The disciplinary dashboard: from reception class to retirement

The photo above made me start contemplating the intrusion of a repressive disciplinary culture into UK universities. Disciplinary action for tailgating? Whatever happened to having a quiet word with somebody? Just a few years ago, campus security was left in the capable hands of a few retirees from the services and the police. They knew academics and students by name, and exerted a calm authority refined through years of dealing with minor infractions. Now, a mere parking violation incurs a meeting with HR.

Many of us will be aware of new university policies on disciplinary procedures. If we have read them, we will be aware that the policies themselves are often not in the least repressive or out of kilter with professional expectations. It is when these policies intersect with over-zealous performance management procedures that things get troublesome – I have previously blogged about so-called under-performing professors 

So when I read the front page of the New York Times this morning (Sunday 16th August 2015), the portrayal of compulsory overwork and inhumane demands at Amazon in Seattle seemed unsettlingly portentous. When employees ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, they are told to ‘climb the wall’. Amazon boasts an approach termed ‘purposeful Darwinism’ which ensures the lowest ranked employees are ‘eliminated’. This is facilitated by an Anytime Feedback Tool – a ‘widget’ which allows co-workers to report each other to management for poor performance or bad attitude. Shockingly, among the victims of this regime, there were employees with long-term serious health problems. According to one interviewee, he had witnessed everybody he worked with breaking down and crying in the office at some point. No wonder.

So this is testosterone-fueled Silicon Valley, not academia. But the future is closer than you think. It is not just a tightening vice around professors and their ‘performance management’, it seems that the panopticon is about to be extended across the whole academic hierarchy with the introduction of ‘faculty dashboards’. These are tools which allow data on each academic to be collated into an individual profile showing publications, citations, research grants and awards won. It can be updated daily by the head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. Norms can be established, and of course, extended year-on-year. They may be changed, according to strategic priorities beyond the control, or indeed the value set, of academics.

This may seem alien and frightening to the current generation of academics. I hope so. What frightens me, is how little resistance this style of management evokes from current undergraduate students. Many universities now have a ‘student dashboard’ apparently aimed at supporting students and increasing retention. It may record VLE logins, door swipes, tutorial attendance, titles of library books borrowed, assignment submissions and grades. When I asked my students if they were comfortable with revealing all this to me, who had just met them, they were nonchalant, and even welcoming of a virtual servo-system which would keep them ‘on track’.

I wonder if this acceptance will be even more enthusiastic among a generation raised with this ‘educational disciplinary system’. Demeritus keeps track of rules, issues penalties, informs parents and, chillingly, discursively inaugurates a new generation of ‘repeat offenders’ – all before they have even learned to ride a bicycle. I rather hope it will inspire sullen resistance if not outright intergenerational retribution.

This disciplinary excess is a sign of a culture which chooses to ‘invest’ in privatized prisons rather than ‘subsidize’ schools and universities. It is certainly familiar in the US to residents of states like Texas, where social justice forums have identified a school-to-prison pipeline.

It is dangerous – immoral – to allow childhood and adolescent transgressions to remain on an electronic rap sheet, to be uncovered when, for what – a job application, adoption process, or even running for President? And when students graduate to college, they face even more repression. Paul Greatrex has written about the routine arming of US university police with military hardware. We have learned this year that such environments may bring about dangerous consequences for students and faculty of color. In the UK too, police have been brought onto campus to quell student protests at the Universities of Birmingham, Warwick and London.

Universities, as I have blogged elsewhere, are unpopular in sections of the media, and with many in the Conservative government. They have come under scrutiny in the US as well, with President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both questioning the spiraling cost of higher education. This has occasioned a predictable attack on the easy targets – tenured faculty members. A bill is being considered by the Iowa Senate which purports to relate to the teaching effectiveness and employment of professors. I quote from the first few paragraphs of SF64:

Each institution of higher learning under the board’s control shall develop, and administer at the end of each semester, an evaluation mechanism by which each student enrolled in the institution shall assess the teaching effectiveness of each professor who is providing instruction to the student each semester… Scores are not cumulative. If a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract. (2) The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.

Dismissing apparently competent, but unpopular academics starts to look very much like the Amazon ‘purposeful Darwinism’. We can only imagine the consequences for the stability of programs, research and collegiate relations. As we anticipate the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, we must hope that it does not cement a culture of perpetual surveillance and ruinous ‘consumer choice’ by National Student Survey scores. If there is no pause button in academia, if there is no room for slow work, risk, failure and unpopularity, then universities really will have become a disciplinary dystopia.

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