The Future Academy: An Institution in the Making

By Markus Miessen //

Let’s start with a hypothesis: as it seems increasingly difficult to produce meaningful content through the institutionalized structures of major universities and academies, an ethical and content-driven approach to producing knowledge can only be achieved from the outside – through the setting up of small-scale frameworks that are nestled on the margins.

As outlined in Beshara Doumani’s book “Academic Freedom after September 11”[1], the qualities of the academy, which are often being taken for granted, have been exposed to a set of difficulties specifically after the September 11 attacks in the US and, as a result, were endangered by a series of policy changes that were signed by the Bush administration. Although this has to be understood mainly as a US-specific phenomenon, it has to be acknowledged that in many universities around the globe, academic freedom and the notion of autonomous knowledge production has succumbed to a practice in which the academic professor is increasingly understood as no longer a public intellectual, but an administrator, who – through the politically correct and consensual politics of the given departments – becomes a funding-generator for the university. Such understanding fundamentally breaks from the idea of the academy as an external agent, uninterrupted by political and economic forces and hence operating as a genuine centre for intellectual production and a robust democratic public culture. It poses the question of how one can, today, relate and intervene in complex situations, when actually most time is being spent on administrative and fundraising purposes.

One could dismiss the following as a naïve and potentially idealistic notion, but academic freedom also includes critical perspectives as to professional norms and the questioning of pre-set hierarchical power relations. The mission of higher education in this regard is also a mission focused on service to the public good, however one might want to interpret this. It seems that as a result of the corrosive effects on the intellectual atmosphere in the academies, there needs to be a careful consideration and revision as to whether turning universities into businesses is a model that sustains intellectual development, experiment and radical thinking. Most recently, one can trace certain practices through which a new model of academia is being rendered, one in which knowledge production is commercialized and sold as a product for the private good. In this context, the academy itself is often understood as corporate service provider. It further raises the question of whether critical thought is able to survive in such corporative environments?

Rethinking academic freedom first and foremost entails the introduction of a counterculture set against the recent processes through which the academy becomes more and more homogeneous, consensual and at the same time hegemonic: “the commercialization of education is producing a culture of conformity decidedly hostile to the university’s traditional role as a haven for informed social criticism. In this larger context, academic freedom is becoming a luxury, not a condition of possibility for the pursuit of truth.”[2] Today – more than ever before – one should base responsible (academic) practice on a skeptical approach towards professional norms. This is precisely what lies at the very heart of what it means to be an academic. It claims the academy as a bastion or island of informed, independent and alternative perspectives, a prerogative that emerges and should be able to thrive in a specific institutional context. However, is it still possible for such prerogative to emerge in the given frameworks of today’s university structures?

There seem to be two essential difficulties that one is facing in such environment today. One is the issue of administrative and economic exploitation, the other – and less obvious – the misunderstanding that ‘real’ knowledge is merely produced through professional competence: “as a result, whether a given publication or presentation is considered extramural or academic can be a complex matter, especially if what starts out as extramural activity within a given vocation turns out to constitute a separate area of professional competence over time (the case of Noam Chomsky is a good one).”[3] The latter assumes that it is precisely the idea and practice of the professional that produces most valuable results. However, the opposite seems to be the case: most surprising results and knowledge is being produced on the margins of such professional affectation. It emerges where ‘things’, existing and sometimes conflictual knowledge start to overlap; not necessarily in a romantic trans-disciplinary way, but were professional, or better, expert thinking collides with that of the outsider. Particularly in the US, the academy is recognized as a center for expertise. Sadly, such understanding also entails that the academic practices as an isolated professional, who is catering for his or her profession within the given framework of the academic institutional structure.

When Paul Hirst, in his seminal essay ‘Education and the production of ideas’ published in AA Files 29[4], dismantled John Major’s rhetoric regarding the ‘cultural retreat with a defence of change’, Hirst argued, “thus change is purely technical and economic, and our success in markets defines and circumscribes our modernity’. He poses a relentless call for practitioners, who are both willing to leave behind traditional modes of thinking and turn practice into a means of cultural and political involvement: ‘above all, craft does not imply a retreat from the world, as do many of the academics who oppose the changes taking place within universities. If the university is to produce intellectuals capable of playing a role in political and cultural regeneration, it cannot afford to be cut off from the concerns of the people.” The academy should be able to offer a quasi-utopian space in which uninterested reflection, commentary and research can be pursued. Such efforts should take place in either two ways: within an existing institutional academic body that, through its reputation and standing is able to raise the necessary financial framework for the execution of the research itself, or through an oppositional educational model, which is so small that no funding will ever disappear into the black wholes and untraceable institutional channels of the university. If the former model of existing university education is being pursued, then the State should also assume its political role and responsibility of funding such educational activities. Given such claim, one could argue for the recovery of a time when universities were smaller. An institution always exists as a set of echoes, in conversation with other bodies of knowledge. If such echoes can no longer be heard or even produced, it is time to move on produce alternative modes of formalized knowledge production.

