One of the concerns people express about the neoliberal academy is that you either perform it or contest it. It’s a very limited amount of options that are on offer. I think that’s where we need to place our attention.
Over the last two decades universities across the globe have been undergoing major restructuring. This has been encouraged by the OECD, the European Union and implemented by national governments in order to further the competitive position of member countries in the global knowledge economy and maintain the legitimacy of public universities in a world mediated by multiple, often contradictory, sources of knowledge and knowledge claims. The restructuring has largely taken place in accordance to neoliberal principles of organizing. This involves employing economic logics of marketization and competition, alongside strategic management, performance management and audit. It is argued in policy documents and organizational strategies that these steps would help make universities more responsive to the market demands: and thus help maintain their legitimacy among taxpayers. It has, furthermore, been argued that these restructurings ensure transparency and equality in academic recruitment practices: the abolishment of ‘Old boys networks’, in favor of meritocracy and standardized performance measures guaranteeing that only the best performing candidate gets the job.
However, a growing body of scholars have shown that these forms of restructuring may have the opposite effect. They pin point how these processes lead to acceleration of the de-legitimization of research and teaching activities that do not directly contribute to the generation of wealth. Furthermore, and related, research across the globe, including Finland, has shown how profoundly these shifts are impacting and reshaping social relations of gender, sexuality, class and race, and result in the increasing polarization between the winners and losers in academia. Indeed, despite formal policy interest and focus on ensuring gender equality there is still vertical and horizontal gender segregation in Finnish higher education. In 2016, only 30 pct. of all Professors were women, while there was (more or less) gender parity at all other levels of academic employment. There also remains large gender differences in terms of which disciplines and degrees are sought. Women dominating arts and humanities with approximately 72 pct., and men dominating Technology and Engineering with between 73-78 pct.
Tampere University is itself undergoing changes and will from the beginning of 2019 be part of the new Tampere 3. This raises important questions about what the future has in store and what opportunities there might be for doing leadership and organizing of higher education differently. This involves concerns about which values and and pursuits should be at the core of Tampere 3’s pursuits.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Louise Morley, Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Equity Research (CHEER) at the University of Sussex, UK, in connection to her position as Visiting Professor at Gender Studies, Tampere University during the autumn of 2018. We spoke about her own research on power, leadership and gender in higher education across 5 continents, her own leadership experiences and challenges, and the significance of keeping conversations going about what counterhegemonic leadership could be. Louise Morley is incredibly articulate and listening to her speak is a joy in itself.
Rebecca: Considering your expertise in the Gender and Higher Education, could you speak to me about why there are so few women in Academic Leadership. Across all countries.
Louise: Well, the research that I have conducted suggests that leadership is very unattractive. A, women are getting rejected. There is no doubt about that. There is evidence of that from several countries. Marieke van den Brink in the Netherlands, Simonetta Manfredi in the UK, have done highly detailed research on recruitment selection process and there is no doubt that women are being rejected. So yes, discrimination and poor selection processes. We know all that. But what we find from our research is that women are also doing the excluding, they are self-excluding and reluctant and resistant. They don’t like what they are being asked to lead.
Rebecca: What is that?
Louise: What is that? That’s the neoliberal, highly performative, competitive and publicly very visible university. The constant scrutiny of performance around very reductive performance indicators. The women we interviewed and surveyed around the world did not think that was how they wanted to spend their careers. A lot of them described very passionate attachments to their disciplines and their research and explained how that was why they have entered the academy. Not to manage bureaucratized and performative corporate cultures.
Rebecca: So I think the question I will pose now relates a little to the question you posed the students in the Bachelor level course in Gender Studies the other day, and, correct me if I am wrong, but you asked ‘if what we are being asked to lead is so terrible, why is it that men do it?’
Louise: Yeah, so what I was talking about related to Butler’s notion of livable lives. Not just change in the content but the actual process involving masses of accountability, the feeling that it is impossible to have any kind of work-life balance or boundaries etcetera. So there is a popular narrative circulating about leadership that links it to some kind of virility test [laughter]. Women often look at that, and a lot of men too I should mention. We cannot be too binaried about this. But women often look at it and think, well that’s not for me and that’s not what I want to do. But I also think another challenge is that if a lot of counter-hegemonic scholars, whether men or women, are refusing to take on leadership, it seems that those who are willing to take it on are those who don’t mind neoliberalism. So that’s a bit of a challenge, because the possibilities of disrupting it are reduced when people in leadership have already signed up to the project.
