Celebratory speeches and naked power

"A merger will contribute to an ongoing process that is eroding workplace democracy at the university in favour of a neoliberal agenda," Michael Jones argues in this essay.
A merger erodes democaracy, Michael Jones argues. The picture is from NTNU's annually leader conference in Oppdal.

A merger erodes democaracy, Michael Jones argues. The picture is from NTNU's annually leader conference in Oppdal.

Quality of research and teaching is feted in celebratory speeches at university functions. At the same time arguments are forwarded that quality can only be ensured through structural reorganization of the university, involving the merging of departments into larger units. This essay uses the case of the Department of Geography at NTNU to question whether amalgamation into a large department of social sciences is the best way to achieve and uphold quality in the discipline of geography. I argue that a merger will contribute to an ongoing process that is eroding workplace democracy at the university in favour of a neoliberal agenda, which is producing a university managed by an increasingly powerful administrative bureaucracy and where quantity is seen unquestioned as a valid measure of quality.

Geographical vulnerability

Susan Cutter is a leading world researcher on geographical differences in the vulnerability and resilience of communities to environmental hazards. She is professor of geography and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Her research examines what makes people and the places they inhabit vulnerable – or resilient – to extreme events such as storms, floods and other environmental hazards. This pioneering research combines inputs from social science, natural science and technology. Since 2007, the Department of Geography at NTNU has benefited from research cooperation with Susan Cutter and gained funding worth several million kroner for a number of research projects on climate change, vulnerability and resilience in Norway.  On 20 March 2015 the award to Professor Cutter of an honorary doctorate at NTNU was appropriately celebrated in speeches at the doctoral awards ceremony. She is the third geographer to be awarded an honorary doctorate at this university. In 1997 the Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand was honoured for his pioneering studies of innovation in human geography, and in 2009 the British geographer Piers Blaikie was honoured for his pioneering work on political ecology in the Global South.

The fact that the Department of Geography is able to develop research cooperation with such internationally recognized researchers suggests a research environment that is vital and able to rise to challenges facing present-day society. It is hence paradoxical that the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management at NTNU, Marit Reitan, presented in February 2015 a proposal that if accepted will result in the closing down of the Department of Geography as an independent department by merging it into a large, diffuse department of social sciences.

Meeting the challenges

The faculty leadership claims that structural reorganization is necessary in order to meet demands for internationalization, external funding, high quality research, and interdisciplinary work. Yet research at the department already meets these challenges. The Department of Geography has through the years successfully gained funding and produced high-quality research in internationally oriented, interdisciplinary projects.

These projects have covered issues such as agri-environmental policies in Europe, geographical perspectives on HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, issues of gender and development in Asia, forced migration and alternative development in several regions of the Global South, and natural resource management in relation to armed conflict, peace-building and development in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The Department of Geography has one of the faculty’s two star researchers in NTNU’s programme for supporting young elite researchers. She heads a project on transparency and accountability in managing revenues from high-value natural resources, asking whether in some countries such resources can be a curse rather than a blessing.

Within NTNU, the Department of Geography has a long tradition of research and teaching cooperation with departments in other faculties of the university as well as with external research institutions. Disciplines that members of the department have worked together with show a wide diversity, including geology, botany, environmental science, psychology, medicine, technology, economics, planning, didactics, archaeology, history and cultural heritage studies, as well as social sciences.

The proposed department of social sciences would merge geography with the disciplines of sociology, political science and social anthropology. Each of these disciplines has a strong disciplinary focus and identity of its own. Although their research and teaching share some common features, they have distinct approaches to methodology, theory and empirical work. There are clear benefits to be obtained from interdisciplinary work as well as teaching and research cooperation between these separate departments. However, cooperation and interdisciplinary work require a strong disciplinary fundament, and there is a real danger that this fundament will be eroded rather than strengthened in a merged department.

