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Once upon a time, Derek Bok was a scholar of the labor movement, co-authoring a massive, landmark study of the role of labor unions and workplace democracy in fostering a more just, equitable–and productive–America. A few years later, he had to be restrained by the study’s co-author, John Dunlop, from his campaign to bust the mostly-female Harvard clerical union.

Somewhere along the way, Bok converted to quality management, probably during the years that Clinton-Gore made it respectable by pushing it into government. (You remember, the “good economy” that had great metrics but was lousy to live in? The race to the bottom of awful jobs and petty tyranny by management chronicled by Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed?)

As I’ve previously written in this space, and discuss in some detail in How the University Works, quality management invokes the strategies of kulturkampf: creating a strong, corporate culture with the explicit aim of stamping out traditional faculty beliefs, values, and practices; manufacturing consent to the mission; inducing compliance. As Bok rather nakedly put it earlier this week, administrators should “establish a cult of continuous improvement.”

On the factory floor, “continuous improvement” of productivity is clearly understood; it’s speed-up. The goal is standardization of movement to better harmonize with the needs of the machine, to move faster, and therefore cheaper.

The “cult” part is to make you overlook the pain, or to feel that the pain is for a higher purpose (“go team!”), just like you overlook the pain when you’re sitting in cold bleachers at a football game, kneeling in church, or being laughed at while proselytizing.

The cult part is to extract extra effort, “voluntarily” given — you know, the way that women and young people just “naturally” enjoy serving! The cult takes so many forms: “You care about your customers/patients/students;” “You’re a professional;” “You love what you do!” “You’re not really working!” So come early and stay late; don’t punch the clock, don’t ask for extra pay. Accept an increased workload when the year turns out (surprise!), just like every other year for 30 years in a row, to be one of “fiscal crisis” and “belt-tightening” — pay no attention to the beautiful new business school, to the gleaming gyms, and the platoons of BMWs in the parking lot!

The reason business administration has turned to a cultural strategy is in part because in many industries technological innovation/technological improvements in productivity have maxed: where to get additional productivity except by increasing the willingness of the worker to give it away? When the “cult” strategy isn’t enough, the law steps in: “You’re not a worker — you’re a student!” “You’re not a worker — you’re an independent contractor!” “You’re not a worker — you’re a supervisor!” “You’re not a real worker — you’re just part-time!” Or the administrator breaks the little bit of law that’s left: “Punch out but stay until you’re done!” “Documentation? Dunno, that’s our subcontractor’s responsibility!”

The idea is to have as much work as possible done by all of these workers-who-aren’t-workers-under-the-law, by students, interns, volunteers, the undocumented, eager “professionals” who have none of the traditional benefits, privileges, or autonomy of professionals.

Pretty soon, GM will be inviting church ladies to the plant to lend a hand with the painting, and having student interns in to “learn how to man the robots” for a couple of semesters (but not hiring them when they get their degree). When they get to that desired end, they’ll finally be emulating the ideal workplace of current management theory — the campus, which has pioneered the voluntary super-discount of labor, the super-exploitation of students, and the creation of an utterly managed and docile class of professionals who exercise little professional control over their work.

Cults, of course, need priests, and the priests are paid for disseminating the rituals that cultivate obedience and docility, “conformity with mission.” It’s a culture war, and the function of administrative priestcraft is to create a cult of personality around leadership: While things got worse under the last overpaid cliche-spouting buffoon, perhaps things will be different under the next leader!

Yeah, right. This is part of what I argue, in different terms, in “Battling for Hearts and Minds” in the next issue of AAUP’s Academe, that faculty are losing this culture war for control of the academic workplace — have been losing for decades. Have lost, actually. It’s over. The tenure-stream faculty don’t represent a counter-culture or counterpower. And aren’t likely to change in the near future: they’ve been selected for compliance, self-interest, social avoidance, comfortable relationships with authority figures.

(By the way, you get Academe free if you join — and boy, you should. It’s the antidote to the dizzy propaganda circulated by the shamans of the cult.)

One place that there has been a concrete response to the “cult of continuous improvement” has been in the labor movement, which has pretty much everyhwere adopted one version or another of a “culture of continuous organizing,” meaning a cultural strategy of face-to-face encounters, actual participation in the affairs and decisions of the union — the daily practice of democracy, amplified and solidified by togetherness and sociability. See the NYU GSOC folks talk about this strategy in part 2 of my interview with them, above.

The cutting edge of the academic labor movement — the folks adopting this counterpower of continuous organizing — are graduate employees and faculty serving contingently.

They are the leadership. From them — both as the embodied, overwhelming majority of the academic faculty, and as the architects of the most vigorous response to the cult of administration — will come higher education’s new deal, whatever it turns out to be.

And whatever it turns out to be, it will be better than the train wreck created by the high priests of greed, super-exploitation, and a “labor market” rigged at $2,000 a class.



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