Rebecca: Some of course feel forced to take on leadership due to turn-taking etcetera.
Louise: Absolutely. It can be very coercive as well. But in terms of senior leadership positions, a belief is that you’ve signed up to the neoliberal project. Even if you don’t believe in it, you are slowly molded into that way of thinking. And that’s a challenge I think and the reason why many women and men don’t want to sign up. But it also raises big questions about how you change the script.
Rebecca: How do you think?
Louise: [laughter] One of the concerns people express about the neoliberal academy is that you either perform it or contest it. It’s a very limited amount of options that are on offer [laughter]. I think that’s where we need to place our attention. And I was checking out some figures this morning. Between 2005 and 2010 there were over a thousand texts on neoliberalism published. So people are kicking it and pushing back.
Rebecca: As soon as you use the term Neoliberalism, you can be sure it’s critical.
Louise: Absolutely. Nobody proudly declares themselves a neoliberal [laughter]. It’s always a term of abuse. There is no global movement “I’m neoliberal. I’m proud. I’m out!” It’s always seen as problematic. The people who are neoliberal, would not classify themselves in that way.
The big message that everyone is working towards is about the prestige economy and the global league tables. Everyone is aspiring to be on it and results in the reshaping of resource allocation etcetera. The universities at the top will invest huge amounts of resources in order to stay there.
Rebecca: You point towards a systemic problem in that women are being rejected and self-excluding. But could you speak to some of the regional and contextual differences to consider in that regard?
Louise: Yes, there is an enormous difference between the role of the rector or vice chancellor. In some countries, they are purely symbolic. There is also a huge difference in the public and private sectors around the world, and how the audit culture operates. Although there has been a lot of policy convergence and transfer, neoliberalism manages itself differently in different places. So there are massive regional variations in terms of the knowledge economy. However, the big message that everyone is working towards is about the prestige economy and the global league tables. Everyone is aspiring to be on it and results in the reshaping of resource allocation etcetera. The universities at the top will invest huge amounts of resources in order to stay there and those who aren’t in the table at all are killing themselves to get there, and those who are fluctuating are very anxious and destabilized. So where ever you are in the world, this is the aspirational framework.
Rebecca: In terms of the contextual and regional differences, can you speak to some of the differences you see in terms of how gender plays out.
Louise: One of the differences that always strikes me is how the discursive space for gender equality has been eroded in many European countries, and particularly my own. Britain. It is seen very much as a battle that has been fought and won. And this is mainly evaluated at the level of undergraduate enrollments. The policy attention now is primarily on class. Which is very, very important. Incredibly important. But it means that all other structures of inequality in policy terms are left to the academics to deal with. So when I was in Sub-Saharan Africa it was interesting to me how everybody was talking about gender, the men, the women. Everybody was very animated about it. But then there are other things they don’t talk about at all, such as LGBTQI. And then I come back to Britain and as soon as you use the word Woman people look at you as if you were date- expired and from another century that we have moved on from. It’s all about post-gender now.
So there are huge differences in terms of the discursive space and the equality discourse differs enormously and the policy drivers differ too. In a lot of countries they are seen as externally imposed and accompanied by significant resources, so people work towards them because they bring in a lot of money. And of course the Nordic countries have this incredible reputation in terms of working for progress and modernization, and in having done research here I see that there are multiple interpretations of gender equality policies and they are reasonably well-resourced too, unlike a lot of places where it is mostly done by policy activists. And in some contexts, like in South East Asia, it’s not on the agenda or debate at all. Japan has just introduced affirmative action because they noticed how few women were among the academic staff. But in most other countries in South East Asia it’s seen in purely statistical and demographic terms. Maybe in terms of violence it is flagged, but most of the time it’s just a demographic question.
Also, in a lot of countries academic engagements with questions about women, speak of gender but not feminism and lack theorization of gender altogether. I mean gender in many countries still means ‘women’s under-representation’. In the Nordic countries or the UK, there is a lot of investment in research and theorizing. But in many countries it’s just about counting more women in. Empowering women and that sort of stuff. So gender theory is uneven across the globe.
So getting more women is not the solution. What’s important is to rethink leadership and rethink the frameworks for leadership and open up for different ways of doing leadership. The penalties for doing things differently today are very high. People don’t allow themselves the luxury to imagine difference, because they are too busy meeting neoliberal indicators.