The discipline of geography is distinctive because it incorporates not only approaches from social science, but also from humanities, natural sciences and technology. Research and teaching in both human geography and physical geography are incorporated in the teaching and research undertaken within the Department of Geography in Trondheim (unlike in Oslo, where human and physical geography are taught in separate departments). The physical geographers are strongly concerned that amalgamation into a department of social sciences will be seriously detrimental to the recruitment of PhD and postdoctoral candidates in physical geography.

Members of the department have strong doubts concerning how far the broad approach to research that is characteristic of geography will be recognized in a large department with a disciplinary focus on social sciences alone. Similar mergers in other countries have led to a loss of geography’s identity as a discipline and to the dispersal of geographers to other places of learning.

Against change?

Opposition to the proposed merger is unison among the academic staff, administrative staff, and research fellows and PhD candidates at the Department of Geography. Opponents of reorganization are often stereotyped as being ‘against change’ or as being ‘museum curators’. To quote NTNU’s rector, Gunnar Bovim, in his celebratory speech at the recent doctoral awards ceremony: ‘A merger involves change. Many people feel threatened by change, but changes take place in and around us all the time.’ However, what he did not say was that change does not occur independently of people. Particular kinds of change are promoted by people with particular agendas. Not all change is beneficial. Change is inevitable, but the direction of change can be influenced.

The Department of Geography is by no means averse to change. It has shown itself to be a dynamic and innovative department. The department started the first international master’s programme at the Faculty of Social Sciences, in development studies. Members of the department initiated the first cooperative programme funded by the Norwegian National Programme for Development, Research and Education (NUFU). This was between the departments of geography in Trondheim and Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. More than half of the current academic staff in geography at the University of Peradeniya hold an MPhil or PhD degree from the Department of Geography in Trondheim. The department in Trondheim was subsequently involved in NUFU-financed cooperation projects in Ghana, Ethiopia and again Sri Lanka, with similar results. In 2012 one of the department’s professors was awarded NTNU’s prize for outstanding international research and collaboration.

The department has hosted the only meeting of the Permanent European Conference for the Study of the Rural Landscape to be so far held in Norway, a conference that goes back to 1957 with sessions every other year in different European countries.  The department was among the first three from NTNU to provide a leader for an international research group in the field of social sciences and law at the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo. The department set up one of NTNU’s first discipline-oriented master’s degree in teacher’s education, and it remains the only university department of geography in Norway to have its own master’s degree in education.

In recent years, the department’s economic geographers have cooperated with NTNU’s technology faculties, SINTEF and private firms in research on industrial innovation. The department is a partner in the newly established, research council funded Centre for Research Based Innovation.

In 2010 the Research Council of Norway commissioned an evaluation of the discipline of geography in Norway. The Department of Geography in Trondheim received a highly favourable assessment. It was described as being the most comprehensive of the Norwegian geography departments in its approach to geography, as well as producing the greatest number of PhD theses in geography. The department was praised for creatively, using its internal scholarly breadth to promote joint projects bringing together different members of the department with diverse research interests. Especially mentioned was the project ‘Thinking Geographically about House and Home’, which included cooperation with one of Britain’s leading departments of geography at the University of London. The department has recently gained funding for a major project on the geography of community resilience in the face of environmental hazards related to climate change; this is a further example of research capitalizing on the diverse research interests of the department.

As a direct result of the national evaluation, the Department of Geography was given the task of leading Norway’s first national research school in geography, which began in 2013 in cooperation with the geography departments in Oslo and Bergen. Another example of a leading national role in the discipline of geography is that the Department of Geography hosted for 16 years until the end of 2014 the principal editorship of Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift–Norwegian Journal of Geography. The journal has during that time been transformed into a fully peer-reviewed international journal indexed in Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science (still commonly referred to under its earlier name ISI Web of Science), the world’s leading journal indexing system.

This is the department that the faculty wants to close down as a separate department. Why?

