Potemkin U. (guest post)


“We are mired in inevitably betraying and ignoble practices, obliged to pay mindless obeisance to useless cant or to perform pantomimes of actually important values made ridiculous through endless, unanswered repetition…”

The following is a guest post by Amy Olberding, Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.

[Gregory Sailer, “Carson City / Vårgårda”]

Potemkin U.
by Amy Olberding

My husband is an academic, a sinologist in our History Department. Last year, he was appointed to one of our university’s administrative advisory committees for “women’s issues.” It hardly matters which since they all seem to work the same. He had volunteered to serve anywhere that help was needed and they put him on the committee—heretofore populated by all and only women—without apparently notifying or consulting the committee itself. So there he sat on Zoom, uneasy that he had been foisted on colleagues who might well not want him there. He volunteered to help in whatever ways appeared, but also tried to fade into the background, feeling that to do or say too much was not his place. He did talk to me about the work, work with which I was well familiar, having myself served and even chaired one such committee years ago.

My husband’s committee was interested in advocating for parental leave (faculty really have none to speak of) and salary equity (likewise, not much in evidence where we work). These were exactly the issues my own committee had taken on a decade or so ago. This duplication and repetition are the way of things. So many university committees reduce to setting earnest, interested people to work on purportedly improving recommendations, the recommendations are then summarily ignored, and then a fresh supply of people are put to work on doing it all over again. So long as the populations of the committees keep turning over, one can have all manner of salutary-seeming efforts underway and ensure that they never go anywhere at all.

Other sorts of efforts enjoy, however briefly, more administrative interest and momentum. Sometime round 2014, the faculty were set to work developing ambitious plans to cultivate improved research, a five-year initiative called “Aspire 2020.” All sorts of faculty hours and efforts were consumed in devising not research, but plans for how research could happen. Meetings large and small were held, groups and subgroups were formed, task forces too. But by 2016 or 2017, the thing entire just drifted off into the ether, never to be heard from or about again. It would soon be replaced by some newer initiative purportedly devoted to the same (but differently branded) style of “improvement” until such time as that would also drift and some alternative arise. This too is the way of things.

We are, in short, awash in Potemkin Village projects, ever busy erecting cozy facades as fronts for a total poverty of meaningful action. We paint and repaint the university’s false fronts, slathering on whatever tint is currently fashionable among the managerial types—“aligning” our departments with “strategic priorities” or “verticals” or “pillars.” We are conscripted into playing industrious villagers, assisting in the simulations. We may not have research “excellence” or gender “equity,” but we do look busy with it.

The waste of it has lately come to strike me harder than it once did. This owes in part to the pandemic and a sense of national decay, wider sorrows that make consigning human effort to façade-production a special sort of noxious.

I am fairly well convinced that, whether we will or no, human beings are shaped by the practices in which they engage. My sense of this achieved new force over the pandemic, not just because so many existing social practices fell apart but because my own changed. Living isolated on a farm for well over a year, I rarely walked on concrete and became more accustomed to seeing wildlife than people. The work I did around the place was the sort one cannot massage with empty rhetoric and gestures—if your task is to rebuild the creek crossing, there is only whether your work withstands the spring rains or not; if you’re on your own with a wounded animal that can’t be saved, you can’t coo it into better, but should just in mercy shoot it. None of this or like work can rest on words, so much less on gaudy, vacant rhetoric. Its raw immediacy does not profit from a mare’s nest of verbal “strategic planning,” “anticipated outgrowths,” or “targeted initiatives.” By and large, such work even rejects “excellence.” Returning to my other style of work, re-joining the Potemkin University “family,” has thus been hard. I am repelled by the shape our practices would make me take.

My lament may be unique in some of its details but has of course been widely noticed and even satirized by many—sufficiently so that I even worry as a I write this that I become a familiar type. I could be the bitter harridan, protesting rosy-seeming “efforts” I have largely found to conceal systems patently unfair; I could be the aging, jaded burnout skewering the vanities by which we must earn our bread; I could be the naïve idealist who stubbornly refuses to understand “how things work.” I could, in short, be one or many caricatures that regularly feature in writing about academia and we who populate it. Perhaps some combination of all of these is what I am. To this, I can only say, whatever. I am also and in some now less defined fashion, still a philosopher.

