How to re-civilize the university?

by Jakob Egholm Feldt

Portrait photo of Jakob Egholm Feldt

Jakob Egholm Feldt is professor of global history at Roskilde University. In his main research, he develops ideas about the connections between cultural and historical identities (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and “theory” (economic, cultural, social). Parallel and sometimes converging with his main research, he has a lively interest in critical education and educational philosophy. He is particularly interested in the American pragmatist tradition and in critical theory (Frankfurt School), and he enjoys throwing himself into educational experiments.

As a problem for the philosophy and theory of the university: how can we think approaches to the current crisis of legitimacy, the fact that the university is no longer “civil”? For the right-wing critics of the university, the problem is both of ethos and method. In their view, the university has lost its commitment to neutrality, objectivity, truth, and rationality. Trust in the neutrality of science and its quest for knowledge must be restored, they say. And that is why there currently are many calls globally for society to intervene in the university’s autonomy. For radical critics, the university is lost already. It is a cornerstone of a global “plantation economy”; exploiting people, the earth, supporting the elites, suppressing other kinds of knowledge. For others again, the university must be activist and engaged in solving practical problems and pushing for social justice goals because knowledge is for action and change.    

Recently, liberal and conservative parties in the Danish parliament have suggested that the universities should not themselves process complaints about misconduct in science. Complaints about “bad science” should, according to the proposal, be judged by a centralized and independent council. The reason: society cannot trust the universities to uphold the ethical and methodological standards of science. In the perspective of the plaintiffs, the universities have interests and agendas: They are likely to protect their economic and political interests while cloaking behind arguments about “autonomy”, “peer review”, “free, critical scholarly debate” and “academic freedom”. There are plenty of scandals to prove the critical point not only in Denmark but globally: shady deals with private companies, interference in university governance by funding bodies, questionable research practices (trading with authorships, irreproducibility of set-ups, and more), and research openly steered by political opinions.

While the criticism from right-wing parties rolls across all media platforms and problematizes the university from the outside, junior scholars in Denmark have launched a campaign called “Please, don’t steal my work”, seriously questioning university culture from the inside (see link below). They collect stories about supervisors, senior scholars, leaders, who without the blink of an eye demand to be co-authors on papers without having contributed; there are stories about the direct stealing of lab results and new ideas. And the internal organs of the Danish universities are, apparently, perceived as unable to resolve the troubles. These junior scholars show how they are habitually socialized (and bullied) into a sick university culture which in many ways does not deserve the trust that society extend to it.

This sick culture can be seen as an anonymous force, a structuring of motivations, rewards, and possible career paths forward; a silent force which can only be broken at risk for the individual who refuses. Often, we refer the sickness to well-known suspects: neoliberalism, “the accountability and assessment movement” (Stoller & Kramer, 2018, p. 1), knowledge capitalism, and their corollaries. It appears that the symbolic economy, the social bonds, connecting the university community is strained if not broken when young scholars begin protesting against “the exchange”. Maussian “gifts” of recognition, of gratitude, of trust, of diplomacy, of collectivity, of “generosity”, as one of the professors accused of demanding co-authorship called it, have been, is and will be part of the culture of the university. It is as vital as its perversion is horrifying. I don’t mean this as glossing over the disenchanting experiences of junior scholars, absolutely not. I mean that it is obvious that there is no pure “inside” the university versus a “polluted” outside the university. Core scholarly community values have been polluted, also internally among the citizens of the university. Pollution happens when protests are made, heard, and recognized as a problem for society itself, not just internally for the university as an adjustment of protocols or the like.

Scientific knowledge is in trouble. There is scientific knowledge as product, as solution, as understanding, as power/violence, as critical-liberating force, as value. For some scientific knowledge aims to discover and explain, for others its purpose is creative, for others again it is socio-politically normative for equity, diversity, etc. This cacophony of purposes and styles exists under the same roof, and it makes the identification of the universitas increasingly difficult. So, what to trust, what to expect from a university strained by too many interests, by over-production of un-read articles, by frantic project-making (displays of relevance), by too lofty promises made about what actually comes out of research? The university needs true friends in these times of crisis.

I don’t have fixed solutions, but I feel inspired to continue my friendship with the university when I see the volumes of essentially joyful and loving support for the university coming from PATHES members and many others who openly care about its future. The explorations, the work, towards a possible re-establishing of the university’s civility must, I believe, go through the realization that the future university is a project. It takes off from the histories, institutionalizations, misgivings, strains, from the potentials, of our current university landscapes, but it is not identical with what we already have. It will only realize itself in positive acts, for itself and not for something else. It is an imperfect, always unfinished project, only realized in situations where and when we enact it. It is possible that the future’s university is of what Tim Ingold (inspired by Deleuze and Guattari) calls the minor key: “anxious, unsettled, inquisitive” (Ingold, 2017, p. 37). Travelling through complex corporate university landscapes longing for a kind of undefined excess which sometimes happens as community. Commoning Ingold calls it (p. 38). Making publics might be a Deweyan variation of the same “happening”. This attitude entails a partial surrender to circumstances, to histories and habits, to what can be done along this particular path that we are on.

Re-establishing the civility of the university means joining together. It is a process of making even small publics, of commoning, with others who care and long. Such minor key theorizing carries forward towards the project, the hopeful encounters when our communities are realized. It happens on the road.

Ingold, T. (2017). Anthropology and/as education: anthropology, art, architecture and design. Routledge.

Stoller, Aaron., & Kramer, Eli. (2018). Contemporary Philosophical Proposals for the University Toward a Philosophy of Higher Education. Springer International Publishing.

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