The financial deficit

Despite the department’s success in attracting research funding for international interdisciplinary projects, it has nonetheless in recent years developed a budgetary deficit. It is not the only department in the faculty to come into this situation. The intricacies of the budgetary model allocating funds within the faculty seem to be a major cause of the deficit. Part of the budgetary model allocates funds according to the numbers of students passing exams. This favours departments with large numbers of students at undergraduate level.

The Department of Geography has moderate numbers of undergraduate students but a relatively high proportion of students at master’s level and, for the size of the department, a large number of PhD candidates. This indicates that for students who have begun to study geography as undergraduates there is a high degree of continuity to higher levels of education. The PhD programme also attracts many candidates who have previously studied elsewhere. Yet the funding for each completed PhD has been more than halved since the current budgetary model was introduced, with the result that now the costs exceed the allocated funding. The paradoxical situation now is that each PhD ‘produced’ increases the departmental deficit.

The department has a highly qualified academic staff. Half of the permanent academic staff are professors, nine in all. Promotion to a professorship is based on external assessment and is quite independent of the budgetary model. The paradox is that the resultant increase in salaries results in there being less money for other things, including the day-to-day running of the department. Six of the professors are women, which is very unusual in a university world where the majority of professors in most disciplines are men. None of the department’s female professors has been appointed through the operation of gender quotas but they have received promotion because of the quality of their research and teaching. When most of the department’s budget goes to paying salaries for highly qualified scholars in tenured posts, there is little room left for reducing financial deficits by austerity and budgetary cuts.

It has been suggested that, as an incentive for supporting restructuring and the amalgamation of departments into a large, single social sciences department, the slate might be wiped clean for those departments with a deficit. This superficially would seem an attractive option, but it does little to solve the fundamental cause of the deficit, which seems to be the budgetary model itself.

It is sometimes assumed that mergers can increase economic efficiency by reducing administrative costs. The Department of Geography has a small but well-functioning administration, working close to the academic staff. This has contributed greatly to the development of the discipline and to the academic success of the department. There is little room for making cuts here without serious consequences for the vital back-up support for teaching and research. Amalgamation into a large social sciences department would most likely result in a more distanced administration to the detriment of the geographical research and teaching environment.

The Faculty of Social Sciences has a relatively large administrative staff at faculty level. There is a widespread and much criticized tendency in many areas of public life for management bureaucracies to grow at the expense of the labour-power in the core activities that they are managing – in the case of universities, teaching, research and communication. There is no evidence that a merger would increase efficiency by reducing the number of administrators. The opposite is more likely to occur. This has been demonstrated in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences of the United States (2009), penned by the prize-winning professor of geophysics, Bjørn Jamtveit, at the University of Oslo. There is evidence that in many cases mergers lead to an increase in the size of administrative staff in order to manage the increasing complexity of the organization. In addition come the transaction costs that arise because of the disturbance to the organization’s core activities in a period of reorganization, often over a period of years rather than months.

However, the dean of the faculty has apparently recognized this as she has stated the justification of the merger is not primarily based on economic arguments. So where does the imperative for restructuring come from?

The democratic deficit

Soon after I moved to Norway in 1973, I attended as the holder of a research fellowship the very first meeting of the new departmental council of my department at what was then the Agricultural University of Norway. The departmental council (instituttråd) consisted of all the members of the department as well as student representatives. Its function was to elect the head of department (instituttstyrer) and the departmental administrative board (instituttstyre), and to act as an advisory body to the departmental board. This was only five years after the upheavals of 1968, and I was enthusiastic about this realization of workplace democracy at the university.

On moving to the newly established Department of Geography at the University of Trondheim in 1975, I found a system in place with an elected departmental council, which had decision-making powers, including election of the head of department. Faculty boards, the university council and the university rector were similarly elected by university employees and student representatives. This marked part of a radical shift in Western universities at the time from the old professor-controlled university to university democracy.

