Reading the Neoliberal University

In the 1998 film Dark City, a race of aliens in human form control a noir metropolis where the sun never rises. The minds of the city dwellers are constantly manipulated, like the cityscape itself, which is rearranged as they sleep. “The rich get richer,” says the sinister Dr. Schreber, as he injects a sleeping couple with a memory-altering drug; meanwhile, the aliens, pursuing their lab-rat studies of human behavior, quickly transform the couple’s modest tenement: the building morphs, bulges, and changes into a vast luxury home.

Dark City provides a startling vision of urban spaces molded at will. Buildings rise out of nowhere, twisting and groaning into a crowded sky; in one chase scene, the protagonist scales an accordion-like staircase that pulls up and away from him, a shot that cites the dizzying dolly zoom from Vertigo. But the use of Hitchcock’s psychic motif to convey a literal warping of space points to Dark City’s major weakness, what we might call a puppet-master theory of power and politics. Even when the hero defeats the aliens, using their power to “tune” the cityscape, the film promotes the idea that politics is the emanation of power from a single controlling source. Convenient as if may be to think so, politically and plot-wise, something as complex as a modern city can hardly be the plaything of a central malevolent force.

Or so we used to think. In today’s financialized, securitized, hypercapitalist cities, something akin to Dark City’s nightmare vision is taking place. Power is more centralized and money more concentrated in a global oligarchic ruling class. Democracy itself, that old urban invention, is in retreat everywhere, and Foucault’s idea of “micropolitics” seems to lose much of its relevance. New, cruder forms of brutality and demographic control speak to a reversion from the complex modalities of foucaultian discipline to the heavy hand of sovereign punishment. These developments flout the reigning truism of contemporary thought that globalization and free-market economies have rendered power more polycentric and diffuse. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and urban studies scholar, has suggested that this mutation in the field of politics is most visible in those places where power is most highly centralized, the world’s global centers.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive at great distance from their oppressors. Further, the “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious center. And yet there are sites where it all comes together, where power becomes concrete and can be engaged, and where the oppressed are part of the social infrastructure for power. Global cities are one such site.*

With its evictions, rising rents, luxury developments and skyrocketing land values, Vancouver, British Columbia exemplifies Sassen’s diagnosis of the contemporary “global city.” And at this Pacific Rim city’s westernmost edge a satellite metropolis is fast emerging at the University of British Columbia. UBC has witnessed a breakneck pace of construction in the past five years; more than a dozen new buildings have been completed in that time along with a half-dozen major renovations and a university-wide landscaping project that has reshaped gardens, plazas, walkways and transit stations throughout the campus core. The sky above UBC bristles with construction cranes; at mud level students and faculty run mazes between building sites and excavations that seem to appear overnight. Meanwhile, apartment and condominium towers rise from the forest on the edge of campus, and adverts at Wesbrook Village promise that “Everyone can live at UBC.” A disturbing thought – surely they mean “anyone”? But the slip is telling, as the University’s growth ambitions seem to have no limit.

Approaching Vancouver’s UBC campus via University Boulevard, visitors are greeted by eight-foot block letters spelling the school’s initials in gleaming stainless steel, a logo more suggestive of a business park than a public university. These three letters present our first interpretive challenge as we visit the campus. How to read them? The sign turns each letter into an imposing object, while at the same time evacuating all interiority in a play of surface reflections. Both vacuous and brash, the sign achieves a kind of linguistic aphonia characteristic of UBC’s marketing language and managerial speak.

Version 2

In 2015, UBC announced it would raise international student tuition by a whopping 37%. Six years earlier, in the midst of a budget crisis, UC President Mark Yudof proposed a similarly draconian 32% tuition hike for local California students. Yudof justified his move with the notorious statement that “the shine is off” public education. Does UBC’s gleaming logo mean to suggest otherwise? Or does it, rather, confirm what happens to public universities when student fees are increased? The case of UBC’s southern neighbors is instructive: with rising tuition, the core principles of access and affordability are undermined, and along with them the democratic premise of the “public” university; students, indentured to loans or obliged to work their way through school, are forced to view their education as vocational training; the drift away from state financial support and the taxpaying public separates the school from social accountability; and the use of private funding imposes market logic on the school’s priorities and operations. The university is privatized; it becomes a transnational corporation.

The UBC sign’s outsize dimensions suggest that without such a brash announcement, one might otherwise doubt that one had arrived at the school. And there would be reason to wonder. The school’s corporatization has spawned drastic changes in its look. Until recently, a landmark building stood at this corner: the imposing General Administration Building, whose mid-century concrete Brutalist aesthetic ultimately fell afoul of the University’s glossy new rebranding campaign. An empty lot occupies the site today.

