Life and time(s) in the neoliberal university: Tell me about it (seriously, do)

Christian Andersonby Christian Anderson, City University of New York

Last semester I spent one night a week sleeping on the floor in a small, windowless student office at my university. I had an adjunct teaching load that included one class which met on Thursday evenings and another that met on Friday mornings. Since I commute two hours each way to get into the city to teach, I reasoned that it would make more sense to hunker down and sleep in an office than it would to spend four additional hours and transportation costs to get back home on Thursday nights. I wrangled up some old bedding, figured out how to use the cushions of a small vinyl couch to make a mattress, and that was that.

Photo by Christian AndersonThis arrangement turned out to be less than ideal, but I kept doing it anyway. Security guards did sweeps at night to make sure everyone was out of the building. To avoid them, I needed to be locked in the office, lights out, by the time they started at 10pm. There was also a cleaning woman who came at about midnight. We learned about each other when, in a moment of mutual horror, she walked in on me lying there under my pink sheet on the first night. Maybe she took pity – she never mentioned me to the guards. In any case, this was a recipe for a restless night.

I am not suggesting that I endured any real hardship here. I didn’t. But in that space between the security guards and the cleaning woman I often thought about the increasingly problematic landscape of contemporary university life and questioned what people like myself – lying there and perhaps even romanticizing my own self-exploitation at that very moment – were really doing about it.

The litany of complaints about the neoliberal university is painfully familiar. Intellectual community strangulated by “excellence”, adjunctification, “self-funding” initiatives, tuition hikes, the commodification of ideas, and on and on. Radical geographers might know better than anyone about the big structural forces – surely beyond our control, right? – that are driving these insidious shifts. We may even vow to “resist” them to the best of our ability. But is that the whole story?

To take just one little example of something that everyone seems to loathe but that nobody does anything about, how about the avalanche of reference letters that are prematurely requested by search committees just so they can have them on hand should a candidate warrant further consideration? Every professor I know spends waaay too much time writing these. Is that structural? Certainly, everyone feels time pressures and no search committee chair wants to have to spend time soliciting letters at a later stage in the search. But this is clearly a situation where a time saving for a small number of individuals is purchased at the expense of a much larger amount of time needlessly taken from others. So why does this still go on? What would it take for the people who produce the values at the heart of the university – students, teachers, researchers, and scholars – to really change things (especially solvable problems like this), to go beyond identifying issues and collectively organize for something different?

Ultimately these kinds of issues are about something a lot greater than the well-being of academic workers. The university could and should be a common, a collective resource for a better future, and this is what is really at stake in decisions about how time and energy are spent. As Meyerhoff, Johnson, and Braun (2011) suggest, the debt, instrumental thinking, and competitive individualism that academic time is increasingly channelled toward is doubly problematic because there are so many better things that this time could be used for. The alternative to the neoliberal university is the university as a common, and fighting for this means framing struggles over the use of time in common. In this context, initiatives like the Community Economies Collective and the Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) are crucial. These efforts are not about an ethic of resistance so much as an ethos of expanding what university life is about and experimenting with collective knowledge production through collaboration in common with new publics.

I would like to think that this Antipode blog space could be a resource for these kinds of conversations and struggles. Culum Canally’s recent post about complicity through grading is a great start – a provocation, and one of many potential kernels to organize around (see Kean Birch’s post on exploitation in the academy also). We shouldn’t underestimate the power that this could eventually produce. As Hawkins, Manzi, and Ojeda have shown in their ongoing feminist project ‘Lives in the making: Power, academia, and the everyday’, when we are open about our struggles – about the numerous failures, frustrations, infuriations, indignities, and obstacles that we all experience – we can better understand that we are not alone, that we share much in common, and that we could and should collectively organize around this common to expand it and (re)produce a different kind of university.

