Faculty as “Service Providers”?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, acceptance of the “free market” neoliberal corporatist model of top-down management has become so pervasive that its vacuous language is being extended backwards to cover events of almost a thousand years ago. Someone posted this comment on a post of mine yesterday:

When have the faculty ever been other than service providers? Since the University of Bologna supported by the State and the Church when have they raised the capital, decided on salaries and other support, made the budgets and managed the recruitment of students, maintenance of facilities and provided for capital for the facilities from dorms, classrooms, grounds and non-classroom expenses from gyms and sports to laboratories? When have the faculty ever put forward management plans, been willing to take on the overhead logistics or demonstrated for the rights to take on these burdens- all of which provided the matrix that supported the educational programs?

“Service provider” is one of those phrases so vague that anyone can be defined as one. Its meaning rests only in its utilization as a means of stripping a role of meaning. It removes definition, allowing one to create generalizations so vague that they can be applied (or so it seems) to any situation.

What members of the faculty do is exactly the opposite of what is attempted by corporatist jargon such as this. They peg meaning to particulars, spending their careers in careful attempts to refine definition—and they do this both in the classroom and in their research (which is why linkage between the two is so important).

One of the things making the corporatist model so pernicious is the fact that it was designed to be one-size-fits-all as theory—and has become so as practice. Its logic (if I may use the word loosely) leads one to conclude that all organizations can work similarly, and do so when working best. It has an implicit top-down bias, making it quite comfortable to those at the top. What’s remarkable is how widely accepted it has become at the bottom, as well.

In the comment above, the writer asks when have faculty “raised the capital, decided on salaries and other support, made the budgets and managed the recruitment of students, maintenance of facilities and provided for capital for the facilities from dorms, classrooms, grounds and non-classroom expenses from gyms and sports to laboratories?” The answer, of course, is that faculty have been doing so for most of that millennium since the founding of the University of Bologna—but let’s assume otherwise, just for the sake of argument. We then ask, “Does the providing of these supports justify control over those supported?” Should the quartermaster corps run the army? The answer to that, via neoliberal views, is “Yes.”

Those of us who have yet to fall under the corporatist spell know this is nonsense. Yet comments like this one continue to appear. People have come to worship “management plans,” “logistics” and “matrixes.” The secondary has become exalted, the pinnacle rather than a prop.

When my partner and I were first designing the business we established and that I ran for almost a decade and a half, we created a business plan. But that plan was merely a guide and an outline. It had very little to do with the unfolding reality of starting a business. As we were the ones implementing the plan as well as creating it, we could adjust as we went on. The problem with dividing off “service providers” is that they are the one doing the central task of the enterprise. Without their input toward revision, the plan becomes fantasy, nothing more than a plaything for those in corporate boardrooms divorced from the reality of the enterprise, no matter what it is. Ours was a café and a gift store. I had experience in restaurants and in retail and my partner took a job in a coffee-and-tea shop so that she could learn aspects of the business that I did not know. We understood that we could best create a business through the realities of customer interactions and that we had to be fully immersed in those if we were to succeed.

The same holds true of colleges and universities. For plans to work, they need to start from the center of institutional activity, the interaction between student and teacher. For plans to work, they need to be developed through faculty and student leadership, for these are the people who best understand problems and pratfalls as well as possibilities. For assessment to be useful, its tools need to be created by those who will use them and those who will use the information they provide—the faculty, in both cases.

The neoliberal assumption is that those at the top know what is best for those at the bottom. Those at the bottom are nothing more than interchangeable “service providers” whose value is only as pieces in a puzzle. It leads to a slavish dependence on things like “student learning outcomes” that now decorate syllabi but that are meaningless to the learning that, fortunately, still goes on in American classrooms. These, and quantifiable “results,” can be manipulated by top executives whose only knowledge of the actualities of education is their own long-past experience as students. These may make executives look impressive. But they have nothing to do with education.

As any educational “service provider” knows.

M0008005 Medical lecture at Bologna. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Medical lecture at Bologna from the sarcophagus of Michele da Bertalia, died 26 February 1328 and buried in the church of San Francesco, Bologna. Histoire generale de la Medecine Laignel-Lavastine Published: 1936-49 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

M0008005 Medical lecture at Bologna.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Medical lecture at Bologna from the sarcophagus of Michele da Bertalia, died 26 February 1328 and buried in the church of San Francesco, Bologna.
Histoire generale de la Medecine
Laignel-Lavastine
Published: 1936-49
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

5 thoughts on “Faculty as “Service Providers”?

  1. Generally, I agree with all the comments you have made. Education cannot, and should not be ramrodded into the global Walmart model of business. The only thing I would add to your suggestions is that of external review. While the external review process is time-consuming, and really sort of bothersome to those being reviewed, I think it is an under-utilized and valuable tool.

    • I agree, but external review should be the responsibility of faculty along with administration. Today, our accreditation bodies are moving further and further from substantial faculty involvement and to simple quantification.

  2. Let’s not cast the argument as a neo-liberal, top-down, corporate model. The issue, today is that the faculty are not active participants in the financing and operation of the university, public or private, in the US and globally. They draw a salary, benefits and security with tenure. Today, even that has eroded with the rise of non-tenure tracks, adjuncts and similar titles. In the US where there are faculty unions, the issues do have some impact on governance but mainly concerning rights and roles, rarely over responsibilities of administration (mostly non-union) on acquiring and allocation of funds.

    There are eloquent essays on the “university in ruins” and ululations on the corporatizing of the institution, all, of course, count as publications to be evaluated for promotion and tenure. But, the money filters down from the government to the administration and then is distributed, after some consideration to the faculty and in support of the various facilities. The faculty take the “king’s shilling” and enters the lists to fight the noble battle.

    The argument presented here on this blog is a paradigmatic example of such eloquence full of sound and fury, but toothless, like most. Faculty can nod in agreement but won’t take action locally or nationally. The action by Scott Walker in Wisconsin points clearly to this. Well funded research faculty may choose to stay, safe with their own funds or pack up and go where they get the best offer (sounds pretty corporate to me). Those who are not tenured, like temp workers, wait to see if they will be picked for jobs in the mines or apple orchards.

    there is that old cartoon where two while mice are in a lab cage. One says to the other: “boy do we have those white coats trained. We just hop on these wheels and they feed us”.

    • You have already cast the argument in that vein so are in no position to retract.

      You also assume the competency of administrators and disparage that of faculty within that model. That just is not true. More than anything else, that makes you sound defeated.

      My father, by the way, was a behavioral psychologist and had that cartoon hanging in his office (though the version he had did not contain wheels but the lever of an ‘operant chamber’). I learned ‘hand shaping’ as a boy and sometimes even raised white rats. They can bite through your thumb if you are not careful.

    • Actually, I can think of at least one notable exception to your claims. I worked as a research faculty at the University of Colorado medical campus/ medical school. When I was there, 1.7% of the budget was covered via state tax revenues. The rest, you ask???

      Faculty grants, primarily, and then to some degree physician fees. Ergo, >98% of the operating budget was shouldered by the faculty. I am willing to bet this model is relatively common these days.

      Broad-brushed statements really should only be made by those whom are experts on the topic, because, you run the risk of coming off as somewhat a rube.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.