Universities at War

Universities at War

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. In January 2014, the University suspended him from this post, pending an investigation into charges that (allegedly) he had “undermin[ed] the authority” of his Head of Department by “sighing, projecting negative body language and making ‘ironic’ comments.” During the period of his suspension, he was essentially exiled from the university in toto: forbidden access to the campus, barred from attending events, prevented from using its library, from contacting colleagues or students, and even (apparently) from writing the preface for a book in a series that he himself edits. Ultimately, he was cleared of all charges and able to return to work, but only thanks to a costly tribunal, and while incurring significant legal bills himself.

In the meantime, however, Docherty wrote Universities at War. This book is obviously inspired and even shaped by his own experience: as he points out, unable to use the library he was forced to rely more on sources taken from the Internet (x); for other material, he comments in a footnote, he is indebted to the diligence of his lawyers (60). More generally, his argument about the authoritarianism of the managerial turn in higher education, and the bureaucratic injunction to “govern your tongue” (107), clearly speaks to his own predicament. But overall the case he is trying to make here is less to plead for individual faculty than to recover a sense of the university’s mission in the world.

For everyone, he claims, is shortchanged when the guiding principle and “key driver” of the institution is no longer thought, but money (ix). Faculty are silenced, yes, by the drive to conformity and homogeneity. But students are also cheated when they are treated simply as “human capital”: “When the university is reduced to the function of preparation for jobs and not for life, life itself gets lost under the jobs” (85). Most broadly and seriously of all, society as a whole suffers as the university abandons its traditional role as “that institution that has a responsibility to counter the incipient violence of natural force” (40). The fate of the university is bound up with the fate of democracy and citizenship at large. If society is to change, and injustice and inequality challenged, we need now more than ever an institution whose role is to be “’critical’ of the existing world state of affairs, dissident with respect to it” (6).

One might reasonably think that Docherty’s account of the university’s historic mission is somewhat idealistic. When exactly did the institution uphold this democratizing mission? Moreover, he himself outlines the ways in which higher education has been molded by forces external to it (for good, in the aftermath of the first and second world wars; for bad, under contemporary neoliberalism) more than it has itself managed to change them. On the whole, moreover, it has generally been a rather conservative institution. Still, it is worth setting the university’s ideals against its practice, and calling it to task for not living up to them. Docherty is perhaps on surer ground in arguing for the principle of the collegium, a “scholarly community [. . .] shaped by the interplay of forces among a collective” that has in recent times been “atomized and neutralized by the elimination of communal space and its dissolution into separate individualized cells” (23). For college life has indeed historically been seen and experienced as inhabiting a space apart, with its own logic, distinct from if not unaffected by social life as a whole. It is a significant change that universities are now treated as (and more or less proudly assert themselves to be) businesses or corporations like any other. Even here, however, he surely waxes over-lyrical when he claims that “the university [. . .] is the site where friendship, love and neighbourliness are all made possible” (74).

But ultimately the book argues that the real idealism lies with those administrators and self-proclaimed university “leaders” who champion the “official” view of the institution, for which everything is measurable from course credits to world rankings in the name of what (following Bill Readings) Docherty notes is “an essentially vacuous ‘excellence’” (120). This “Official University is effectively a fantasy” (125). By contrast, more concretely and less idealistically, the real work of teaching and learning continues, but “in a clandestine and unofficial manner.” The good news is that “the clandestine university [. . .] is where most of us do our daily work, and it’s usually [. . .] pretty good” (121).

There is still space, in other words, for research and learning, if despite rather than because of the efforts of vice chancellors, line managers, and the like. But even the clandestine university is increasingly being squeezed and asphyxiated, thanks to the drive for conformity and discipline, enforced by cops on campus that are both literal and figural. Docherty is sharply critical of inanities such as the imposition of “aims, objectives and outcomes” on everyday teaching: “Anyone who predicts ‘outcomes’ cannot, ethically, be a teacher at all” (121). And “if we teach to an agenda in which we show that predicted outcomes are achieved, we are poor teachers, for we are thereby limiting the imaginative possibilities of collaborative acts of imagining” (124). Indeed in general this is a book has much more to say about teaching than about research, except for instance for the observation that today “it matters little, we know, what research is done; all that matters is that the research grant has been captured” (140). And as much as Docherty (rightly) condemns the myth of widening participation, and of the university as an instrument of social mobility–noting for instance that, in the UK, in 2009-2010 Oxford and Cambridge admitted exactly 40 (0.05%) of the 80,000 school-leavers who were poor enough to qualify for free school dinners–his own personal biography, as a working-class Scot both of whose parents left school at 15, indicates clearly that he is what Pierre Bourdieu called an “oblate,” someone whose social identity is indebted to the institution he criticizes. The collegium is where Docherty has chosen to live out his life. No wonder that his temporary suspension from it should have hit him so hard.

For a short book (140 pages), Universities at War is surprisingly sprawling and digressive. It takes in everything from a brief history of popular music to a fairly lengthy reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One. It is motivated by anger and frustration, for instance at the ways in which “authoritarian governance” has taken on the task “to empty the universities of knowledge, and refill it with information and data. Then sell it” (125). But it is also written with what one can only describe as love. “There is a war on indeed for the future of the university,” Docherty tells us (115). And there is no doubt that he considers it to be a war worth fighting. All those who currently work in the clandestine university should join him.