Philosophy is not (inherently) at some remove from the hard, unyielding stuff of material reality, stuff that offers up resistance and much challenge. We build work we hope won’t get washed out but know that this can happen, and the tension that comes in constructing work that will be tested and tried by forces outside ourselves is important. This is the core of our practice. Whether as philosopher or farmer, I care greatly for contact with reality and with its many tensions. But the tensions that our workplaces induce and foster are sourced elsewhere. Much of the bureaucracy, committees, and governance of academia seem to me not only like false fronts and facades, but ones especially resistant to correction by, or even contact with, reality. They are often little more than bullshit. And, alas, bullshit in which we must participate and even help produce. Worst of all, if one should utter the seemingly seditious thought that all of it is waste and farce, the response may well be: What’s your point? That is, it is not as if others have not noticed. The Potemkin villager who announces that, “hey, we aren’t building real houses here!” is the one who has somehow missed the purpose of it all.

The practices of Potemkin U. have long been at some odds with what academics are specially charged to do. We can argue, likely endlessly, about what education and universities are for, but I dare to venture that no academics see our charge as the repetitive production of dull and witless fictions or endless restatements of the obvious. Yet this is what our jobs require. We are mired in inevitably betraying and ignoble practices, obliged to pay mindless obeisance to useless cant or to perform pantomimes of actually important values made ridiculous through endless, unanswered repetition. Much of “faculty governance” has been reduced to only this. It is hard not to feel corrupted by this form of practice, most especially now, in a time that stretches on and ever onward in a pressing raw immediacy. At the very least, the waste of mortal hours it represents should appall.

Blog posts are supposed to raise some issue for discussion and mine so far has not. So here it is, a query for those of you who work in places like the one that I describe: How can the tension be managed—the tension between the meaningful work of study and the cynically meaningless efforts that everywhere fill the workplace of the university? How might we reconcile the forced and vacuous practices of contemporary university culture against all the valuable stuff that drew us to academia in the first place? How can one break this unhelpful and corrosive, useless tension—the contact with reality we presumably all should want and the forced exile from it that so much institutional culture requires?

guest
29 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Varty
28 days ago

In answer to your question you cannot break it – the tension between the meaningful and meaningless stuff. The system is already broken in ways that seem unlikely to change – there is too much of the meaningless stuff and the pressures are for it to endlessly proliferate. Sorry to be bleak but that is how I see it.

Great post btwReport

Last edited 28 days ago by John Varty
dmf
dmf
Reply to  John Varty
27 days ago

it’s worse then this as the line between meaningful and meaningless is largely obliterated by trends like grade inflation, profs (and other instructors) have been turned into service providers serving customers (complete with satisfaction surveys) and have no real authority to uphold standards, lots of villains here but that would have to include the vast majority of faculty who’ve done little to nothing to resist (no real unions to speak of, have there been any general strikes this century?), most folks involved have no real skills to sell on none academic markets and will understandably cling on as best they can to keep their homes and help pay their kids’ student debts…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
27 days ago

Some service work I’ve undertaken has been very useful. Some has been pointless generation of paper. I remember well the first time I realized that I had written a report that nobody had read. I sympathize with you for finding meaningless work soul-crushing. Personally, as long as I believe that my teaching and research are important, and I do, I’m going to stay enthusiastic about my job. I suggest that you try to think about the things you do that do matter, and consider the rest as a cost of doing business. I also think that working to combat the spread of unimportant work is worthwhile. Sure, you probably won’t achieve anything, but progress is made by people trying. Hang in there!Report

Nick Byrd
27 days ago

This conservatism in academia is hardly recognized by alarmist claims about how “the left” (whatever that means) has taken over the university. As this post highlights, committees or task forces rarely if ever cause meaningful change to change resistant universities. The only major changes I’ve seen in universities involve
– large donations (e.g., a building)
– seeming revenue opportunities (e.g., online education, sports programs, or the latest resort amenity that is supposed to attract more students, etc.)
– government legislation (e.g., Title IX)
– unions

Aside from that, university changes are often mere rhetoric: not just 5 year plans, but also mandated sections of syllabi, mandates trainings, mission statements, titles, slogans, etc.

