How Toxic Universities Kick Out People

Thomas Klikauer, ZNet, 24 July 2022

Many, if not most, universities have become managed, neo-liberalized, managerialized, and very toxic places. Since the advent of neoliberalism – when Thatcher ‘married’ Reagan during the 1980s and this ideology infected universities – university apparatchiks [аппаратчик] have been working very hard to ruin universities or make them at least as toxic as possible. 

Unlike the old class of simple managers, the new class of corporate apparatchiks has taken on the ideology of Managerialism as if “their” – yes, they have convinced themselves that they own these places – universities are somewhat like real business organizations. This new class has also taken on Stalinesque features, supporting the managerialist apparatus rather than research and science.

The example of so-called voluntary redundancy illuminates how corporate apparatchiks inside toxic universities work. A voluntary redundancy can be seen as a financial incentive offered by a business organization to encourage employees to voluntarily resign. It often happens during downsizing or restructuring. The purpose is to avoid compulsory redundancies or layoffs. Voluntary redundancies are often driven by short-term revenue goals. 

Of course, there are always stories behind the story, one of which is the use of a specific language by corporate apparatchiks. This is the language of Managerialism. The pro-business jargon – also known as weasel words – used by corporate apparatchiks include: accountability, compliance, performance measurement, performativity, efficiency productivity, transparency, engagement, audit, and metrics – or even better: qualimetrics.

There are rafts and rafts of managerial buzzwords used in the toxic university: efficiency, countable efficiencies, excellence, merit, quality, quality assurance, impact factor, and ratings and rankings. These go along with resilience, flexibility, agility, and so on. Finally, there are also: business model, best practice, innovation, renewal, restructure, value adding, benchmarking, output, operational plan, grant capture, organizational commitment, change management, viability, and, of course, the ever popular trio of sustainability, business ethics, and corporate social responsibility.

In other words, academics – particularly those who dutifully attend the always “very important” management meetings – are bombarded with managerialist jargon by corporate apparatchiks who do not do research, do not teach, and do not publish. Instead, they have plenty of time to cook up ever more advanced versions of Orwellian Newspeak. 

They invent and use a near-incomprehensible language often meaning the exact opposite of what is said: Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where lies are made. The Ministry of Love is where you are tortured. Virtually the same applies to Managerialism, where voluntary redundancy actually means you get kicked out: You Are Fired!

Behind the façade of Managerialism lurks the harsh truth that, in many cases, voluntary redundancies are rarely – if ever – truly voluntary. For the corporate apparatchiks of the toxic university, the word “voluntary” simply refers to the managerial process whereby those to be fired are selected for redundancy. 

In other words, the choice of the corporate apparatchiks is made voluntarily. That’s it. It is not about “your” decision on redundancy – once selected by the corporate apparatchiks, you have next to no choice. 

To make the fact that academics do not have a choice more amenable, words like “retrenchment”, “downsizing”, and, even better, “rightsizing” are also used. As one academic said, I love the way they’ve labeled it voluntary redundancy. It just seems to be a nice name to put on the fact that they’re booting someone out and those booted out don’t really have a choice

Much of this indicates that there is a cost that the corporate apparatchiks of the toxic university will impose. This cost will make sure that they will win at all costs. Yet, the corporate apparatchiks never consider the corrosion of the four key aspects of academic work, namely:

  1. cooperative collegiality,
  2. organizational networking,
  3. mutual aid, support, and trust, and 
  4. information-sharing. 

Instead of undermining academia and scholarship while pushing academics into academentia, what the corporate apparatchiks of university Managerialism have for academics is the mad idea that academics have to become self-promotional, automatonic ninjas. Academics have become the subject of a near- complete colonization of the evil twin ideologies of Neoliberalism and Managerialism. Increasingly, academics live out a managerially pre-planned dream of the corporate zombie trapped inside the pathology of academentia.

Yet – and quite mistakenly – many academics still believe that there might be some logic or rationale behind the size and efficient use of staffing required to meet managerial objectives as well as financial and organizational constraints. That things are based on a rationale might be true in science, but it does not apply to Managerialism, nor does it operate in the vicinity of the corporate apparatchiks who run today’s toxic universities.

Rather, the orbit of the corporate apparatchiks is infected with anxiety, power games, nepotism, favoritism, and even corruption. And so begins the next round of the new corporate game at the toxic university: voluntary redundancy. Often, it starts with the unfair choice of staff singled out for redundancy.

Fairness for the corporate apparatchiks boils down to a managerialist metric – an Excel file – manufactured and interpreted by someone more powerful than academics. Of those, there are plenty in toxic universities. Beyond all that, the entire process is not fair at all. Nor do corporate apparatchiks have any intention to make it fair. What they do intend is to make the entire affair merely look fair

Rather than feeling treated fairly, many academics have the impression they have been backed into a corner with no other option than to accept the – always – very generous offer of voluntary redundancy as engineered by corporate apparatchiks. 

Yet, it is hardly voluntary but an entrapment within a pre-cooked plan in which the unsuspecting academic is set to play a part, particularly when faced with Managerialism’s faked prisoner dilemma offering a ‘take it or leave it’ choice. This is taught at every one of the world’s 15,000 business schools – over and over again.

These redundancies aren’t really voluntary in the actual sense of the word. It is only voluntary in the understanding that somebody puts a gun to your head and says, give me all your money. With that, you have a voluntary choice to do so rather than get shot by the person with the gun. The corporate apparatchiks of Managerialism call this voluntary.

Corporate apparatchiks like two managerialist tools: a) voluntary redundancy and b) the annual, and in some cases even eternal, rounds of restructuring, which often lead to voluntary redundancy anyway; at least, that is the plan of the corporate apparatchiks dedicated to Managerialism. 

