Disclosure and exposure in the neoliberal university

This Spring, as part of a collaborative partnership of colleagues from the UK and 5 other European countries, I helped to launch a European Commission-funded project entitled ‘Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence‘. Our main aim is to create university environments in which students can disclose experiences of sexual harassment and assault, through providing ‘first response’ training to key staff. We have committed to training 80 staff in each of our 13 Partner and Associate Partner universities.

As we begin our work, I want to think more deeply about disclosure. The word is loaded, and the act is too: laden with emotion and often perceived as a threat. It means to reveal, to expose, to name something which creates discomfort and shame. Our work is loaded. Sexual harassment and assault in universities is pushed under the carpet in every national context I have studied, both within Europe and further afield. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground portrayed US university campuses as sites where sexual predators roam with impunity. Although I was not a fan of the film’s restitution-retribution narrative, it relayed powerful testimonies by survivors who described a heartbreaking silence which resounds across national borders.

In both the US and the UK, disclosures are made within institutions shaped by neoliberal and new managerial rationalities. These both force and inhibit speech in a variety of ways. While not over-simplifying neoliberalism and/or over-stating its effects, a key question for our project must be: what does it mean to respond to disclosure in this context?

Silences within the neoliberal institution have been the subject of much discussion. Less often, we explore how HE sector frameworks, practices and cultures are dependent on particular types of disclosures. Evaluation requires information: as Stephen Ball argues, we must make ourselves ‘calculable’ within contemporary performative regimes. The REF demands descriptions of our departmental intellectual homes; the NSS asks students how they feel about our teaching; we represent our ideas and ambitions in particular (or on particular) forms for annual appraisal. Benchmarking exercises such as Athena SWAN and Stonewall Diversity Champions require us to document our successes, admit our failings and promise to fix them. Foucault’s modern confessional comes to mind here: just as we are asked to give up the secrets of our bodies and minds to doctors and psychiatrists, audit culture demands that we give up the secrets of our labour.

Neoliberal rationalities intersect with the gendered cultures of universities. I have written extensively about student ‘lad culture’, contending that within the contemporary university, this often articulates itself through modes of sexual audit. Like other forms of audit, these force particular types of disclosures: ‘conquests’ must be documented and assessed. The notching up of ‘lad points’, Heidi Mirza reminds us, is not restricted to students: retro-sexist masculinities are at play at all levels of the academy, from the bar to the boardroom.

Citing Felly Simmonds, Mirza also reiterates that for those marginalised within academic environments and discourses, legitimacy often depends on disclosing private information. Women of colour, LGBT+ people and others are excluded from the realms of abstract theorising and speech. We are pushed into the personal register, but this position is vulnerable to dismissal and derision. Partly in response, feminism and other resistant political forms have rightly reclaimed the personal as epistemology. However, I have argued that in a neoliberal context in which both knowledge and experience have become capital, personal disclosures can be weaponised within political movements to shore up power and privilege. Disclosure is complex, then, for our engagements with and our resistances against, the neoliberal institution.

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Disclosure is exposure. But exposure for whom? We expose ourselves when we disclose what has happened to us. We also have the potential to expose those who have hurt us, at individual and institutional levels, but this is commonly not realised. We fear exposing ourselves but perhaps even more, we fear exposing them: there will be consequences. This thought is often enough to stop us from disclosing in the first place.

Disclosures are situated within reckonings: for survivors and for the institution. The terms of these are frequently dictated by marketised reputational games. The same systems of monitoring and evaluation which demand some disclosures deny others, insisting that everything is presented with a ‘good spin’. This gives rise to the figure Sara Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. Like disclosure, complaint is a loaded word. As Whitley and Page remind us, it places the focus on those who complain, rather than those who are complained about. Ahmed puts it like this: ‘those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage. And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation.’

