Friday, March 07, 2008
Like ‘The Wire’? You’re Living It.
Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com
Special thanks to Scott Kaufman for inviting me to post here. As time goes on, I’ll cross-publish commentary from my book blog as well as video on higher ed (eg “Faculty on Food Stamps,” “The Twilight of Academic Freedom,” and “Play PhD Casino!” from the associated youtube channel.
This post is actually the conclusion of an abortive contretemps I had over at Brainstorm with Stephen Trachtenberg, the recently retired prez at G-Dub. Basically, he posted sequentially about the importance of tenure for administrators and the need to shove out more tenured faculty who, he bemoaned, average the princely sum of $80,000 a year. To which I said, 80 grand is too much? Nurses make more than that. So does my bartender. Plus, that average of 80K covers less than a third of the faculty, and that minority includes a boatload of tenured women in, say, English, clocking in at $50 K, with 27-year old men in “retail marketing” earning $150 K. Then he said--not so very cleverly--hey, if you don’t like how we do things in the academy, you can leave. To which I said, well if you wanna get personal, tell me about this whole perma-temping of the G-Dub faculty, where 60% of the faculty worked contingently under your administration, averaging $18K a year for 6 classes. While you whacked away millions. Oh, and what up with the whole NLRB judgement against you for illegally refusing to bargain with the faculty union? So then he went and pouted in the corner, and we never did hear why he thinks tenure is brilliant for administrators but wasted on the faculty.
In this final season of David Simon’s The Wire, we see the dystopic contemporary Baltimore created by the class war from above. It’s a city ravaged by “quality management,” the same philosophy that administrations across the country have adopted in shunting the overwhelming majority of college faculty into contingent positions.
As Time magazine television critic James Poniewozik puts it, “All The Wire’s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation, or a drug cartel. A pusher, a homicide cop, a teacher, a union steward: they’re all, in the world of The Wire, middlemen getting squeezed for every drop of value by the systems they work for.”
What the show grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”
As Poniewozik observes, what this actually means “is doing less with less and cutting corners to make it look like more.” Hence the need for assessment instruments that everyone inside an organization understands to be trivial and easily spun to nearly any purpose by agile institutional actors.
The instruments are supposed to be easily defeated. As upper management continuously urges lower management, who in turn urge the workforce: “Be creative” with the numbers. Being creative with the numbers allows managers to survive in their own culture of claiming ever-larger improvements in productivity while papering over the enormous human cost.
The human cost isn’t just the immiseration of the workforce. It’s also the failure of these intrusively and anti-socially managed institutions, “highly productive” on paper, to actually deliver the policing, health care, and education they exist to provide.
In the show, this means that all city departments are under continuous pressure to fudge their statistics to make it look as if this dishonest managerial policy is actually working. The Baltimore Sun fires its experienced reporters and slashes funds to do investigative reporting in favor of fire-chasing and puffery, fleshing out the staff with cheaper, younger workers, some of whom lack the contacts, experience, and moral compass to do the job. “Squeezing every drop of value” from every worker means disposing of the most experienced before having to pay their health-care premiums or their retirement benefits, and asking young workers to work at a discount because they believe in the mission of the institution.
At the police department, funds to actually investigate homicide and gang crime have been steadily restricted to the point where only “high profile” murders receive resources; most victims receive perfunctory attention, and individual investigators are barred from investing time and resources in long-term efforts to bring down criminal organizations.
In order to shake funds from the system, one homicide investigator gets the idea of faking the evidence in the murder of some homeless men to appear as if they are serial killings.
This plan plays on the interlocking nature of the quality-management values driving public institutions and the privately owned media with a public-service mission, together with the responsibility-center resource allocation of the mayor’s office: If the newspaper can drum up a market and capture the attention of the mayor, then—and only then—resources will flow toward the investigation.
When he ups the ante by subsequently faking a sexual component to the murders (plain serial killing is not enough), and when a young reporter, under similar pressures at The Baltimore Sun, also fakes journalistic evidence, a very modest stream of resources is finally aimed toward the new institutional mission of the police department, getting the nonexistent serial killer.
