Why I resigned from the university after ten years of teaching

[Version française] [Versión Castillana]

Annick Stevens, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liege (Belgium) since 2001

January 2012

Today, more than ever, one needs to ask what role universities should play in our radically changing societies, faced as they are by an urgent need to define the type of civilization they wish to promote. Historically, universities have had the remit to preserve and transmit all human knowledge, past and present, to advance understanding, building on the sum of past knowledge, and to provide society with a synthetic vision of experiences, methods, and knowledge in all domains, to help it forge a better future for all its members. At every epoch, universities have been justly criticised for failing to some extent to follow these founding principals, and one shouldn’t resist evolution of the university system through some misguided nostalgia for an imagined golden age. But never before has the university been so compliant in the face of mainstream pressure, never have it surrendered to such a degree its inherent collective intellectual potential to question the values and orientations that are imposed not only on society, but on the university itself. Initially as a response to political dictates, as exemplified by the Bologna process, the university’s administrators (with a few exceptions) now seem to be purposefully imposing a uniform, precipitous, blind and thoughtless transformation of the university in the pursuit of a narrowly defined type of knowledge dominated by utilitarian, economic and technological considerations.

While this change is very clearly based on the ideological values of those who wield institutional power, its implementation would not have been possible if the university had not at the same time established a series of constraints to stymie all opposition, the threat of closure of any structures that do not follow the overarching imperative of global competition: it must attract "clients", and make them succeed regardless of their abilities (the "University of Success"!), give degrees that ensure a well-paid job, train researchers as rapidly as possible to be super productive, as judged by the standards of journal editors and companies, so that they become excellent managers, always willing to sit on countless committees and commissions with fictive powers - fictive, since not only the budgets, but also the selection criteria are decided elsewhere. There is no longer any question of quality, critical distance, or culture. The new concept of "excellence" does nothing to improve the quality of education and knowledge, but is founded on the ability to amass large budgets, and large teams of laboratory staff, to generate headlines in journals that become more and more sensationalist and less and less reliable. The fixation on assessment at all levels, from internal committees to the Shanghai ranking, only reinforces the absurdity of these criteria.

These changes have provoked the exact opposite of what they are claimed to promote: in a decade of teaching, most of the best students I've seen have left the university before, during or just after their thesis, when they’ve realised the stance that they would need to take to continue an academic career; I've seen others abandon any idea of intellectual depth and real significance in their work, adapting to survive in the remaining fields that offer any opportunities. And of course I’ve seen the mediocre but pushy individuals, who know immediately where and with whom they need to ingratiate themselves, who have no trouble quickly formulating texts to meet editorial directives, because what they write is so shallow. Apart from a few exceptions, a few individuals who were lucky enough to arrive at the right time with the right skills, it is the mediocre who are taking over the university - and the recent reform of the FNRS just eliminated the last chance for students who have only their intellectual qualities to offer, by placing a preponderant importance on the assessment of the hosting research unit that outweighs any measure of individual merit. Similar shifts are occurring throughout the university system, of varying degrees in different disciplines and countries, but everywhere colleagues confirm the general trends: competition based solely on quantifiable “deliverables”, the choice of research topics defined by funding agencies, themselves slaves to a model of society in which human progress is to be found exclusively in economic growth and technical development; a proliferation of managerial and administrative tasks at the expense of time devoted to teaching and improving knowledge. What impact will such a selection of research and teaching have in the future? Will the "clients" continue to be satisfied with such mediocre teachers? Even compared to its own definition of excellence, the current policies of the scientific and academic authorities are simply suicidal.

Some may say I'm exaggerating, that it is always possible to balance quantity and quality, to produce good work even while bowing to the demands of competition. My own experience belies this optimism. I'm not saying everything is bad in the university now, but what is good is generally done in the face of the new policies, but this resistance cannot perdure. There is a general observation, indeed, that all disciplines are being impoverished because the individuals who are being hired or promoted (because they are the most "efficient") are intellectually the shallowest, the most narrowly specialized, that is to say the most ignorant, the least capable of understanding the meaning of their own results. Even disciplines mostly devoted to social critical reflection, like philosophy or social sciences, bend in the face of pressure to perform for the mass media and have to maintain a sufficiently conformist front to avoid completely losing out in the battle of quantifiable production, - not to mention their inability to confront the contradiction between their critical theories and the practices that individuals need to adopt to get to a position where their voices can be heard.

I know that many of my colleagues share this overall judgment but heroically try to save some remnants of the university system, weighed down by feelings of resignation and powerlessness. I could therefore be criticised for leaving the university at just the moment when I should be fighting, from within, to reverse the trend. Having made some attempts to do this, and despite my real respect for those who are still trying to limit the damage inflicted by the continuing changes, I think that under the present state of affairs, the fight is futile, given the powerful convergence of the personal interests of a few individuals and the general ideological tendency which the university has chosen to adhere to.

Rather than wearing oneself down, trying to swim against the current, it is time to get out, to create something else, to found an entirely different institution capable of taking up the crucial role of transmitting the multiple aspects of human civilizations and to stimulate reflection on essential knowledge and deeds which contribute to the growth of humanity. Such an institution needs to be built from scratch, but throughout the world more and more people have the intelligence, culture and willingness to do so. In any case, there is no point losing energy in fighting the decadence of an institution that while trumpeting its excellence is sinking in the mire.