Speaking up for what’s right: politics, markets and violence in higher education

Content note: this post contains reference to sexual harassment and violence.

Universities in the US, and increasingly in the UK, are finding themselves under siege. The far right is targeting academics and their social justice work, bolstered by a mainstream suspicion of ‘experts’ and ‘elites’, and a general rightward shift in politics and public opinion. With a white supremacist, alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in the White House, a hardline English government, and a ‘new normal’ that involves overt and unrepentant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we’re in for a tough few years. I have previously written about the feminist classroom as a ‘safe space’, and the need to protect our most vulnerable students. I have also thought a lot about how the neoliberal university suppresses the very capacities required to do this. I have theorised an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual violence, exploring how institutional responses (or non-responses) to violence and abuse are shaped by neoliberal rationalities. In this post, I will attempt to sketch how the market framings of sexual violence in the university interact with our contemporary political field and growing hostility to progressive work.

Neoliberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has so often become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. Harvey defines neoliberalism as an economic process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself, usually to the detriment of labour. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We are all expected to maximise our speculative value within numerous systems of rating and ranking: we become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’. Everything, including education, is configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state, the corporation, or the self.

The university, then, is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Academics reading this will be well acquainted with the various metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. Of course, these sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class. To paraphrase McKenzie Wark, this contradiction suggests that neoliberalism is not so much rationality as ideology, functioning to maintain the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth through individualization, responsibilisation, and withdrawal of care.

Sexual violence in UK universities made its way on to the agenda after the 2010 NUS report ‘Hidden Marks’, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned Isabel Young and I to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. Activities such as initiation ceremonies, nude calendars, sexist themed parties and wet T-shirt contests all came into focus in a ‘moral panic’ around alcohol, pornography, casual sex, and as the Daily Mail put it (without irony), the ‘sickening rise of the male university students who treat women like meat.’ More recently there has been an emphasis on sexual harassment by university staff, which has also seen dramatic media stories about ‘epidemic’ levels of this phenomenon. Opposing all this is a rather bogus politics around ‘free speech’, in which campaigns against lad culture and sexual harassment are positioned as an infringement of men’s rights. This chatter provides a backdrop to a wave of initiatives including policy work, consent campaigns, awareness-raising, disclosure training and bystander intervention, mostly student- and faculty-led.

This is also the political and cultural setting for university responses to sexual harassment and violence. I have argued before that these are preceded by ‘reckonings’ around potential risk and effects on future value: this brings us back to the higher education market, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity means that the impact of disclosure on institutional value must be projected and totted up. Markets in higher education operate via hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels. They are also subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media coverage to damage our standing with potential students or key international donors. In some situations, we may reckon these priorities up against each other.

In the case of sexual harassment and violence, we have often seen perpetrators being protected because their welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. The power of being a ‘four-star’ academic (or footballer, perhaps) can facilitate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Compared to this, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:
They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.
My eleven years of work on this topic has taken me into very different institutions, but what has struck me is their similarities in terms of how harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’. In most cases, concerns with institutional value take precedence over care for survivors. The previous quote is from an elite English university, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a student from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet…which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

The lack of care for survivors reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one another, with no inherent value of their own. Or almost all of them, perhaps: there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. In his discussion, Ball mentions the REF: and although he does not elaborate, it is certainly true that this is an exercise in which scholarly work is given a numerical rating and aggregate numbers determine the rank of a department or institution, while the people in it disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently. Or at least, until the risks of protecting them outweigh the benefits, in institutional terms.

The impulse to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence contrasts with situations where academics have been singled out for their political views or scholarship. Last September, the Middle East Studies Association wrote that the State University of New York had failed to protect a faculty member, raised and taught in Israel, who had been targeted for supporting the academic boycott of that state. This February, the American Association of University Professors said administrations needed to be more proactive in defending academics, after a professor at Sacramento State received a barrage of attacks for criticising President Trump. In England, a lecturer at Bristol was recently supported by Jewish colleagues after university management launched an investigation against her on grounds of anti-Semitism, following media coverage of a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. These incidents reflect a broader context in which the far right in both the US and England has pinpointed universities as hotbeds of left-wing indoctrination. This narrative is increasingly being adopted by the mainstream press and accepted by some of liberal persuasion, under the rubrics of ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Earlier this month, the Times published an article entitled ‘Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech.’ In February, in a piece entitled ‘The Threat from Within’, former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy argued that the university was ‘not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view’.

Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ on the part of the far right perform a rhetorical sleight of hand. They locate legitimate political speech on the right of the spectrum: conversely, left-wing and progressive speech is not speech but anti-speech, a threat to freedom of speech in itself. This convoluted rhetoric (and its growing influence) only makes sense in the context of broader shifts in what is tolerated and found acceptable. As social justice gains recede, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and other prejudices are increasingly seen as mere differences of opinion, while work to tackle them is situated as intolerant and oppressive. A recent report by the Adam Smith Institute on ‘left wing bias’ in UK academia cited the (discredited) science in The Bell Curve around raced differences in intelligence, and Lawrence Summers’ remarks about women’s intelligence in relation to their under-representation in STEM, as examples of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas which had been subject to unfair condemnation. This discussion in the UK has reached its apex with the SpikedFree Speech University Rankings’, in which anti sexual harassment policies (among other initiatives) can get an institution a ‘red’ rating. The 2017 rankings were reported largely uncritically in English liberal media outlets, as well as in conservative ones.

The contortions involved in using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect bigotry and harassment echo earlier appeals to the notion of ‘banter’ as a shield against criticism of laddish behaviour. Similar rhetorical strategies can also be found amongst more progressive communities: Sara Ahmed uses the terms ‘critical sexism’ and ‘critical racism’ to refer to academics who identify as left-wing or radical, who have articulated noncompliance with equality and harassment policies as a rebellion against neoliberal audit culture and Victorian ‘moral panics.’ However, contemporary far right rhetoric around ‘freedom of speech’ is part of a broader struggle over social norms in response to recent political and cultural shifts, in which universities are targeted as sites of potential resistance. Ironically, this operates alongside the genuine threat of censorship which resides in the government’s Prevent programme: this includes in its list of ‘potentially extremist’ views criticism of wars in the Middle East, and criticism of Prevent. The resounding silence of ‘free speech’ campaigners around Prevent (it is not mentioned in the Spiked rankings, for example) is confirmation, should this be needed, that their politics is not about freedom of speech at all.

If these debates are not worrying to those of us who work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, they should be. Our gains are not secure, because universities tend to function according to market principles alone. Both the protection of sexual predators and the lack of it for political academics reflect a preoccupation with public opinion in the context of what it is possible (and not possible) to airbrush out, rather than a consideration of the principles at stake. This highlights the apolitical nature of the neoliberal university, in which equality and diversity are not ends in themselves but subordinate to market concerns. Indeed, they are often performed for market benefit, for instance in schemes such as Athena SWAN, in which institutional airbrushing can require that bad practice is not addressed but covered up. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education shapes a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. This is evident in a growing exasperation, not confined to the far right, with ‘snowflake students’ and their demands for safer spaces: indeed, the care these students deserve increasingly goes instead to those who claim that principles of anti-discrimination stifle their ability to speak.

For Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus and never homo politicus. Business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, and the world is governed by market forces, not elected representatives. Our democratic duty is to conduct ourselves properly in the market, and social and political issues have market-based solutions. When politics recedes, resistance can be repackaged as ‘complaint’. Sara Ahmed has highlighted how those who bring problems to institutional attention become the problem, rather than the issues they raise. Feminist, anti-racist and other social justice academics are routinely cast as ‘complainers’, and their concerns summarily dismissed. However, in far right campaigns against these (and other) political academics, another form of complaint is beginning to be deployed: student, or consumer, complaint. In a 2016 article in the US National Review, entitled ‘Yes, universities discriminate against conservatives’, David French argued that ‘parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to glorified propaganda mills’. Calls for US academia to reflect the ideological balance of the population, now spreading to England and overseas, use the language of democracy but may ultimately send the message that the customer is always right.

In response to recent activism and policy work across the UK, most universities are taking a stand – rhetorically at least – against sexual harassment and violence. However, it is worth considering whether a showdown with the far right around the spectre of ‘left wing intolerance’ is somewhere in our future. Negative media coverage of consent workshops has already situated them as a threat to free speech. Is it possible that students might eventually demand protection while they parrot rape myths or talk about grabbing their classmates by the pussy? As has already happened in the US, could we see threats to withdraw government funding if we refuse to platform those whose hate speech has been redefined as merely ‘provocative’? If the ideological targeting of universities continues to influence the mainstream, this will shape institutional reckonings. Starting now, we need to challenge university administrations to recognise, and speak out against, these manoeuvrings for what they are. We must also ask our institutions to consider their values, and to recentre and reaffirm principles of equality and progressive social change. To support survivors – and other vulnerable people – we must all figure out where our lines are drawn, and then resolve to hold them.

This post was originally developed as a public lecture for ‘Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Universities‘, a one-day conference held at Newcastle University on March 14th 2017.