If the University of Austin were focused mostly on eliminating the pointless bureaucracy of higher education rather than culture wars and more rhetoric, then the masses of educators and researchers who relate to some part of this essay would find it a very exciting prospect (regardless of their politics). I hope that people with more ambition will succeed in that more innovative and important work for higher ed. Until then, I expect academia to remain an almost paralyzingly conservative bureaucracy (despite its appearances, marketing, or reputation).Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Nick Byrd
27 days ago

Once you move past cable news to more serious discussions of these issues, the claim you actually hear is :

Neo-liberalism and managerialism has taken over the university and (in elite US universities, and to a lesser extent in other places) it has cynically adopted woke ideology as an effective means to pursuing some of its ends. This has allowed this ideology to become ascendant in many parts of academia and further undermined some core academic values

No doubt you reject this claim. However, you should at least get the claim your opponents are making correct rather than strawmaning them with a much less defensible view. But more importantly, I think it is inadvisable to turn an issue that all regular faculty can come together on (the negative impacts of neo-liberalism and managerialism on faculty) into another channel for litigating an issue that deeply divides them (diversity policies and cancel culture). Let’s put aside our different viewpoints on the latter stuff and all agree here that faculty are getting screwed and need to push back. Faculty too politically divided to effectively fight for their common interests is exactly what the neoliberal puppet masters want.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  JTD
26 days ago

I’m sorry, is the claim here that, e.g., the founding members of the University of Austin are primarily concerned with the pernicious effects of neoliberalism on the modern university system?Report

Kreigflaggesteinberg
Reply to  JTD
17 days ago

Yes, that tends to be the more precise claim (about neoliberalism and managerialism). Is it correct, though? Might the phenomenon instead, and better, be explained as simply being a function of Weberian formal rationality – a process that would happen in universities irrespective of the current economic order? (I hope that’s treated as a serious question.)

With that in mind, Nick Byrd’s post omits the massive increase in university administrative staff over the last two generations. This comes with the need for busy work created for/by them to rationalize their presence and numbers. It’s nonetheless hard to square this phenomenon with the rhetoric/ideology of neoliberalism (efficiencies, cost-cutting, etc.)

Is it really also the case that most faculty are too politically divided on these matters? Isn’t this an empirical question? (For which citations to empirical evidence would be most appreciated.) Either way, isn’t Orwell’s ‘argument’ (as opposed to either Gramsci’s or Lenin’s) as to why there will never be a proletarian revolution applicable in this context too?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Nick Byrd
27 days ago

There may be a sense in which universities are “conservative”, but it isn’t ideological conservatism, the view championed by conservatives.

As for the view that the left has taken over universities, it depends on exactly what one means. Conservative media presents a grossly distorted, grossly inaccurate charicature of what’s going on, but there has been a cultural change over the years. For instance, there are almost no philosophers who identify as conservative. In my own large department, I believe that every last one of us can fairly be placed on the “hard left”, with the exception of a single adjunct. The situation is similar in many other disciplines of the humanities.Report

Larry McCullough
27 days ago

Here is the key claim in this essay: “We are, in short, awash in Potemkin Village projects, ever busy erecting cozy facades as fronts for a total poverty of meaningful action.” Two examples are given as the evidence base for this claim. Even if persuasive, two examples do not support the use of ‘awash’. They do generate the hypothesis of poor leadership at the author’s university, e.g., appointing faculty to a committee without informing the committee when the appointment could reasonably be expected to provoke questions and not implementing reports that leadership itself requested. Further hypothesis: the Potemkin Village is a symptom of a problem not the problem itself. Report

Mrd
Mrd
Reply to  Larry McCullough
26 days ago

This might only be two data points, but you’ll find many, many more from just talking to faculty about their experiences. I haven’t yet encountered anyone who can provide meaningful evidence to show their university does not work in the way Dr. Olberding describes. If they exist can someone let us know how to come and work there?Report

