/ 8 June 2018

Universities’ templates of power

It is as if many universities seek to bestow attributes such as excellence
It is as if many universities seek to bestow attributes such as excellence


Many universities have become market-oriented and governed by managerial chains of command that imitate those of the corporate world. When viewed from a metaphorical perspective, it is as if corporatised universities have acquired occult aspects.

Indeed, the more universities have sought to transform themselves into corporate enterprises governed by neoliberal economic approaches, the more they may seem to resemble sites of mystery, mythmaking, ritual and magic, inhabited by otherworldly presences and controlled by unseen occult forces.

For example, many of the ritualistic practices that have come to form a feature of numerous institutions of higher education during the past few decades can often be best understood in terms of the workings of magic. There is, for instance, the use of words of power: expressions and incantations deriving from the corporate sector. These terms include “quality”, “excellence”, “mission”, “strategic”, “world-class”, “performance”, “accountability” and even “ethics”. Laden with images of pomp and potency and infused with a sense of grand purpose and direction, these words are often underpinned by mission statements and policy documents, mythic in their gap between theory and praxis, and appearance and actuality.

These terms derive some of their effect from the mantralike fashion in which they are repeatedly intoned. Max Weber depicts religious invocations as “the exercise of magical formulae” and the use of corporate power jargon in present-day higher education may seem to stem from similar, unconsciously held beliefs in the paranormal potency of certain verbal formulations. Moreover, by employing terminology such as this, with its associations of affluence and commercial prestige, its academic users partake symbolically of the magic of the corporate world.

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Accordingly, in present-day corporatised institutions of higher education, terms such as “excellence”, “quality” and “world-class” are repeatedly alluded to as if they are already in existence, or as if they might be brought to pass in this way. It is as if many universities seek to bestow attributes such as excellence, quality and world-class status upon themselves by means of often repeated ritual declarations in which they profess to be in possession of them. Thus, they employ one of the principles upon which magic is said to be based. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, for instance, observes that “magic is an elaboration of the infant experience that a certain utterance could bring about the gratification of specific wants”.

“Excellence” is an empty word, to be filled with whatever meanings users seek to bestow upon it. But, like the Holy Grail, excellence is hard to pursue, let alone attain. Because excellence eludes those who seek it, universities tend to resort to verbal magic of a kind. “Excellence” appears to possess a special capacity to bring about what it denotes, if repeated often enough.

In various ritual declarations in both the academic and corporate sectors, the word “excellence” has been employed frequently, indiscriminately and sometimes incongruously. For instance, Bill Readings, the author of The University in Ruins, mentions that Cornell University Parking Services once received an award for “excellence in car parking”. Meanwhile, for an open day at Guantanamo Bay, designed to impress the media, the institution described itself as a site of excellence. (They did not indicate exactly what it was that they excelled in.) As a result of the applications and misapplications to which it has been subjected, the term “excellence” is beginning to resemble cheap jam: a bland, mass-produced item that can be applied to a diversity of surface areas, partially obscuring what lies beneath it.

“Quality” is a comparable term, laden with mystery and magic partly to compensate for the fact that, like “excellence”, it is essentially a vacuous term; a receptacle into which different meanings can be poured. The idea of quality pervades much discourse and procedure in higher education. As a result, this concept may seem akin to a vague, amorphous and all-engulfing entity, like the Blob in a horror film.

The word “quality” is routinely uttered for purposes of ritual and enchantment, as if calling upon this concept will cause it to manifest itself. Like faith, the notion of quality exists alongside hope, denoting what it is hoped will eventually come to pass through the magical potency of words. Moreover, if the concept of quality is invoked often enough, it seems almost as if, like faith, it will come to cover a multitude of shortcomings. In today’s disillusioned, dispirited academic world, we may not have much faith left, and minimal hope, so the greatest of these is quality.

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To assess quality, and to gauge whether an institution is entitled to lay claim to excellence, the most frequently conducted ritual in corporatised higher education takes place: the completion of templates. Most significant academic documents, including learning guides, module descriptions, progress reports and funding applications, encase information in small electronic boxes.

Like fetishes, templates may appear commonplace to outsiders but to those carrying out lengthy ritual activities involving these items, they may seem fraught with meaning, sometimes obscure, but very powerful and far-reaching in their possible implications. Like talismans, too, templates have to be gathered together in large numbers to ward off the evil eye of the external assessors and auditors.

As with the performance of a ritual, the completion of a template depends more on enactment and form than actual substance. Provided words of power are employed (the specific terminology mandatory for parts of this ritual activity is generally stipulated in sacred texts such as policy documents) and an appropriate format is adhered to, the ritualistic act of filling in a template often appears to be of principal importance, whereas its actual content seems a matter of lesser concern.

The arduous nature of template completion intensifies its ritual-like aspects. The onerous features of this activity derive partly from its time-consuming nature, the laborious detail and mental application required to complete each of the sections according to the official stipulations, the esoteric terminology and the obscure bureaucratic minutiae that need to be summoned up to ensure that each section contains what is required. Just as certain religious rites can seem more meaningful if they demand a great deal from their participants, so templates may appear more significant the more difficult they are to complete.

The completion of templates is a ritualistic, symbolic enactment of productivity that becomes a substitute for academic productivity itself. Many members of staff become skilled at filling in templates, at the cost of much else.

Felicity Wood is a professor in the English department at the University of Fort Hare. This article contains extracts from her book Universities and the Occult Rituals of the Corporate World