A neoliberal university

I type the name of my professor into a search engine followed by the words “sexual harassment.” I want to see if there is any trace in the online world of what he has done over the past decade.

The first article that appears is an analysis of the ways the neoliberal university fails to attend to sexual harassment. It argues that the university fails to challenge an “institutional cultural of fear and compliance with injustice and inequality” because of a neoliberal tick-box approach to rights.

I read on. The article is an uncannily good description of what has unfolded in my department and in my personal and professional life over the past several years. The author writes:

For postgraduate students or junior academic staff (particularly when they are on short-term contracts, as is increasingly the case), there is immediately the threat to career advancement, should they file a complaint against a member of staff, where the complainant is potentially perceived to create problems not just for that ‘esteemed’ member of staff, but for the entire department and the institution, which is accentuated by an HE structure which ties funding to league table results. The target of harassment and bullying might even perceive her/himself to be the cause of generating the problems as a consequence of having been subjected to ongoing implicit or explicit threats by someone in an institutionally more powerful position.

Speaking out against a problem, we become a problem. This has been exactly the situation in my department. For years, women have been silenced by the institutional structures that have supported and enabled harassment and bullying to continue. When women have sought advice or spoken to other members of staff about the situation, there has been overwhelming complacency and, in many cases, a will to protect the institution by making the problem go away. Until very recently, there has been very little – or no – will to actually address the issue or intervene in the ongoing abuses of power.

The article continues:

The difficulty with issues relating to gender-based oppression and discrimination such as sexual harassment is that they are silenced. Exposure is strongly discouraged and, fearful of the consequences, those connected impose self-censorship. Even for those with the courage to expose it, there is no impartial place to which they can confidently turn and the first people they are likely to encounter are their colleagues embedded within the patronage system.

Clearly this author understands the nuances of power involved in the sexual harassment that takes place in the strongly hierarchical space of the university. Is this article, I wonder, a description of my professor? Is the author drawing on her own experiences with the same man?

It is not.

Instead, I find a reference to him later in the text. He is cited as a person claiming that audit culture undermines any sense of accountability and transparency within the university. I feel bleak reading this statement, given how extensively he has exploited the lack of confidence in audit culture to enable his own violations. Is he able to say this and to make this analysis because he knows, in a very calculated way, how thoroughly he exploits audit culture and uses it as his cover? When he is called to account for his abuses, he invokes lack of trust in the institution and a cynical awareness of audit culture as a way to hide what he has done. Having taught his students that audit culture can’t be trusted, he is able to position genuine attempts to speak back to serious and systematic abuses of power as another tick-box symptom of the neoliberal university.

And it is, in a way. But it’s not the speaking out against sexual harassment that’s the problem: it is his getting away with abusing students for so many years that is a symptom of a university system more concerned with protecting its own reputation than protecting its students.



Schaumberg, Heike. “‘J’accuse…!’ Crisis in the Reproduction of Anthropological Scholarship,” Anthropology in Action, 16, 2 (2009): 51–62.

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One thought on “A neoliberal university

  1. wilsonk68 says:

    Reblogged this on Kim Wilson, Ph.D. and commented:
    “Speaking out against a problem, we become a problem.” This sums up the last 4 years of my life in academia, but that will not stop me from speaking out against harassment and bullying.

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