On March 8, 2010, e-flux journal launched issue 14, co-edited by Irit Rogoff.[5] In it, we are being exposed to a series of urgently needed positions and theses regarding a re-evaluation of contemporary models of education, considering how forms of learning and exchange can take place within flexible, temporary and unstable configurations: “all around us we see a search for other languages and other modalities of knowledge production, a pursuit of other modes of entering the problematics of "education" that defy, in voice and in practice, the limitations being set up by the forces of bureaucratic pragmatism: a decade of increasing control and regulation, of market values imposed on an essential public right, and of middle-brow positivism privileged over any form of criticality—matched by a decade of unprecedented self-organization, of exceptionally creative modes of dissent, of criticality, and of individual ambitions that are challenging people to experiment with how they inhabit the field, how they inhabit knowledge.”[6] Rogoff dwells on the dangers, which are inherent in a model of education in which education itself is becoming a market economy geared towards profit and revenue. She points at the fact that within the mainstream prevailing system of education, students are increasingly being treated as paying clients, whose access and conditions have worsened considerably. One of the major forces she holds responsible for this development is the Bologna Accord, which – according to Rogoff – drives an education policy, which attempts to fuse and streamline the former heterogeneous educational models and realities of the former East and the former West into one knowledge tradition: “erasing decades of other models of knowledge in the East and producing an illusion of cohesion through knowledge economies and bureaucracies.”[7]

Florian Schneider, whose crucial thinking on collaboration was introduced in the earlier chapter ‘Collaboration and the Conflictual’ further investigates the notion of disciplinarity and the problematic circularity that such isolating and hermetic notion fosters: “it comes as no surprise that bodies of knowledge have been called “the disciplines.” The disciplinary institutions have organized education as a process of subjectivation that re-affirms the existing order and distribution of power in an endless loop.”[8] Schneider argues for an urgent need to revaluate the concepts of institutions and their opponents: “networked environments, deinstitutionalized and deregulated spaces such as informal networks, free universities, open academies, squatted universities, night schools, or proto-academies.”[9] He introduces the term “ekstitutions” to distinguish between the need for organizing practices (ekstitutions) and the need for unorganizing practices (institution) as a means to argue for an overdue concept of exclusivity: “by its very nature, the institution has to be concerned with inclusion. It is supposed to be open to everybody who meets the standards set in advance, while in ekstitutions admission is subject to constant negotiation and renegotiation.”[10]

As an aside, let us investigate an example of what is happening at some educational institutions today. In architecture and urban studies, the phenomenon of education becoming a market economy geared towards profit and revenue, as introduced by Rogoff, is probably best exemplified by the Rotterdam-based Berlage Institute, a post-graduate programme that “provides the next generation of architects and urbanists with tools to better comprehend and intervene in the complexity of contemporary life”.[11] Within a few years, the school has deteriorated from a once-challenging hub for critical thinking and extra-disciplinary production into what could be described as a industry-led environment in which teaching is only granted to those professors, who bring in more money than they get remunerated to teach their students. Such framework is coupled with a series of double standards, which only speed up the deterioration of the institution. The highly problematic change in policy – towards a more business-friendly and corporation-supportive understanding of education – was also commented on by the Dutch government that – as a result of a clear lack of criticality on the part of the Berlage Institute – severely cut the institute’s public funding. What is the value of a publicly funded institution that only caters to the industry, while attempting to generate profit through the politics of employment? Their agenda is simple: more money – economy is the primary concern, pedagogy comes later. This development from critical academy to corporate agency is obviously dangerous, but – moreover in the long run – not very smart.

In 2010, two studios at the Berlage Institute were financed by two external companies, which is the way in which the two directors of the Berlage Institute would like to see the school moving. Such issue of third party funding is nothing particularly special or unheard of, especially in the US. However, if such external funding and severe lack of responsibility and pedagogical interest from the side of the academy means that consequently students are simply being hijacked and used as free labour, then something within the sphere of education and responsibility has gone critically wrong. It becomes particularly problematic when such development goes hand in hand with an unclear goal of the studio, a lack of content in terms of education and project, as well as a active role of the external company in the definition and formation of programme. At the Berlage Institute, this practice has gone so far that it is now the case that this not only jeopardizes the autonomy of the academy, but further the company define programme and, even to the students, communicate that they are interested in using them to fabricate products, which produce a secondary economy (apart from the research) for the client – for example, a book that can be used to promote the company to potential clients. At the academy, the company has effectively replaced the educator. They decide what has to be done, when and how. The professor’s role has been turned into that of an administrator, an institutionalized manager for the client, someone, who is expected to contribute to the academy his or her personal and professional contacts and clients, and provide a certain amount of voluntary workers. In such context, students that are paying 25’000 Euro for a two-year programme, while being misused to deliver free labour to corporate clients – only for the institution to secure its existence.