The demolition of the Brutalist-style General Administration Building can be taken as a symbol of the reshaping of public education under neoliberalism. In spite of the word’s negative connotations, Brutalism denotes frankness and honesty in construction, an architectural ethos embodied by raw, exposed concrete. Moreover, the material’s solidity speaks to the will to long-term investment in social infrastructure commonly seen in mid-century government buildings, social welfare projects and public universities. In contrast to Brutalism’s solidity and permanence, new buildings on the UBC campus are characterized by expansive glass walls. Planning documents speak of “emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) on the ground floors to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism,” thereby “allowing interior academic uses to be visible.” This last directive is vaguely unsettling, as if the primary function of classroom activities was to advertise education to random passersby and window shoppers. And indeed, UBC’s new design priorities suggest a general market-oriented transformation of the academic landscape, from slogans and logos to large-scale campus building projects.

In advocating for “transparency,” one might think that the University has only updated Brutalism’s “frankness” with a brighter, glossier synonym. But in a neoliberal business context, “transparency” unmistakably conveys the actuarial priorities of financial accountability, which, in turn, call for stricter and more encompassing surveillance. Educators have lately been fighting skirmishes on this front. In the newly-remodeled Brutalist Buchanan Tower, for instance, faculty have requested frosted glass where builders installed floor-to-ceiling walls around classrooms. But the surveillance of education goes much further than this; as faculty are downsized and students increasingly positioned as customers, a burgeoning administration requires ever more accountability in the delivery of promised “outcomes,” customer satisfaction and proof of educational value in fungible and brandable products. An emphasis on profit yields an unremitting focus on “waste.” The irony of transparency’s supposed openness is that it results in less freedom from the demands of the market.

Further, the idea of “transparency” stands in stark contrast to university bureaucratese, which speaks a hoary language of “community” and “sharing” while delivering the university over to the obscure whims of impersonal global finance. Nothing demonstrates this contradiction better, perhaps, than a newsletter sent out by UBC’s Office of Finance & Operations under the headline “Building Transparency in an Environment of Accelerating Change.” The Vice-President’s managerial language seems to tear a page from Dark City’s script in referring to buildings as “big pieces” moving around on campus, a dystopic impression heightened by his use of an ominously agentless passive voice. “The pace of change at UBC has been accelerating,” he observes. “When a lot of big pieces begin to move, it can be easy to focus on the task at hand and worry about helping everyone understand later.” In this picture of things, consultation with the community has become quite literally an afterthought: “helping everyone understand later.” Moreover, that belated consultation – a contradiction in terms – is not only tardy but at times (when? how often?) infinitely deferred: communication, he admits, happens “sometimes never.” The Vice-President claims to want to remedy this situation, but it’s unclear whether he means to apologize or spread the blame for the lack of communication: “we all know as things get busy the chance to speak with each other sometimes never comes.”

Given this obfuscation and high-handedness, it is small wonder, then, that the Vice President of Finance & Operations equates himself – literally – with the University itself. His web page leads off with a breathtaking dangling modifier, proudly asserting that “As one of the world’s leading universities, it’s important to me [sic] that we provide an open and transparent window to our financial and operational performance.” Is it pointless to note the redundancy of a window that is both open and transparent? But the pleonasm seems to suggest that even for a man in charged with managing the university’s physical infrastructure, transparent windows are only approximate, vague metaphors. We can assume that this is the case for all the new windows on campus; when the Planning Department speaks of “Emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) … to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism, and allowing interior academic uses to be visible,” we should consider those panes of glass to be similarly deficient in reality. These are not windows, they are elements of a general panoptic system that aims to govern the education process with a pitiless demand for efficiency and profit.

This marketing ethos is evident in the rental apartments under construction next to the Administration Building’s rubble. The building is soon to house a range of businesses and restaurants at street level, and as a result, when one passes the UBC sign to enter campus one will run a gauntlet of commerce and entertainment along the last leg of University Boulevard. A “key gateway” to campus, in the administration’s language, and leading directly to what maps designate as the “campus core,” the remodeled University Boulevard is a clear signal of the school’s privatizing trend. And though we are still on the edge of the university, the name of the new apartment building, “Centre,” performs a verbal reorientation of the campus itself. We might say of “Centre” what Jean Baudrillard disparagingly said of the Beaubourg in Paris, that its “fragility” and “world’s fair” aesthetic “overtly proclaims that our time will never again be that of duration, that our only temporality is that of the accelerated cycle and of recycling.”** Ironically, this very denial of permanence can serve to promote the University’s brand when hitched to the school’s “zero-waste” ambitions; at Brock Commons, next to a venerable cluster of mid-century Brutalist dorms, a new dormitory building is nearing completion. UBC proudly bills it as the world’s tallest wooden building. It may be that the building has a smaller carbon footprint, but one cannot help thinking that it will be more easily reduced to pulp.

(End of part 1; to be continued)

*Saskia Sassen, Expulsions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 11.

**Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect,” 61.

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