James R. Hamilton
27 days ago

This is a fine post. And I have gotten more serious philosophy done since I retired from a university, I have served as department head and on far too many provost’s task forces. I too was among those who did not understand “how things are done” because none — not one — of the recommendations that came out of those task forces was adopted by my university. The cause, I came to believe, was that each of the recommendations called for more investment in faculty; and this is/was at a time when faculty numbers were being reduced, either by the appointment of administrators using faculty “lines” or by replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts. In my university’s case it *was* the former. It now seems to be the latter.
As one of the other letter-writers observes, two cases alone do not make your case. So, I can only add my voice — and numerous examples from my own experience — to help you out here. And, as another letter-writer observes, I am also not sanguine about the prospects for change.Report

Nancy E Snow
27 days ago

I applaud my colleague Amy Olberding’s insightful analysis of the malaise that affects higher education today. Though I’ll soon be leaving the University of Oklahoma, I find her analysis spot on.

I’d like to add my own thoughts. Part of the problem is that there has arisen a new genre of university administrator — people who are essentially “job hoppers.” They spend five years here, three years there, etc., trying to burnish their credentials and move up the administrative ladder. They try to launch their own strategic initiatives, with verticals, horizontals, etc., and then, after disrupting the life of the university, wasting faculty time and resources on committee work, they move on.

This is also connected with several other phenomena that I’ve noticed. First, the “stemification” of universities, that is, the view that the only research worth promoting is in the sciences; second, the rise of the adjunct and the decline of the tenured professor; and finally, the “corporatization” of higher education. We’ve already seen how health care has been changed into patient processing at the expense of patient care. We’re now seeing an army of job hopping administrators do the same kind of thing to universities. They come with no institutional memory nor any commitment to the ethos of the university. Some are straightforwardly incompetent.

I’ve been considering writing a book about these trends. Can we fight them? I believe that unionization is worth a try. In my experience, bodies such as faculty senates are ineffective in advocating for the welfare of either the faculty or the university. Absent the strong desire for faculty unification, though, perhaps the best tack is what I know several people to be doing — keeping their heads down and focusing on their own work. At least that keeps people semi-sane in the midst of madness.Report

david
david
Reply to  Nancy E Snow
27 days ago

Hi Prof. Snow:
I would be interested in hearing more about your book idea. I have been considering a similar project of my own, to wit:
Max Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy has proliferated in higher education over the last 15 years. Just as the insurance industry has taken over the medical profession (essentially as ‘middlemen’) and thus has added a new and complicated level of capitalist bureaucracy to the health care industry , so has a similar mentality infiltrated the field of higher education. The result has been the proliferation of technocratic models which have ultimately had the effect of leveling down the educational process for both instructors and students. By leveling, we may employ Heidegger’s definition as “an insensitivity to all distinctions in level and genuineness” which, “…opens up a standard world”,… the effect being the blurring and minimizing of “all distinctions between the unique and the general, the superior and the average, the important and the trivial”. * (See Hubert Dreyfus, Being in the World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, MIT Press, 1990).
Consider the following examples of this: (1)  the unfettered growth of an administrative process resulting in increased centralization and control ; (2) a flattened educational experience conducted through online “learning management systems”, often structured such that they necessarily suppress much of the inherent ambiguity, richness and nuance of the subject matter; (3) assessment and accreditation procedures which not only add an unnecessary meta-level of complication to everyday academic work, but which also impose a reductive positivist model of evaluating teaching and learning which prioritizes appearance over reality.  (4) Other examples mentioned in Prof. Olberding’s excellent post.

Perhaps we could meet over virtual coffee to discuss!!!!Report

Nancy E Snow
Reply to  david
27 days ago

Hi, David,

I’d be happy to discuss further after I’ve settled in at the University of Kansas! I will be pretty busy until the beginning of September. My new email address as of August 18 will be [email protected].