This evidently has an effect on the way that professors teach: their interest in no longer in what is being produced in the studio, but in the relationships established through it. Reviews of student work are used as presentations for the clients. The so-called juries are staffed with more corporate representatives than academic or otherwise critical and intellectually guided staff. Further, these presentations can no longer be used as a fruitful and highly needed intellectual and critical exchange as the company is present and treated with white gloves, in an intellectually callous and consensus-driven manner. If the client is happy, everybody is happy. But what is the learning experience for the student, what is the point of engagement of the educator and what does the institution gain from it apart from securing its own existence and replication of non-relevant research? Some members of staff as well as students were, from the beginning, against such studio-model, however, they remained unheard. Moreover, the institution now finds itself in an incomprehensible practice of promoting double standards: on the one hand wanting to work on 'real' projects, on the other unwilling to acknowledge what this entails. It goes without saying that such protocols and concepts of education are damaging for the institution, disrespectful towards the educators, and unacceptable in terms of the institution’s ‘concept of the student’. Here, it is standard practice to continually shift the parameters of the negotiation regarding whether or not a professor is ‘allowed’ to teach, depending on how many financial resources he or she brings into the institution. A Carrot-and-stick practice is used in order to persistently increase the economic output of the studio, stringing the educators along as long as they provide the academy with capital; otherwise, they are being dropped like a hot potato. Such situation is untenable. Educators should not be personally vested in funding the studio they are teaching, nor should their salary be used to provide for speakers, critics, student travel or otherwise. Interestingly, in the corporate environment, which this schools is mimicking, the Berlage Institute’s conduct of employment would be understood and treated as illegal practice. Since there is no commitment to professors any longer, and educators are only ever been given semester-long contracts, there is neither security in carrying out a worthwhile research project nor the possibility to really concentrate on the work. It seems naïve to believe that within a four month long semester, one can carry out a meaningful piece of research. Since educators have become exchangeable due to economic considerations, no serious and in-depth research methodologies can be developed anymore.

It seems that out of this crisis, at least at the moment, there are only two possible ways of exiting this vicious circle: either, one commits to a conventional university, which takes on the responsibility as a place for education that also is willing and capable to economically support education – meaning that they are able to both pay for their employees as well as to simply run their everyday activities such as lectures, seminars or workshops – or, alternatively, to set up externalized small-scale structures, which allow for a process of constant reform, as envisaged by Schneider’s notion of the “ekstitituion”. This issue of scale as crucial mode of practice is also problematized in Nicolas Siepen’s and Åsa Sonjasdotter’s e-flux contribution “Learning by Doing: Reflections on Setting Up a New Art Academy”[12], in which the authors distinguish two basic formats of education: state-run art institutions (or for that matter privately funded ones) and so-called self-organized structures, between “pre-existing positions to be filled, and unstructured, continuously reinvented positions”.[13]

While self-organized models often question and transform the way in which their participants learn and practice, it is standard reality that the way in which state universities or privately run institutions “suffer” from under-funding is not connected to the funding of the actual content-driven studios or research undertaken within the academy, but a lack of smart decision-making when it comes to the overbearing bureaucratic structures that these institutions have put upon themselves – their ‘real’ problem is management and profitability: “perversely, a self-organized institution’s lack of funding is both its woe and its pride! In other words, when state institutions don’t function, they shut down, while self-organized “institutions” thrive, precisely because they “don’t function” (are not managed) to begin with.”[14] However, there is or at least should be another clear distinction between a formalized institution and a self-organized structure, that is that in the latter one is working for the sake of propelling research while probably not being paid or little, but the former also suggests a job description: if one is being employed as a professor or educator, one should also be remunerated accordingly as one is providing a clearly defined service, i.e. X amount of students per studio, X amount of lectures, tutorials and reviews, X amount of hours per week, X amount of weeks per term.

Given this framework, to return to the hypothesis, it seems increasingly relevant to produce other formats of educational engagement coupled with alternative forms of learning. Structural change is most likely to be achieved from the outside rather than the inside. The small-scale frameworks nestled on the margins of state-controlled or privately funded education are more agile, flexible and intelligent to generate content-driven approaches that generate and participate in local projects as well as self-initiated collaborations: environments in which participants and contributors learn how to unlearn, critically consider the differences between practice and professionalism, develop a socio-political reading of their surrounding, and insert a criticality into the territory in which they are operating. This was the driving force for me to initiate the Winter School Middle East. In their e-flux contribution, Nicolas Siepen and Åsa Sonjasdotter posed the crucial question much more effectively and clearer than I ever did in the past: “for whom or what reason is this institution here?”[15]

[1] Doumani, Beshara (ed.), Academic Freedom after September 11, New York: Zone Books, 2006
[2] ibid., p.38
[3] ibid., p.125
[4] Hirst, Paul, “Education and the Production of New Ideas”, in: AA Files 29, London: AA Publications, 1995
[5] e-flux journal 14, guest edited by Irit Rogoff, http://e-flux.com/journal/issue/14
[6] ibid., in: “Education Actualized – Editorial” by Irit Rogoff
[7] ibid.
[8] ibid, in: “(Extended) Footnotes on Education” by Florian Schneider
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid.
[11] see also: http://www.berlage-institute.nl/
[12] See also: Nicolas Siepen and Åsa Sonjasdotter’s e-flux contribution “Learning by Doing: Reflections on Setting Up a New Art Academy”, in: e-flux journal 14, guest edited by Irit Rogoff, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/122
[13] ibid.
[14] ibid.
[15] ibid.