Since the mid-1990s there has occurred gradual erosion of university democracy in favour of an increasingly top-down administrative structure, with an increasingly professionalized administration separate from the elected bodies, an increasing role for external representatives on the university boards at various levels, and a move towards appointing instead of electing the rector, deans and department heads. Attempts have been made to turn the department and faculty boards into advisory bodies without decision-making power. The instituting in 2013 at the Department of Geography of an appointed head of department, against the wishes of many members of the department, almost ended in catastrophe, when the only qualified applicant decided not to take the post. The prospect of not having a new head of department to take over was only averted when a respected member of the department, who had not applied, agreed to take on the responsibility.

The merger of the Department of Geography into a large department of social sciences will lead to a further erosion of workplace democracy. Instead of being a close-knit unit, in which decisions are made in close collaboration with those who are primarily affected, the departmental council – which may only have an advisory function – and an appointed head of department will be distanced from what for the discipline of geography will end up as a research group without decision-making authority and with little influence.

The erosion of workplace democracy at the university does not, however, mean going back to the old professor-controlled university. Instead, a new, expanding group of increasingly powerful professional administrators are exerting more and more influence. The employees of the university are expected to implement loyally changes that are decided through a top-down decision-making process. I have heard arguments from a highly placed administrator that since the new university administrative system of governance has been approved by Parliament, then it follows that it is democratic. This argument completely negates the arguments for workplace democracy. Instead, it is widely argued that in the new system of governance employees influence their situation through the mechanism of ‘participation’. However, participatory exercises can take many forms, some of them paying no more than lip-service to democracy.

The ‘tyranny’ of participation

Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari are two researchers on development problems in the Global South. In 2001 they published an edited collection of articles in a book titled Participation: The New Tyranny? The book contains a critique of participatory development orthodoxies and argues that a potential consequence of participatory approaches can be tyranny due to unjust exercise of power, despite the rhetoric of empowerment.

Cooke and Kothari identify three types of tyranny. First is the tyranny of decision-making and control, whereby a participatory exercise may override legitimate concerns. Second is the tyranny of the group, whereby group dynamics may reinforce the interests of the powerful. Third is the tyranny of method, whereby discussion of alternatives is neglected. Although they are careful to point out that they are not opposed to participation as such, Cooke and Kothari argue that participation may be manipulated by the powerful in order to get their agenda accepted.

In the discussions of the proposals to restructure the faculty, participatory procedures have been followed. There have been a number of general meetings for all faculty staff at which the proposals have been presented at different stages. Yet the general meetings have largely consisted of a one-way monologue by the faculty leadership, informing but leaving a minimum of time for participants to ask questions or express their views.

The faculty leadership has held meetings with the academic and administrative staff at departmental level, where the members of staff have aired their concerns. These meetings have left a distinct feeling that the departmental merger has been decided in advance. What has been lacking is a convincing analysis of the problems that a merger is supposed to solve or a discussion of the potential advantages and disadvantages of a merger. The premises for discussion were set by the faculty leadership, which argued that a larger department would be better able to meet the challenges of internationalization, obtaining external funding, conducting high quality research, and achieving interdisciplinary results. There was no evaluation of the Department of Geography’s achievements in these respects. For the faculty leadership the focus was on how a merger should be carried out rather on whether a merger would be beneficial or not. The discussion was not framed in terms of what the staff identified as the most pressing problems, and it was not framed in terms of what alternatives the staff might envisage as beneficial.

The possibility of discussing more radical solutions, such as joining with groups in other faculties or other research milieus, was excluded from the agenda. Why was the possibility of joining forces with the small but well-qualified group of geographers at Nord-Trøndelag University College, with their successful and popular programme of online undergraduate teaching, never put on the agenda?

New Public Management vs. Communicative Planning Theory

The approach to participation adopted by the powers-that-be at NTNU strongly resembles the approach to participation in New Public Management (NPM), as described by NTNU professor Tore Sager in a number of publications on planning. He argues that NPM is not avowedly anti-democratic, but it is considered sufficient to ascertain stakeholders’ interests through consultation and with a focus on cost-effectiveness and market competition. Its approach to participation is limited to communicating with the principal stakeholders and informing the public.

