Marketing Thought

Universities Don’t Seem Completely Toxic To Me

If you like your angst with lashings of the phrase neoliberalism John Smyth’s book, The Toxic University, is for you. The title with its references to Zombie and Rock Stars is fun. Unfortunately, you get the impression that the title is where the fun ends.

Smyth makes a number of criticisms of universities and many seem reasonable. That said, I believe those outside academia would find it hard to think that the situation is too terrible. Smyth’s gives examples, these include a professor who doesn’t get her contract renewed. She had stopped playing the game, finding herself demotivated, which lead to tardiness. An academic losing her enthusiasm for the work is certainly sad. Still, I would not be surprised if your career didn’t go well in pretty much any job if you started being late for the key meetings. When you lose your motivation for the job lots of people don’t like to pay you to do the job anymore. Of course, let’s work on trying to keep people motivated but I’m not sure academics are worse off than anyone else.

Toxic Universities

Smyth speaks of “Toxic University”. There are certainly valid complaints but I wasn’t sure if the university is more toxic than any other organization. Neoliberalism is described as the perpetrator of the toxicity but this isn’t that well defined. “We need to be a little cautious in not ascribing too much in the way of certitude to the manner in which neoliberalism operates, it is much more opportunistic.” (Smyth, 2018, page 39). I think this means that anything he doesn’t like is neoliberal. I did get the impression that 1) rewarding based upon hard (somewhat pointless) objective targets and 2) cronyism — rewarding based upon internal managerial impressions with no objective targets — were both the fault of neoliberalism. These seem largely opposites to me though. They both are bad, and both exist in academia, but they don’t seem like the same thing and probably have different causes.

A Truly Toxic Place?

Celebrity Academics

He certainly has no time for celebrity academics. The complaint with celebrity academics is that they seem to suck the attention away from the rest of us. I know I would be a rock star if only Bono hadn’t beaten me to it. That is the only reasonable explanation for my lack of stardom.

Overall, I agree that universities have many problems. I don’t want to make light of some reasonable things that we can certainly work on improving. Still, I hope things aren’t quite as doomed as Smyth suggests. I would argue Daniel Johnson has a more practically useful perspective to universities.

Read: John Smyth (2018) The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars, and Neoliberal Ideology Palgrave MacMillian

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