Never-ending rounds of restructuring have gotten so bad that there is an Annual Restructuring Award for companies that never stop restructuring. Even the management consulting firm (evil heretics say: “insultancy”) and flagship of the ideology of Managerialism, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has now started talking about Ending the Endless Restructuring – something consultancy began forcing on companies and corporations only a few years ago.

Following the managerialist mantra of endless restructuring to the letter, corporate apparatchiks have put some universities and many academics through up to five restructurings in six years. According to one academicthe fifth restructure brought with it the dread of the voluntary redundancy, in which we had to apply for our own jobs – this was called “an opportunity”

To a large extent, the language of Managerialism is about framing its inhumane and dehumanizing initiatives into nice language. In reality, it means that academics were made to fall onto the dignified sword of an early retirement option. 

In another case, an academic was told to apply for my own job as Dean of Research, this time with ‘Executive’ in front. As a well-published professor with a strong on-campus and national reputation, I felt indignant, insulted, affronted. The position description had changed. Its freight was heavily managerialist and quantitative outcomes-focused: numbers of completions, revenue for completions, budget management for the centralization of postgraduate outputs. The list of KPIs [key performance indicators] caused anxieties.

Of course, corporate apparatchiks set this up with accountability, expected outcomes, performance indicators, and matrices that they will be evaluating.

And – as so often – there is also new managerial software to facilitate everything, i.e. the ever-growing bureaucratic load that is shifted onto academics. Almost self-evidently, “compulsory” training sessions are organized and held by corporate apparatchiks and their low-grade henchmen for all of this.

The deliberately planned outcome of all this is just as one academic noted, I watched distinguished academics get hand-picked for redundancy ..I’d witnessed acts of obscenity and bullying masquerading as change plans.

In any case, academics need to realize that neither they, their life experience, their research-informed talent, their community engagement, nor their academic subject expertise are relevant in the toxic university as run by the corporate overlords of Managerialism

Behind the façade of the language of Managerialism still lurk plenty of managerial intrigues, manipulations, briberies, hidden agendas, as well as multiple forms of corporate bullying. Those bullied by the corporate apparatchiks are ultimately silenced by contracts of redundancy. All is done in the name of organizational change, the aforementioned restructurings, corporate, i.e. university rebranding, curriculum renewals, and re-anythings! 

This, of course, creates endless opportunities for consultancy, e-discussion boards, and preacher-style meetings where critical debate is no longer possible or wanted. Critiques are offered so that voluntary redundancy is made attractive by the aforementioned gun to your head in the style of “don’t you feel lucky, punk!”.

In all of that, corporate apparatchiks never feel shy about hiring corporate PR and HRM puppets – known as EAPs – while also offering personal consultation. These come with a great agenda for helping people through corporate change, corporate restructuring, and voluntary redundancies. 

Another academic summed much of this up rather exquisitely by saying, consultation is a pretense, a sham. If you dare to speak, let alone propound a point, you are vexatious. True debate is shut down. For the corporate apparatchiks dedicated to Managerialism, it is almost funny to see academics still believing that the henchmen of the toxic university are interested in “true debate”

Yet, some have seen what this is all about when realizing, they create a bastard language that spoils perfectly good words. Worse, you’re not flexible if you balk when your position is made unsustainable, and you’re not resilient when you don’t trust market forces to resituate yourself

Beyond all that and to the detriment of scholarship and science, virtually all academic promotion processes demand what corporate apparatchiks frame as management experience and leadership –key buzzwords of Managerialism. This comes regardless of a substantial teaching record, acts of community engagement, and lists of quality-assured publications with fifty citations per article.

Much of this happens in an atmosphere of sheer toxicity. In some universities, corridor conversations suggest that certain individuals are targeted and named as redundancy victims. Meanwhile, the managerially shaped rumor mill is effectively coercing individuals to volunteer for redundancy. At times, this is done by deliberately circulating people’s vulnerabilities. 

One of the truly bad aspects of the managerialist university is the (un)culture of continuous improvement, turbo-charged by sheer endless paperwork. Worse, those forced to “improve” are simultaneously overburdened with even more paperwork. This managerial system is designed to leave an academic no choice – just as planned and orchestrated by the corporate apparatchiks.

Given all of this, it is not at all surprising to find that an academic said, The saddest thing is that academic departments are no longer collegial. Academics now work behind closed office doors (unless they’ve been shunted into an open office setting), they are pitted against each other for the scarce resources of research time, sabbaticals, conference allowances, and promotion. Collegiality is nearly completely dead. Yet, this is neither of concern nor of importance or even relevant to the corporate apparatchiks.

Even worse, another academic commented, during one restructuring process, the number of groups was reduced and mine eliminated. I felt like the victim of a toxic McCarthyist witch hunt. In other cases, the corporate apparatchiks initiated disciplinary action against an academic, forcing her into a vexatious and stacked kangaroo court. It was a university strategy to wear her down. Her email history was seized by the underlings of the corporate apparatchiks, the willing executors. Eventually she was tried as a witch

Much of this is organized by powerful and omnipresent corporate minions who are surrounded by even more powerful corporate apparatchiks. Worse, some academics have even become stooges – a person who supports the position of management without considering how others, particularly academics, are affected. Some are simply being paid off to become stooges. 

In the end, the corporate apparatchiks running toxic universities operate with micromanaged coercion, structured unfairness and inequity, corporate toxicity, and entrapments via technologies of surveillance, perusing the managerial mechanisms of constant Uber-auditing to create convenient corporate truths (read: falsehoods). 

They also select and target some academics unfavorably in relation to non-targeted individuals. In short, voluntary redundancies remain one of the key elements through which corporate apparatchiks exercise power over academics at increasingly toxic universities.

Thomas Klikauer’s next book is on the Language of Managerialism (2023).

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