Monday, January 24, 2011

The Audit Society

This post is about a topic that affects us all, scientists and non-scientists.  Those of you who work in government agencies are already immersed in the "audit society", which has expanded in recent years.  The amount of time devoted to accountability has almost exceeded the amount we actually spend doing our jobs as scientists.  However, the "accountability regime" that is prevalent in government agencies is now becoming common in institutions of higher learning.

In her book, Wannabe University, Gaye Tuchman describes the "audit society" as one that "enables 'coercive accountability' carried out in the guise of transparency, trust, and public service....It entails both forced and voluntary surveillance, as individuals and organizations audit themselves and subject themselves to audit by others." She uses a hypothetical university to illustrate her main thesis about how institutions of higher learning have been transformed by being run like businesses, primarily to achieve the goal of being ranked among the top universities in the country (Wannabe University Syndrome).  She spent years observing a large state university, which is never named. Wannabe universities are run by administrators who model themselves after CEOs and hop from job to job in their quest for an ever more prestigious position/corporation to run. 

Seeking top ranking (and profit), university administrators market a product (a university education) and in the process undermine university faculties by instituting changes from the top down.  At first, the changes are subtle and don't cause too much direct trouble for the faculty (who may be unaware of what's happening).  Eventually, there is increasing emphasis on winning more and more grants and contracts, developing patents, and marketing (athletics, etc.).  Later, there is interference in the classroom (see previous posts: administrative dominance, violation of academic freedom, domesticated foxes and feral dogs).  If you are contributing to these corporate goals, you are rewarded; if not, look out.  You know you are working at a "wannabe university" when, for example, the university president has a stronger background in business than in academic achievement and who describes the university as on the "cusp of greatness" (even if it is currently ranked at #100 or lower), spends millions on new construction and hiring "rock star" faculty, develops a slick advertising campaign (describing itself as on the "cusp of greatness"), and talks about "flagship universities" as engines for supporting state economies.

Of course, university professors are difficult to control.  They have tenure (so far...that will be next to go) and tend to speak their minds.  The new corporate administrators of wannabe universities handle such a vocal workforce by implementing an "accountability regime", which leads to policies of surveillance and control (presented as ways to measure success and to improve the university's ranking). Tuchman argues that the corporatization of higher education negatively impacts students, faculty, and society as a whole.

Those of us working for government agencies are already very familiar with the "accountability regime".  However, the accountability aspect has recently become so intrusive that it is interfering with our ability to do science. I estimate that I now spend two workdays out of five mostly on non-science administrative tasks: filling out forms and justifications for travel (to do fieldwork, attend conferences, expense vouchers); taking required training courses (diversity, leadership, supervisory, records management, security, whistleblowing, EEO, etc.); writing and getting official approval for "study plans" to do research; getting internal reviews and official approval of all science products (including manuscripts to be submitted to journals and abstracts for meetings); doing official performance reviews of staff; and many other miscellaneous tasks, including filling out daily "time and attendance" forms, which documents the hours we work.  Virtually everything I do requires at least one or two signatures of superiors.

I don't know if this is just a US phenomenon or not.  It would be interesting to hear from professors and scientists working in other countries.

1 comment:

Hugo Christenson said...

All so true. But how do we stop these people before they stop science altogether? The probl;em is exactly the same, maybe even worse, in the U.K.

Hugo Christenson, Physics, Leeds