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Attack the Muffled Mendacities of the Administrative Creatures

Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick. Honorary professor means emeritus: He’s attached to the university but not drawing a salary or participating in its administration. Yet he recently published a furious article in Times Higher Education (“Economical with the actualité,” October 6, 2011), railing against “the farcical combination of phony science, flat obduracy and lethal money-grubbing that now passes for the language of academic policy.” After five paragraphs of abuse hurled at people he calls “the gangsters of propaganda and their hirelings in advertising,” he stops himself for a moment and begins a new paragraph with: “This is no mere abuse.”

He ought to leave us to be the judge of that, I think. When I see an article by the government minister for universities and science referred to as “a gobbling and hapless effusion,” I’d be inclined to say that probably is abuse; but your mileage may differ.

Picking up the theme again, Inglis gets back on the trail of linguistic corruption, inveighing against words and phrases as if they were themselves evil, just like Orwell in 1946. His hatred and anger is visited especially on prioritizing, operational implications, outcome indicators, impact beneficiaries, incremental significance, and levels of robustness. He makes it clear that these phrases make him want to throw up (“abrupt and reverse peristalsis” is his curiously jargonesque description of what happens to his guts when he sees jargon). He quotes Keats’s remark that “English must be kept up,” and I must say, he’s certainly keeping his own English up, because this is splendid flamethrower rhetoric. And it goes on and on and on:

We ignore the monstrosity of managerial vocabulary too easily. It has to be fought, put down, criticised for what it is: a perversion of human exchange, a calculated muffling of the hard, deliberate compulsions of ruthless and authoritarian models of how things must be.

Soon he is lambasting “the toadying vice-chancellor straining for a knighthood; the administrator ‘quislings’ … , and the managerialist undead presently dancing on spreadsheets before arranging redundancies for junior staff paid a sixth of their own salaries,” and calling them “these creatures” (they are not even human any more!) who are “to a monstrous degree complicit in the muffled mendacities and self-serving mutilations of the new policies.” The language associates administrators with more and more extreme departures from the world of normal humans: toadies; traitors; vampires; beasts; monsters.

It goes beyond Orwell, really. It’s like reading the winning essay in a competition to write a critique of higher-education bureaucracy in the style of H. P. Lovecraft.

Don’t get me wrong: My answer to the question of whether there has been too much unenlightened application of the vocabularies of management and free-market economics to higher education in the U.K. would be yes.

Likewise to the question of whether there is now too much bureaucratic intrusion into decisions of an academic nature, and too many form-filling impositions on the business of university teaching. After the sleepy 1970s, Britain started to go a bit overboard on control and accountability in the 1980s, and it stuck. A government-financed agency instructs us on writing up evaluations of every course we teach and filing them according to strict procedures. Every six years there is an assessment of the quality of research in the universities that is so complex it takes two years to conduct and costs $80 million. And grant agencies insist on a rigorous statement concerning what the social and economic “impact” of every piece of research will be, even if it is in literature or number theory. (“Who can possibly say” will not do as an answer.)

But reading Inglis on the topic of the pro-vice chancellors and budget officers of our universities gives one a sense of a man out of control. Someone must have let him have access to a thesaurus and a bottle of whisky when he was already in an ungovernable rage. His rhetoric reminded me irresistibly of the Interahamwe of Rwanda: I thought any minute he would be referring to administrative staff as “cockroaches” and urging that they be slaughtered.

“The amiable passivity of the academic life must be abruptly shaken off,” he insists. It seems clear he has shaken off his own.

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