Showmanship and The Entrepreneurial University

by twobee

First performed in 1949, Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of Salesman’ is set in a distant world. Nonetheless, in 2012 the play seems as topical as ever. Willy Loman, its protagonist, is an aged salesman with a major image problem. He has become notably tired and unable to make it on a smile and a shoeshine. His past success counts for nothing. Willy loses his job and, as a result of this professional failure and a personal crisis, commits suicide. The collapse of his life ultimately results from his inability to meet the demand for outstanding showmanship which his work placed on him. In his early sixties, he cannot maintain the image of a dynamic, highly achieving salesman anymore, and his sales collapse together with his image.

Today, you don’t have to be a salesman to have to be a showman. Indeed, a talent for showmanship has become a crucial component of academic success. Consider the issue of job applications I raised in my previous post. It is true, of course, that real achievement is necessary for any appointment. However, alongside real achievements, the ability to portray a certain kind of (entrepreneurial) image has become essential. Hence, your CV and your job letter need to be worded in just exactly the right way to project this image. It is in part because of this dominance of form over substance that the academic labour market has become so unforgiving that small flaws, such as, say, a period of unemployment, may invalidate a candidate´s presentation of self. You certainly can do the job, but you just don´t look the part.

Or consider the much larger issue of the status of the social sciences in academia. A recent post on this blog is titled ´Social Scientists Need to Make a Stronger Case for Their Worth´. It argues, for instance:

‘Social scientists need to make a strong case for their worth inside and outside of academia to take advantage of the opportunities they have at a time of challenges for the sector, said Sir Howard Newby, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. […] Ceridwen Roberts, a Campaign board member, said that social science was under-represented in the senior levels of government and that was why the Campaign was arguing for the restoration of the Government Chief Social Scientist post, which was removed in 2010. Social scientists were “not visible enough to politicians” and were “not giving enough evidence to Select Committees” in the way that pressure groups did. However the Academy of Social Science and the learned societies were now doing more in this area.’

‘Worth’ here refers to the usual standards of measurable achievement in academic audit culture. The statement that social researchers need ‘to take advantage of the opportunities they have at a time of challenges for the sector’ suggests that we need to be entrepreneurial, maximise our opportunities, and be willing to compete with scholars in other disciplines. Notably, image seems to play a large role in such competition – hence the importance of ‘making a strong case’, ‘being visible to politicians’, ‘giving evidence to Select Committees’, and so forth. It follows from this that we must not assume that sociology’s existence has in any way been legitimised by its achievements over the past two centuries. Politicians won’t have read ‘The Sociological Imagination’, and Select Committees won’t be convinced by ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’. What counts is our ability to create a favourable image of ourselves here and now, and such a favourable image might depend at least as much on being visible for visibility’s sake as on reasoned substantive arguments. It might not matter what you told the Select Committee, but the fact that you spoke there, instead of an engineer, an economist, or an entomologist, does prove that sociology has impact.

Interestingly, this dimension of contemporary academic life has gone almost unnoticed in the academic literature on the entrepreneurial university. Take a look, for example, at the work of Henry Etzkowitz. An internationally renowned scholar, Etzkowitz states that he is ‘the originator of the ‘Entrepreneurial University’ and ‘Triple Helix’ concepts that link university with industry and government’. He has published very widely on these themes, and he is the president of the Triple Helix Association, an enterprise that promotes the entrepreneurial university through a wide range of events and activities. His work lends vital legitimacy to current political efforts to reshape the academic landscape. In a recent paper (1), Etzkowitz summarises his standpoint as follows:

‘The university’s unique status as a teaching, research and economic development enterprise, whose traditional and new roles reinforce each other, places it in a central position in the knowledge age. An entrepreneurial academic ethos that combines an interest in fundamental discovery with application is emerging as new and old academic missions persist in creative tension. Rather than being suborned to either industry or government, the university is emerging as an influential actor and equal partner in an innovation regime, the ‘triple helix’ of university–industry–government relations. The institutional spheres of science and the economy, which were hitherto relatively separate and distinct, have become inextricably intertwined.’ (Etzkowitz 2011, 550)

In this article and others, Etzkowitz, of course, complicates his position and devotes considerable attention to wide variety of issues that affect the workings of the entrepreneurial university. His noteworthy publications on gender in science are but one example in this regard. Yet, peculiar blind spots remain in his argument. As in the paragraph quoted above, Etzkowitz assumes the emergence of an ‘entrepreneurial ethos’ that corresponds to the new relationships between academia, government, and industry. He does not really concern himself, however, with the exact nature of the ‘creative tensions’ between entrepreneurship and scholarship in contemporary academia, or with the political activities inside and outside academia through which scholars are taught that they need to be entrepreneurs. (Of course, given the impact which political reforms widely rejected by academics have had on British universities since 2010, there are also questions to be raised about his claim that, rather ‘than being suborned to either industry or government, the university is emerging as an influential actor and equal partner in an innovation regime’. That’s a topic for another post, though.) It is here that the problem lies. Etzkowitz, and alongside him many other key players in current reforms of academic life, seem to simply assume that scholars can and should be entrepreneurs, and they pay no heed to the personal dynamics and consequences of the entrepreneurial turn they advocate. Surely, nobody desires that showmanship take precedence over substantial, thoughtful scholarship. Surely, if academics are called to speak to Select Committees, they are meant to offer the sometimes unique insights which systematic scholarship can generate. Surely, they are not just there to justify their own importance and that of their discipline. Nonetheless, image and showmanship have acquired unprecedented importance in academic life, as an unintended consequence of the widespread lack of attention to the ways in which the entrepreneurial turn has politicised academic’s presentation of self, creating the need to continually demonstrate one’s importance for the sake of demonstrating one’s importance.

(1) Etzkowitz, H. (2011), ‘Normative change in science and the birth of the Triple Helix’, Social Science Information 50(3-4), 549-568.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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