An alternative approach is provided by Communicative Planning Theory (CPT), based on the ideas of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Sager notes that CPT advocates the ideal of deliberative democracy, with open participatory processes in dialogue with affected groups. CPT emphasizes the principles of discourse ethics, dialogue, commitment to mutual understanding, and the force of the better argument. Its approach to participation is socially oriented, fairness-seeking, inclusive, and consensus-seeking.

Sager suggests that while NPM tends to be favoured by politicians and administrators, CPT tends to be favoured by educators. NPM is oriented towards neoliberalism, with emphasis on entrepreneurism, market and business rationality, and a management oriented towards output performance and accountability. CPT is oriented towards an open debate and empowerment, with an emphasis on common goods, collective action, and broad participation.

Quantity vs. quality

The move towards New Public Management in Norwegian universities is shown by the emphasis on quantitative measurement to assess quality in research and teaching. The quality of research is assessed by means of publication points, and the quality of teaching is measured by the total number of credits achieved by students and the number of PhD theses produced.

The weighting of publication points favours increased production of articles in international, peer-reviewed journals at the expense of time-consuming books, which receive relatively few points in relation to their size and the work involved. Similarly, popular science and presentation of research to the general public through communication and interpretation receive only limited recognition. Yet publication points are not given to the work of peer reviewing and editing, which provides an important guarantee of quality; without peer reviewers and editors, articles cannot be published in academic journals. Further, writing book reviews is no longer given priority because book reviews do not give publication points; they are not valued – except by the readers.

The number of publication points given for an article favours sole-authored publication, where publications points do not have to be shared with co-authors, rather than cooperative publications. The number of publication points is also determined by whether an article is published in a first-level or second-level journal. Yet the process of deciding what is a top-level journal is determined by impact factors and negotiation rather than any real quality assessment. A high impact factors is claimed to be a mark of a journal’s quality, yet impact factor is calculated in such a way that if a new or expanding journal increases the number of articles published in a year, the impact factor goes down. The reliance on impact factor as a measure of quality favours the long-established and most well-known English-language journals, which are mostly published by large international commercial publishers. 

The focus in teaching on cost-efficiency favours disciplines and study programmes that are popular and teach large numbers of students. This does not take into consideration the fact that society does not necessarily need large numbers of qualified people in all fields. There exist also niche fields of activity that require a few highly competent people rather than large masses.

Measuring quality by quantitative measures can easily end up in measurement of quantity rather than quality. Quality tends to be poorly amenable to quantification but requires critical reflection. Critical scholarship should be the hallmark of the university, but it can be questioned whether critical reflection and scholarship are best served by the system of control and accountability by numbers that is favoured in New Public Management. Control mechanisms and managing accountability require increasing administrative resources. Critical scholarship requires on the other hand autonomous scholars working in an atmosphere of trust and democratic debate.

Visions for a ‘new’ university

Although warning against the naked exercise of power in the service of the neoliberal agenda, this essay is not denying the need for a professional university administration. I argue rather for an administration that is organized in such a way as to serve rather than control the core functions of the university – research and teaching, based on critical scholarship.

This can be ensured by maintaining and strengthening workplace democracy at all levels of the university, and by encouraging real participation from the bottom up rather than participatory exercises conducted in a top-down manner. It is highly doubtful whether quality in disciplinary research and teaching will be promoted by a poorly justified departmental merger, which in the case of the Department of Geography at NTNU is being pushed through against the overwhelming opposition of the department’s employees. The best guarantee of high quality research and teaching is by supporting a well-functioning department that has already proved its ability to achieve the goals of the university, and by developing a budgetary model to ensure funding that will allow these goals to continue to be fulfilled in the future.

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