Best,

NancyReport

david
david
Reply to  Nancy E Snow
27 days ago

OK!!Report

Barry Lam
27 days ago

At the height of pandemic teaching in Fall of 2020, you know, Zoom classes, admin assistants at home, my first semester as chair, we got a notification from an administrative office that each department was in charge of giving some other department a “care package”, letting them know how appreciated they were. The package should include items at our discretion, but might be bags of coffee, soaps, or anything appropriate, but to make sure everyone in the other department was included. Don’t think any department was happy about it.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Barry Lam
27 days ago

Job ads appropriate for people in the other department so they could leave your university?Report

Mrd
Mrd
Reply to  Barry Lam
26 days ago

At my own university I received one of these bags containing university/office swag, chocolates, and a puppy calendar in lieu of permission to move my classes online for a few weeks while cases were spiking.Report

Q
Q
27 days ago

There’s a gut-wrenching passage in Ellison’s “Invisible Man” where our young hero, believing that he has been selected by the white establishment for advancement and promotion, sees that the letter of recommendation that he’ll transmit from one authority to a higher authority is not a letter of recommendation at all. Instead, in words now both unspeakable and unmentionable, the letter simply says,
“To whom it may concern: keep this [n-word] running.”
Whenever we receive a charge from our provosts and presidents and managers to re-imagine our university and draft a plan to invigorate and synergize, we should recall that this is just one group of highly-paid non-academics saying to another group, ” keep these academics running.”
Remember that managers take positive control of our lives by controlling budgets. If it does not involve money, they do not waste their time with it. It is not a serious endeavor, it’s just something they do to fatigue us.
So, when next asked to chair a university committee, your first question should be, “what budget has been set aside for this project?” Your second should be, “how much money will this committee have for discretionary expenditure in support of its plans, as it sees fit?”
If the answer is, “no budget,” or, “the committee itself will not make any spending decisions, but the provost will certainly consider its recommendations,” then you know that none of the people in power take it seriously. It just a way to keep you running.Report

Redundant
27 days ago

I don’t know much about who controls funding and programs in higher education. But Teen Vogue came out with an essay about who comprises boards:

“The University of Oklahoma Board of Regents members have diverse backgrounds that include, but are not limited to marketing, accounting, government, teaching, law, non-profit management, fundraising and investment. Among this group the OU Board of Regents also includes a former university president. Each member has a proven track record on how to lead a successful business”

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/campus-cancel-culture-university-boards/amp

Union representatives are not part of the board and that’s probably why there’s a lack of concern for faculty needs. The people who comprise the boards are people who have expertise in running a business and making sure they’re doing it within the boundaries of the law.

But I have questions: 1) Who gets to decide that these people get to be on the board in the first place and why?, 2) are they justified in excluding union representatives?, 3) are they justified in continuing to have the same kind of professionals on their boards? 4) are they justified in excluding actual faculties?, 5) are current boards just in who they select to make decisions?, and 6) are they just in what they do?

The lesson to learn from Teen Vogue is for faculties (or philosophers) to start focusing more on the structure, function, aims, consequences, politics, and justice of university boards.Report

Last edited 27 days ago by Redundant
Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Redundant
27 days ago

Redundant, the board is appointed by the state governor. Faculty have no input. In Oklahoma, we are legally prohibited from unionizing as well. I don’t know how many other states have similar arrangements but these hold for all state colleges and universities in Oklahoma.Report

Redundant
Reply to  Amy Olberding
27 days ago

Thank you for letting me know!Report

Phil grad student
Reply to  Amy Olberding
26 days ago

Same in Texas, as far as I’m aware: boards appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate, legal prohibition on unions and no right to strikeReport

Redundant
Reply to  Phil grad student
26 days ago

Thanks. The saying goes, “follow the money”. But in these cases, “follow the power” is more informative and useful.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Redundant
26 days ago

people generally get on boards by being major donors to Govs so money=powerReport

Dirk Baltzly
26 days ago

The description of the research planning process is exquisite. I’ve lived through the bulding of countless such Potemkin villages. Each one lasts only as long as the appointment of a new Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research. Whereupon a new village is built somewhere else. We plan and financial support for research and teaching keeps going down and down.

