As an academic, you are a brand. This may suit your career plans and the way you do your work every day. Maybe you really enjoy all the networking, twittering, linking-in, and polishing of your image. I certainly know colleagues who do. Others resent academia’s turn towards brands and images. Nonetheless, they have to play along at least to some degree. As an academic, you are a brand not only as a matter of choice, but, increasingly, due to powerful institutional imperatives that are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Academia has for a long time been a world of intellectuals and people with at least some intellectual affinities. This makes me wonder whether today’s branded academics can still be intellectuals. Does this matter? This is more than a rhetorical question. Talking to colleagues, I more and more often hear that it does not. In a period of crisis, downsizing, fierce competition in the labour market, and considerable administrative pressure on academics, just having and keeping a job matters much more than one’s intellectual ambitions, I am told. Don’t raise your head above the parapet. From a personal perspective, such a stance might make sense in response to the anxiety-inducing transformations the academic world is currently undergoing. However, it does not respond adequately to broader concerns about the place of intellectuals in academia and public life at large. Ronald McDonald, the Marlboro Man, and the hip guy who’s a Mac and not a PC only need to be striking images that sell burgers, cigarettes, and overpriced computers. Academics might have more significant roles to play in society.
Such concerns are not new. As early as 1959, C. Wright Mills wrote in The Sociological Imagination:
“For those who remain academic, a new sort of career, different from that of the old-fashioned professor has become available; it may be called the career of ‘the new entrepreneur.’ This ambitious type of consultant is able to further his career in the university by securing prestige and even small-scale powers outside it. Above all, he is able to set up on the campus a respectably financed research and teaching institution, which brings the academic community into live contact with men of affairs. Among his more cloistered colleagues, such a new entrepreneur may often become a leader of university affairs.” (p.98)
To contemporary readers, all this – academic entrepreneurs, close contacts with the so-called ‘real world’, respectable (grant) financing, the pursuit of prestige – must sound very familiar. Due to the unprecedented degree to which academic labour is now organised by the operational logics of commercial life, Mills’ words are, if anything, more telling than they were half a century ago. In particular, he ties the rise of the new academic entrepreneur to the de-politicisation of academic life:
“The American university system seldom if ever provides political education; it seldom teaches how to gauge what is going in the general struggle for power in modern society. […] All this means that the American scholar’s situation allows him to take up the new practicality without any shift of ideology and without any political guilt. Thus it would be naïve, as well as inappropriate, to suggest that anyone was ‘selling out,’ for sure that harsh phrase may properly be used only when there is something to be sold.” (p.99)
Mills’ withering criticism of US academia notwithstanding, it seems easy to agree that the country has since 1959 produced a substantial number of social researchers renowned in academia for the intellectual sophistication of their work and in public life for their political commitment. The same assessment certainly applies to British academia then and now. If anything, for instance, Frank Furedi’s much discussed work on the demise of the British intellectual shows that there are still some public intellectuals of note left in the country.
However, Mills’s words point to real and significant problems in the near future. Under conditions of academic audit culture, academics have no choice but to continuously demonstrate, as vocally as possible, their excellence, impact, and so forth. To your line manager, it might not matter what you have written, as long as it will get lots of stars in the REF. The image of intellectual achievement might be gaining precedence over the substance of academic debates. To build the image of a high-achieving academic, moreover, it’s nowadays de rigueur to have won as much grant funding as possible for one’s research. I know quite a few scholars who only engage in research projects that are grant-funded and who are quite worried about saying anything that might upset the non-academic organisations that fund them. The way they do things is an exception to the rules of mainstream academic labour. Still, the extent to which they have become successful as pure entrepreneurs is striking. Likewise, understanding themselves as brands in a competitive marketplace, universities have become highly sensitive to politically contentious statements that might draw unwanted attention. There have been more than a few incidents in recent years that underscore this point.
There is still more than enough left of academic freedom today for academics to act as intellectuals. However, it is also clear that universities are currently being remade in ways that considerably narrow the space available for intellectuals to work as such. Branded academics can hardly be intellectuals, and branded academics seem to be more and more favoured by academic institutions. It might be time to re-read C. Wright Mills.
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