The Neo-Illiberal University: Clyde Barrow’s The Entrepreneurial Intellectual in the Corporate University

Clyde Barrow’s The Entrepreneurial Intellectual in the Corporate University is an auto-ethnography of an academic manager. It is a rare text that provides insight into the inner-workings of academic ranks that thinks self-reflection is a hindrance to best practise.

Barrow fancies himself to be Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway: An upstart struggling against ‘entitlement pigs’ that smash everything before retreating into their gilded conference rooms.  

Whilst Barrow’s desire to tell hard truths is laudable, it is difficult to accept his word at face value because, like Carraway, he is an ‘unreliable narrator’. For example, Barrow seems more interested in avenging the loss of an office that had a fireplace than giving detail to what must be done. Likewise, he boorishly revels in his belief that anybody less than a dean is a workshy incompetent, underdressed hippie, or disgraced wonderboy. 

In spite of his unreliability, Barrow lifts the curtain on how the corporate university functions. As he explains, the managers who least interact with the classroom or lab are the most unhinged. 

In other words, “the University” became more and more irrelevant to our day-to-day functioning, and the majority of campus faculty became irrelevant to us as a reference group, because our peers were not down the hall, but in the community, in government, in business and, academically speaking, all over the country and even the world.

He goes on to say managers have more in common with colleagues 6000 miles away than the impassioned senate representative they pass in the corridor:

Intellectual identity and community become virtual, rather than spatial or physical, and this further lessens one’s attachment to “the campus” and the locally, spatially, and geographically defined campus community.

Accordingly, Barrow says management has made itself peerless and exempt from collegial behaviour.

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Though he never uses the word, Barrow describes the origins of the neo-illiberal university. It is a new phase of academic governance that combines the language of austerity and entrepreneurship with autocratic behaviour.

Most of Barrow’s text focuses on his leadership of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis. He describes the group as a self-sustaining entrepreneurial organisation that operated independent of traditional university governance. And he takes great pride in retelling how the Center’s extreme work culture produced a healthy profit. 

Barrow took the corporate university’s entrepreneurial spirit to heart. Yet upper-management refused to accept the Center’s ‘measurable returns on social investment’. In short, he was too successful: 

… when entrepreneurial activity is organized according to the principles of entrepreneurial governance, it simultaneously threatens the dominant bureaucratic structures of the corporate university, which includes the formal organizations of the bureaucratized intellectuals (i.e., departments, senates, and unions). Genuinely entrepreneurial activities disrupt the corporate university and destabilize its bureaucratic institutions, and, therefore, such activities are at best tolerated as a subordinate or marginalized enclave within the corporate university. 

As Barrow explains, management’s promotion of entrepreneurialism is an ideological cover for an autocracy of ‘the pigs at the trough’. 

Barrow’s account of academic illiberalism is exhaustive. In most instances, deans and provosts quarrel over the ability to upgrade software or the return on investment for giving testimony to legislative committees. There are, however, clear examples of blatant illiberalism. In one case, the Provost extracted $25000 from a Center business account to make a bond payment on a biochemistry building. In another, a Dean took $9000 without explanation. 

Barrow says that management’s violation of entrepreneurial arrangements always included a demand that he defer to authority. 

Suddenly, it was no longer “your center,” but the “university’s center,” and all money became university money. This was a constant source of tension with the grants office staff and the administration and finance staff, who saw the CFPA’s revenue as “their” money and as money being “withheld” from them in violation of university policy. 

Accordingly, Barrow makes it clear that managers lack any interest in the public good. Instead, they are creating a system of illiberal compliance-seeking for which everything from compensation to titles and special recognition ‘is always conferred as a political favor for loyalty to an administrator, union official, or department chair, rather than earned through the merit of intellectual effort’. 

* * *

In the book’s last pages, Barrow reflects on his conversion from a labour radical to a ‘Marxist businessman’. More specifically, he says his encounters with management make it clear that intellectuals can never own their means of production. So he advises academics to quit dreaming of collegiality and workers’ self-management.

Barrow wants faculty to ‘embrace the reality, and all of the contradictions, of being a petit bourgeois intellectual’. He goes on to recommend that scholars become independent proprietors and adopt an arm’s-length contractor relationship with the university. And he advises faculty to expose management’s illiberalism by refusing to participate in shared governance. As he says, ‘In the end, the bureaucracy always wins’.

In practise, Barrow’s conclusions are impractical. Despite his advice, he is still an academic. In fact, he’s accepted a promotion to Department Chair. Worse, universities are ever more full of precarious ‘independent proprietors’/adjuncts that rely on casual contracts and political favour.

Though he is unreliable, Barrow accurately explains how managers make themselves peerless and are indifferent to the public good. He is also right to warn faculty members that, ‘The vows of poverty that are implicit in these disciplines still rest on the medieval notion that we are pursuing a summa bonum or a sacred calling, but we are in fact doing nothing more than selling ourselves short and giving away our labor’.

by Jim Morrow