My own solution has been early retirement. I cannot hold back the tide of bullshit. But I can choose to stop swimming at this beach.Report

David Wallace
25 days ago

This is going to overlap with something Q said, but from a more positive (naive?) perspective. (I have limited experience of US university admin; this is mostly based on experience in Oxford – some positive, some negative.)

It is largely meaningless to consider what changes an organization might make without knowing what resources are available to support those changes. As James Hamilton notes, faculty committees often recommend investments in faculty, and those cost resources. It is extremely easy to come up with proposals that would improve the quality of faculty teaching and research if one has unlimited resources to spend; it is very difficult to do so with no resources to spend; somewhere in between is the sweet spot.

That means that before any committee or task force starts its work, it absolutely has to get a commitment from whoever set it up as to what budget is available. If the answer is ‘it depends on the proposals’ or something similar, you need to press for at least an approximate level of spending (e.g., ‘maybe up to $1M per annum but of course it depends on the merits of the proposals). If (up-front or on pressing) the answer is ‘zero or near zero’ it might well still be worth the committee working: you now know that it will be a waste of time to propose investments, but there are often things that can be done that don’t cost significant resources. If even on pressing you get a non-answer, consider refusing to serve: it’s a red flag about the committee’s likely effectiveness.

Conversely, if you’re on a committee or task force and you have a reasonable idea of budget, you need to respect it.

-It’s normally going to be a waste of time saying ‘we had this brilliant idea, but it will cost way more than we have available’. (Normally, not always: maybe it really is brilliant, maybe you have some insight into senior leadership’s thinking that makes you confident it’s worth a shot. But these are the exceptions.)

-It’s always going to be a waste of time pointing out that the university spends X amount of money on trivial thing Y. Even if you’re right, that’s not your committee’s remit and no-one will listen to you. (If you want to fight that battle, fight it in other places.)

-If you want to spend money, have at least a rough idea of how much you want to spend. Have someone on the committee with enough financial literacy and broad-brush understanding of your university’s financial model that you can at least do back-of-the-envelope estimates. If you can’t get that, get a line to someone in your university’s finance team. It works way better to say ‘we propose doing XYZ, here’s a rough estimate of its setup and continuing costs’ than just to say ‘we propose spending money on XYZ’.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  David Wallace
25 days ago

This is very helpful advice. However, in my experience funding is only a potential issue half of the time. The other half of the time when one does BS committee work the problem is that the administration has already decided what they are going to do on a key matter but realize that it looks better if they can say that they took recommendations from a committee before making the decision. So they throw the issue to a committee, ignore most of its recommendations, and, perhaps with a bit of distortion, make it look as if a few of the recommendations actually support what they had already planned to do. Indeed, when a senior administrator attempts to defend a controversial decision as a faculty consultation meeting by saying that it was partly based on recommendations received from the x-committee, it is not uncommon to see members of the x-committee shaking their heads in disagreement.Report

Eric W
23 days ago

This is a really excellent article. I have a few constructive – if modest, pessimistic, and unoriginal – thoughts about what can be done.

I sat on the Arts Faculty Council at my institution. At the height of the pandemic we voted to affirm the authority of instructors to decide how much of their course would be online/offline. The issue was debated for two months before passing a vote with two-thirds support. When I asked at the next meeting what they had done to implement our policy, the admin who somehow, mysteriously have the task of managing the Faculty Council told us they considered the democratic motion to have been a “suggestion” and that they planned to do nothing. So, the few times – after months of wrangling – the committee does anything, it’s somehow overruled by people with no authority to do so. None of the faculty members made a peep while the admin rendered all their work pointless with a polite dismissal.

My point in relating all this is that many (not all) North American universities have some vaguely democratic governing bodies. If there is to be any hope of changing things, faculty need to actually capture these bodies. Most faculty don’t understand their institution’s governing bodies and let the adminstrators with their legalese run everything with little resistance. Even by showing up – specifically to these bodies at the top of the food chain – and refusing to let adminstrators ignore them, I think some modest change could be affected. At least at universities with this structure.Report