Rebecca: Both taking into consideration similarities and differences, why is it important to have more women in leadership?
Louise: Well I actually don’t think that’s the goal. As we talked about the other day, there are plenty of women who are very hungry to go into these spaces, but are certainly not going to do anything for other women and they are not going to lead in particularly inclusive, feminist and inequality confronting ways. So getting more women is not the solution. What’s important is to rethink leadership and rethink the frameworks for leadership and open up for different ways of doing leadership. The penalties for doing things differently today are very high. People don’t allow themselves the luxury to imagine difference, because they are too busy meeting neoliberal indicators. We have to look at different values, but also different ways of creating values. I was just reading up for my keynote tomorrow [red.: at the Gender and Technology seminar]. It’s just this relentless construction of academic identities within these indicators and how impoverished that is. It’s impoverished for creating organizational change and for intellectual development. So I think we have to look at different ways of creating value that is not just about finance and the market. These reductive reputational issues. We have to open it up and look at different ways valuing and leading.
Rebecca: Do you have any examples of how people manage to do these things differently despite these structural circumstances?
Louise: I have had examples reported to me. But I haven’t researched them. Women feminists in power. They aspire to do things differently, but then are often bit- by- bit are corroded. They can’t actually operate like that. So I think it’s important to hold on to how we can do things differently. And when I say differently I don’t just mean softening neoliberalism , I am talking about different values.
Rebecca: In your own work and research, and role as an academic leader and supervisor, how do you bring your insights to bear in your own leadership.
Louise: One thing I always try to do is to create community. It is so important to move away from this super star, queen bee kind of culture. I find in nauseating. It’s kind of a connected community and I try to hook people up internationally. I am very international. I think it’s very, very important, particularly in a highly neoliberalized work space, to connect people with other people who think about things differently. People learn a lot from looking at what happens in other countries. I try to create meeting spaces and open up opportunities and networks. Introducing people to each other, for instance through hosting seminars in CHEER where we have a mixed economy of academics, including early and late career academics working in teams learning from each other. I don’t think learning should only go in one direction. So I try to facilitate that sort of dynamic.
I am also very clear that you have to communicate and get the message out there. I am a strong believer in open access, so try to put all our lectures and presentations on our website for others to access and look at. There are huge risks. I mean people can plagiarize and basically do what they want with it. But overall the benefits are larger than the risks.
And what else do I do… then there is all the clichéd stuff about consulting and transparency. It’s very important because universities are constantly looking for opportunities to close people and centres, like CHEER, down. So reputation management is very important. So basic principles of hospitality. We get a lot of visitors. So making sure that visiting scholars get introduced and build a critical mass of counter-hegemonic scholars.
You have to be good when you are challenging. Because you become very vulnerable if you are not.
Rebecca: In terms of these sorts of steps you have taken, which challenges have you faced in terms of other people conceptualizing your leadership practices?
Louise: It’s a very fierce competitive environment, so people are always looking for opportunities to berate you and attack you [laughter] So one of the challenges is to do things differently, but do it very well so they don’t see us as sloppy and underperforming idiots [laughter] but seeing us as speaking from a position of strength, so we have to try to do things very, very well. And I get quite upset if I get speakers who aren’t doing a good job or people who don’t turn up or people who send things out full of spelling mistakes. That really upsets me, because you have to be good when you are challenging. Because you become very vulnerable if you are not.
Another big challenge is not to identify with the centre and get too close to the performative focus of management. There are lots of people and centres who receive huge amounts of money to do the stuff they are asked to do. Ghastly stuff. And to me that’s very anti-intellectual. Spiritually deadening. So I don’t do that. I don’t apply for funding every five minutes from everything that comes up. Because my priority is intellectual work. Yes, I do get money and apply for research funding, but my main priority is writing and doing research, and supporting others to do theirs. I get emails almost every single day ‘oh there is this programme and this money and are you going to be applying …?’ and most of it is rubbish. And that’s hard. But what we have is evidence. We always get top scores for our publications because it is an intellectual environment. But that is hard, because the management want to code you up and make you internalize neoliberalism. But that’s not my idea of good research.
What is really important is to keep the conversation going about how to do things differently.
Louise Morley will be visiting Tampere University, Gender Studies, again in June 2019.
More about Louise Morley: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/23457
More about CHEER: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/education/cheer/