Changing the World? Academic Impact, Activism and the Neoliberal University

Recently Carl Rhodes, Alison Pullen and I published an article in the journal Organization exploring the reframing of academic impact in the neoliberal university.

In the article we explore how ‘impact’ has become the buzzword of the contemporary university, and the value of academic research is increasingly judged by government, administrators and industry in terms of its contribution to economic growth and productivity. For example, the Australian Research Council (ARC)’s Research Impact Principles and Framework (2015) states that:

‘the Australian Government recognises the importance of research, science and innovation for increasing productivity and wellbeing to achieve long term economic growth for the Australian community’.

Like its overseas counterparts, the ARC operates upon a neoliberal model of research governance that understands research (and other dimensions of human endeavour) largely in market terms. Thus rather than the pursuit of knowledge, academic research is reframed as an investment seeking maximum financial return.

We argue this neoliberal ‘impact agenda’ marginalises older traditions of academic independence and downplays alternative goals such as a concern with social equality, democracy, justice, freedom, fairness and rights. This was a concern that an older generation of social researchers were well aware of. Back in 1960, the sociologist Loren Baritz complained that in accepting the norms of the business elite, the social scientist was prevented from functioning critically and became in essence a simple ‘servant of power’. Baritz’s warning is even more relevant today as universities embrace the neoliberal agenda. As US business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has pointed out, business schools and universities are now dominated by a culture where ‘the focus on costs, profits, and economic success has pushed concerns of human wellbeing to the side’. Pulling no punches, Pfeffer declares ‘the assholes are winning’.

However, an alternative vision of the social role of the university is evident in the tradition of academic activism which seeks to dissent in the name of equality and speak truth to power. As we state in our article:

‘…this is not a utopian dream of a new political order where all inequalities are eradicated, but an ongoing project that disrupts the forces that would instantiate a political consensus benefiting the few. Such a politics is inherently democratic, not in the sense of supporting a democratic state, but by interrupting the tyranny of imposed consensus in the name of equality. For activist academics, this can take a number of forms ranging from action groups, media engagement, political campaigning, advising non-academic activists, trade union activity or engaging in activist research.’

Academic research and climate activism

Although there are numerous examples of academic activism which have challenged social inequality and political power, a pertinent current example is the contribution of scientists and social scientists to the global climate movement. Academic climate scientists through their research have provided the bedrock of knowledge for broader political activism by highlighting the physical need for dramatic greenhouse gas emissions reductions if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change. Indeed, it is this research which formed the basis for the hugely successful global programme of fossil fuel divestment developed by climate activist Bill McKibben and the environmental NGO Academic researchers have also identified the specific companies and countries which have been the key contributors to anthropogenic GHG emissions, contributing to NGO campaigns against ‘fossil fuel majors’ such as Exxon, Shell and BP.

While climate scientists continue to develop our understanding of the physical nature of the climate crisis through peer-reviewed research and the reports of major scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), social scientists have also highlighted the profound justice and human rights implications of human-induced climate disruption. Climate change highlights one of the most profound inequalities of the global economic system. Those affected by the climate crisis in the developing world and future generations are least responsible for causing the problem. This has led to calls for a new ‘environmental justice’ as a direct challenge to older inequalities of global economic development, indigenous and human rights. In combination with civil activists, journalists, non-governmental organizations, politicians and business people, academic climate researchers have made an essential contribution to a broader climate movement battling for political and economic change as well as local democracy and equity.

Climate activism exemplifies how academics have played a critical role as their research reveals the ‘inconvenient truth’ that our economy is at war with a habitable future. Not surprisingly, the pushback on academic climate activism from the fossil fuel industry and its political allies has been dramatic. As US climate scientist Michael Mann has documented, this has involved attacks from conservative politicians and right-wing lobby groups, orchestrated campaigns of harassment via email and social media, threats to job security and career, and even death threats. Academic activism thus comes with a potentially high cost for individuals, particularly in an era of government funding cuts to higher education and when the issue at hand (in this case, the future of the fossil fuel industry) fundamentally challenges the economic agendas of powerful elites.

However, notwithstanding the overwhelming forces of neoliberal consensus which seek to restrict academic activism, its success has been far from total. The desire for democracy instituted through political action lives on in a University where academics refuse to have their profession defined in its entirety by neoliberal framings of ‘impact’. It might just be this kind of acting up that saves the University from itself and from those who wish to police it.

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