Institutionally, disclosure is reckoned up as a market problem. As I have previously suggested, this operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Disclosures, rather than the acts of sexual violence they refer to, are what is disreputable because economic values have replaced civic ones. Institutional reckonings around disclosure reduce students and staff to fungible objects within cost-benefit frameworks. This means that disclosures are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten the welfare of the institution.

As a result, as Ahmed contends, complaints often become an injury to the offender: this is especially the case if he (and it is usually, but not always, ‘he’) is seen as an asset. Disclosures can take down star Professors or threaten fraternity endowments and sporting success. Citing Code’s work on testimony, Whitley and Page argue that disclosures can eventually become challenges to hegemonic accounts of what a university is. Spin does not survive long in the face of sustained truth-telling: this is the ultimate reputational risk.

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One of the ways power operates is to cover some people up. Some of us are used to revealing ourselves: our bodies are marked as public property; experience is our most legitimate source of knowledge. Others are not to be exposed. Whitley and Page point out that confidentiality, while essential to facilitating disclosures, can also operate as a means to protect high-profile individuals and institutions from damage. The ‘laddish’ disclosures I have documented are made by men, but it is women’s bodies which are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual harassment and assault, they are minimised and denied. When we disclose within such power relations, we only expose ourselves.

In a neoliberal institution, layers of bureaucratic leverage are bundled around the powerful. Whitley and Page highlight how hierarchies between staff and students both enable and conceal abuse; student communities are also characterised by varying degrees of social and institutional privilege, as are relations between staff. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, conducts your annual appraisal, and assesses your requests for research leave. There are more impersonal bureaucratic controls as well, including stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet. As Ahmed points out, the word ‘harass’ derives from the French word for ‘tire’ or ‘vex’, and harassment and bullying succeeds by increasing the costs of fighting against it.

I have argued in the past that audit culture also makes it difficult to look up from our desks to support our students and colleagues who are suffering. This, in turn, normalises harassment and assault and inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ If boundaries are being crossed in the open, then there is nothing to expose.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of UK women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is not that simple and it will not be easy to fix. It is about whose speech counts and how, and what kinds of disclosures are elicited and ignored. For our project, there will be a challenge involved in moving beyond the act of disclosure to explore its context. Indeed, disclosure is not just an act: it is an idea and a process which goes to the heart of issues of power and violence in the neoliberal institution.

‘Lad cultures’ in higher education – two academic papers out

With my co-author Isabel Young, I have recently published two academic papers on our research into ‘lad cultures’ in higher education. One is focused on appreciating the agency expressed by the young women who resist these cultures, and the other contextualises ‘laddish’ behaviours and sexual bullying within the marketised higher education sector. Abstracts are below – contact me at a.e.phipps@sussex.ac.uk if you would like a copy of either or both of these papers.

‘Lad culture’ in higher education: agency in the sexualization debates
Alison Phipps and Isabel Young

Published in Sexualities (available via OnlineFirst here).

This article reports on research funded by the National Union of Students, which explored women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ through focus groups and interviews. We found that although laddism is only one of various potential masculinities, for our participants it dominated the social and sexual spheres of university life in problematic ways. However, their objections to laddish behaviours did not support contemporary models of ‘sexual panic’, even while oppugning the more simplistic celebrations of young women’s empowerment which have been observed in debates about sexualization. We argue that in their ability to reject ‘lad culture’, our respondents expressed a form of agency which is often invisibilized in sexualization discussions and which could be harnessed to tackle some of the issues we uncovered.

Neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’ in higher education
Alison Phipps and Isabel Young

Published in Sociology (available via OnlineFirst here)

This article links HE neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’, drawing on interviews and focus groups with women students. We argue that retro-sexist ‘laddish’ forms of masculine competitiveness and misogyny have been reshaped by neoliberal rationalities to become modes of consumerist sexualised audit. We also suggest that neoliberal frameworks scaffold an individualistic and adversarial culture amongst young people that interacts with perceived threats to men’s privilege and intensifies attempts to put women in their place through misogyny and sexual harassment. Furthermore, ‘lad cultures’, sexism and sexual harassment in higher education may be rendered invisible by institutions to preserve marketability in a neoliberal context. In response, we ask if we might foster dialogue and partnership between feminist and anti-marketisation politics.

