site, here.
Dear fellow faculty members, staff and students,
I’ve been at Western since 2005, but from 2012 to 2014 I worked as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary Drama is, according to the last two REF (“Research Excellence Framework”) exercises mandated by the British government, the top academic theatre department in the UK, and as of last December the top academic performing arts department, including but not limited to theatre. Its researchers are nationally celebrated and internationally respected writers and artists. They are also an amazing group of human beings who truly love each other and spend time outside of work together.
In spite of this exceptional good fortune and warm intradepartmental culture, however, over the last several years my QM colleagues’ working lives have grown harder and harder, the morale in the school of which they are a part dropping further and further. Research money is thin on the ground, but scholars are still expected to produce world-beating materials in time for the regular “dry runs” designed to prepare the college for success in the REF. New research centres are created according to what upper-level administrators think will best support the school’s brand, after only limited consultation with faculty members involved with or impacted by the schemes. Students, rocked by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s decision to raise tuition rates across the UK to £9000 per year, are themselves increasingly demoralised, anxious, and rightly worried about job prospects on the other side of their degrees. Meanwhile, the REF itself (www.ref.ac.uk) – which requires every academic department in the UK to submit faculty research “outputs” for “quality assessment” according to their national or international “impact” – dominates every aspect of academic life. Thinking of a new book project? Ask first if it will be “REF-able”. Writing a book for students? Think again – according to REF criteria teaching-focused work will have no measurable research “impact”. Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time? Or perhaps you’re planning to write about a Canadian topic, or a South African topic, or an Icelandic topic? Careful: that work may be deemed only to have limited, “national” significance.
During my two years in London I saw first-hand the human “impact” this neoliberal quest for profit-driving, brand-oriented research has had on brilliant, politically engaged, activist teachers and writers. Everybody is tired; everybody is anxious; everybody is worried about their job, the health of their department, the possibility of future funding (all of these things are tied, in different ways, to REF outcomes). Faculty members fretful about their basic job security, hopelessly overworked as they try to shoehorn “world leading” research into the space between measuring impact and trying to teach the citizens of the next generation, have precious little time for political protest about what has rapidly become the status quo. And that, of course, is exactly what neoliberal governance models hope for. If we’re all too tired to think, smart and critically engaged professors become far less of a threat. And we become far more likely to take the soothing words fed us on faith.
I came back to Western last August, knowing that I had seen our future at Queen Mary. I had witnessed, and (barely) survived, the world in which we will all end up if we do not mount a sustained, vigorous protest against the corporatization of higher education in Canada, and against the decimation of critical inquiry as the university’s major contribution to the public good. The scandal that has blown up around Dr Chakma’s salary provision has given us a precious opportunity: a clarifying object around which to mount a clear and public debate about the future of Canadian universities, their increasingly slavish devotion to neloliberal governance models, and the very real dangers – for students, faculty, the public, and citizenship itself – of their appetite for power and profit allergic to thoughtful challenge. I urge us all to hold tight to this fight, even after the flames of Amit Chakma’s scandal burn out.
Yours in solidarity,