May 20, 2016

Producing anxiety in the neoliberal university


This article investigates processes of neoliberalization of the academy. It argues that neoliberalism entails shifts from exchange to competition, from equality to inequality,and turns academics into human capital. It suggests that auditing systems are key mechanisms of neoliberalization that produce unhealthylevels of anxiety and stress in the academy. This paper presents a theoretical analysis of the neoliberal production of anxiety in academic faculty members in universities in Northern Europe. The paper focuses on neoliberalization as it is instantiated through audit and ranking systems designed to produce academia as a space of economic efficiency and intensifying competition. We suggest that powerful forms of competition and ranking of academic performance have been developed in Northern Europe. These systems are differentiated and differentiating,and they serve to both index and facilitate the neoliberalization of the academy. Moreover, these audit and ranking systems produce an ongoing sense of anxiety among academic workers. We argue that neoliberalismin the academy is part of a wider system of anxiety production arising as part of the so-called soft governance of everything, including life itself, in contemporary late liberalism.


...Why might we care about this? Perhaps the recent death of Professor Stefan Grimm of Imperial College, London, provides a particularly graphic example of the impact that rising levels of anxiety and stress are having in the academy. It also illustrates how that stress is linked directly to systems of “performance assessment.” Professor Grimm was found dead in his home in September of 2014 after complaining that he was to be fired by Imperial College for failure to meet professorial grant “income targets” of £200,000 per annum as a Principal Investigator (PI) (Colquhoun 2014; Parr 2014a, 2014b, 2015). One month after his death— which was ruled to be a suicide by asphyxiation—an email was sent from Professor Grimm’s Gmail account to colleagues at Imperial College that outlined what he deemed to be his poor treatment. This email stated:

On May 30th 13 my boss came into my office together with his PA and ask[ed] me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College within one year max...

There are, of course, other signs of the rising levels of anxiety and stress amongst university faculty. The Guardian newspaper, for example, has put together a collection of more than 40 articles under the title Mental Health: The University in Crisis and with the by-line: “Mental health issues have become a growing problem among students and academics. This series will uncover a hidden side to university life ” (The Guardian n.d.). The New York Times recently published an article about the rise of suicide deaths on campus, linking many of these deaths to the “ culture of perfection ” that predominates in university settings, especially among academic faculty members (Scelfo 2015). This is not surprising given existing levels of work-related psychological stress in the academy...

Complete paper at:


Anonymous said...

Let's face it: academe is nothing but a money-harvesting operation nowadays. Usually, the funding is supposed to be brought in directly. That way, it can be collected and shared with the rest of one's department. Having one's own money and resources isn't allowed as one controls them and can utilize them at their own discretion. Remember that when it comes to academic resources, what's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable.

Alternately, that money can come from student revenues or government "gravy" funding. Therefore, standards have to be lowered in order to attract student applications as keeping them high will scare them away. Those lower standards increase the chances that the graduates are happy with their "learning experience" and that means the government might bestow some extra money as a reward. (It'll always make sure that the institution's lights will still be on. It wouldn't look good to have it go out of business, would it?)

So, can anyone tell me what's so great about being an academic?

Anonymous said...

It is regrettable that so little now is being said about the very tragic case of Professor Stefan Grimm of Imperial College, London,