Lad culture thrives in our neoliberal universities

“Now she’s dead but not forgotten, dig her up and fuck her rotten,” so chanted this year’s freshers at Nottingham University, in an incident hot on the heels of the revelation that the LSE men’s rugby team had distributed a freshers’ leaflet full of racist, classist, homophobic and sexist slurs.

As the academic year began, these episodes were reported as emblematic of student “lad culture”, defined in a National Union of Students (NUS) report as a competitive male chauvinism disguising itself as “harmless banter”.

Isabel Young and I co-authored this report, which showed how such sexist “tomfoolery” can easily spill over into harassment and violence.

This September, an NUS survey revealed that 37% of women at UK universities have been subject to unwanted sexual advances, and the 2010 Hidden Marks report found that 1 in 7 had experienced serious sexual or physical violence and 68% had been sexually harassed.

“Lad culture” is a problematic term – it can attach a veneer of respectability to what’s really “sexism with an alibi”, and produce fatalistic “boys-will-be-boys” dismissals.

The extremes of laddism may well be the preserve of a minority, but unfortunately this is often the powerful and privileged: rugby players, members of elite drinking societies and debate teams. Laddish discourses have also been co-opted by companies marketing to students (nightclubs, events organisers) and social media sites like Uni Lad and Shag at Uni, which gives them broad cultural reach.

There’s a feeling that lad culture at UK universities is on the increase, and if that’s the case, it’s the product of several intersecting trends.

Our students are coming of age in a demanding economic climate, with intense competition for jobs and a housing bubble that means financial security is pie in the sky.

Furthermore, postfeminist mythology teaches young men that women have the upper hand, that they “want it all” even in austerity.

Laddism is an equal-opportunity oppressor – racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia are all part of its portfolio – but the viciousness of its sexism (exemplified by this article’s opening quote) reflects a conviction that women need to be put in their place.

The rape jokes which are its apotheosis don’t represent uncontrolled lust – they’re the aggression bred by lost entitlement and the need for someone to blame.

Neoliberalism creates this dog-eat-dog mindset, which is rampant in the higher education sector where lad cultures thrive. The marketised university is a place where only economic values matter, a callousness mirrored in student social life.

Popular social media portals Rate Your Shag and Spotted, replete with laddish banter, showcase modes of sexualised audit which reflect this market absorption. Laddism has waxed and waned over the decades in response to particular contexts (and often linked to shifting gender roles), and is currently being nurtured on the consumerist campus. Its future is foretold in the US, where higher education markets are entrenched and sexual violence is rife.

The neoliberal university is also a difficult place from which to speak out. NUS President Toni Pearce recently accused UK institutions of ignoring lad culture, and in the highly marketised US, universities are often criticised for covering up violent crime in order to maintain enrolments.

The pressure-cooker culture among academics is creating an individualism which means that we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). The outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student counselling may mean there are fewer qualified people to listen to students who are victimised.

With this in mind, the recent press interest in the issue of lad culture, and the campaigns, research and initiatives inspired by the NUS reports or led by its national strategy team, present an opportunity to hold universities accountable. As more tales of student sexism materialise, institutions should be pressured to:

  • Create and publicise clear reporting and referral pathways for students of all genders who experience harassment and violence.
  • Develop targeted prevention work (there are a number of potential models, such as Oxford’s Good Lad workshops, the consent education being delivered at Cambridge and the bystander intervention initiative at the University of the West of England).
  • Reflect upon institutional values and how these are expressed in campus communities. Even if marketisation is now an unstoppable juggernaut (and I question this assumption), we can resist its assault on our collective consciousness.

Alison Phipps is director of gender studies at Sussex University – you can follower her on Twitter @alisonphipps

Originally published in The Guardian