A significant fraction of those resources are wasted maintaining the illusion that reporters and police officers are following managerial direction and chasing down the fake murderer.
The small amount left over is secretly diverted to actual policing—a small cadre of dedicated officers use the funds and control over their time recaptured from management to order test results, do surveillance, acquire computers, and actually make a series of arrests.
There’s plenty to say about this in relation to campus administration—the way that managerial control of institutional mission has shifted toward vocational training over education, as Stanley Aronowitz has long observed, and toward direct corporate influence over research and curriculum, as Jennifer Washburn has made abundantly clear.
My own take on this is that the faculty are in a culture struggle with administration, and they are losing. This isn’t a theory that I have: as I explain in the introduction and Chapter 3 of How The University Works, it’s management’s own account of its program, to prosecute war on faculty and student culture by shaping institutional culture to its own purposes. Quality management is above all an engine for the promotion of a relentless administrative solidarity against traditional faculty values and traditional faculty institutions.
“Quality” processes are the Stalinist iteration of late capitalism, through which the class of functionaries exist in a separate world of servants and second homes while urging everyone else to accept scarcity for love of the mission. It’s no longer just teaching for love—it’s policing and soldiering and urban planning for love, game design for love, word processing for love.
Quality management takes advantage of the fact that most people don’t behave as the self-interested clots modelled by neoliberal economics. Most people are animated by profoundly pro-social impulses. To a limited but real extent, depending on individual factors, janitors do their work for love of clean floors. And it is the overt, cannibalistic intention of quality management to see that—to the absolute limit of the possible—they do that work for love alone.
Only management, in the quality scheme, isn’t done for love. One can see why. Management in the quality scheme is done for hate—for hate of democracy, equality, and the public, in service of a totalitarian culture of subservience to “leadership.”
In the quality scheme, management is paid more to do something most of us can’t do. Most of us can’t live in mansions while our neighbors can’t afford chemo; most of us really believe that accumulation has reasonable limits.
Only a very unusual person can do what the sleaziest small contractor does—pick up day labor, pay them less than the minimum wage to rebuild a suburban kitchen, collect fifty grand, and then dump the workers back on the street corner.
The task of academic quality management is to find those rare people and make them deans, provosts, and presidents.
Marc: Thanks so much for your impassioned and reasoned writing.
I received my first taste of “quality management” back in the late 80s, when my father was laid off from his job. He had risen over the years from a carpet salesman to a store manager, and his bosses realized one day that they could get rid of him and hire a 20 year old store manager for half of my dad’s salary. (This year, when Home Depot and Lowes finally put this carpet store out of business, I admit I was pretty pleased. Nothing like a little dose of your own medicine.)
I spent eight years at an Ivy League grad school, begging for funding that had been promised me when I first accepted the offer. I’ve taught adjunct for a whopping $2,000 per course.
Now, having made the transition into public school teaching, I get to see local schools that have doubled in student population stuck in buildings constructed 80 years ago. I watch teachers push their carts from classroom to classroom. I watch students whose parents and grandparents have been laid off by IBM and other outfits that abandoned the local economy. (IBM left us with a toxic site in the middle of the town. Thanks!) A new teacher averages about $18 per hour, all told. They spend their own money to buy drinks and snacks for students who endure hours of yearly state testing in English, history, and math.
Upstate New York makes Dickens’s *Hard Times* look like a realist novel again. Only Bounderby has packed up and moved operations to Mexico. And the freaking circus doesn’t even come to town.
Luther, I get those upstate students—some of the better ones, actually—in my freshman English classes and it’s clear they have been ill-served by the Total Quality Management of NY high schools. The endless, Gradgrindian testing knocks all the originality out of them and the helping professions offer superficial pop-psych explanations of human suffering designed to blunt students’ ability to see their situation for what it is.
Don’t know whether you are aware of the website Rate Your Students, which began as a tongue-in-cheek response to Rate Your Professor, but it has evolved into a place where academics write (anonymously) about their students and working conditions. The tone is often snarky, but a remarkable amount of passion and pain comes through the jokes. Given Marc’s post, you might want to see this post from this morning.