This means you. If you have a story to tell – about your own nights spent sleeping on the floor, as it were, or about a solution or hopeful example that you would be willing to offer – please post it as a comment to this thread, anonymously if you like, or consider sending it in as a guest post of your own ([email protected]). It would be great to make visible all the different experiences that are taking place out there, figure out how to connect them, and see what kind of struggles we could get up to.


Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) Beyond scholar activism: Making strategic interventions inside and outside the neoliberal university. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 9:245-275

Hawkins R, Manzi M, and Ojeda D (ongoing) ‘Lives in the making: Power, academia, and the everyday’ – a longitudinal qualitative study, in five year intervals, tracking the experiences of a cohort of scholars from early career through their life course in academia.

Meyerhoff E, Johnson E, and Braun B (2011) Time and the university. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 10(3):483-507


  1. Clark Akatiff

    This has been going on for a long time. When I was in Grad School at UCLA in the early 60’s Len Paige lived in the warren that was grad students cubbies for a semester before being discovered. And at that time things were cheap and easy to find a room. I can’t imagine what it is like for you young scholars in a city like New York.

  2. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    Not unrelated…
    What is the future for young academics?‘ Conference and campaign launch
    Graduate teachers face unique pressures from universities: Experience of teaching is invaluable for career progression, whilst institutions face a crisis in funding due to the coalition government’s attack on education. This means that many institutions are increasingly relying on graduate teachers for the bulk of undergraduate class teaching, and feel able to offer terms and conditions that are unacceptable.
    This conference aims to bring together graduate teachers from across the country to share experiences, launch a network that can work with the UCU and NUS, and plan a campaign that can win.
    Speakers and sessions:
    * Professor Les Back, Goldsmiths Sociology Department: ‘The Importance of Social Research’
    * Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers: ‘Is your employer breaking the law? How to read a contract of employment’
    * Andrew McGettigan, education researcher: ‘The Government’s Plan for Higher Education’
    * Regi Pilling, UCU Anti-Casualisation Campaign: ‘Getting the UCU onboard’
    * Dante Micheaux, NUS Postgraduate Research Officer: ‘Getting the NUS onboard’
    * Plenary: ‘Where next for the campaign?’
    Supported by LSE SU, Goldsmiths SU, Goldsmiths UCU, London Region UCU, EAN, NCAFC

  3. Clark Akatiff

    I recommend the facebook link above. Especially view the animated video of the guy being fired/quitting. The first part is especially on the money. But really. I heard Barbara Ehernreich on KQED monday. She is now documenting the amounts of unpaid labor being stolen from the poor. You graduate students, you young (and old} lecturers are all being screwed in the same way.

  4. Thomas

    We are leaving the university. We started our own school, teach for free, and are trying to find ways to get the very real education that happens in these classes recognized by the field we teach in. I feel pretty conflicted about accreditation, but it seems like the key thing that is holding the university up. If we can teach on our own in ways that “count” then we will become a real threat. Of course when we teach for free on our own it’s not really addressing the issue of wages for work, but I’d rather teach for free on my own than teach for free for the university.
    Here’s a little announcement we made for our class which we exited from the university:

  5. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    Anyone in Sweden…?
    Workshop – ‘The Neoliberal University’
    Higher education institutions have always been subjected to changes indicative of transitions and trends of the societies they are part of. Today, the university is to a great extent considered a key site for training and wealth generation in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ that operates in a competitive globalizing world. These transitions are underpinned by neoliberal economic ideas that assume that the public sector, and thus the university, should be subject to certain rules, regulations and assumptions to make it as ‘efficient’ as the private sector. What are the consequences of this development for contemporary universities? For academic freedom and democracy? What kind of learning environment does this create?
    1) Lund University in transition
    Ann-Katrin Backlund, Dean, Faculty of Social Science, Lund University
    2) The neoliberal university: Danish experiences
    Lise Rictcher, Journalist, Dagbladet Information
    3) The neoliberal university: global experiences
    Lawrence Berg, Professor, University of British Colombia
    4) The slow sciences movement
    Chris Kesteloot, Professor, KU Leuven
    Time: May 30th 2012, 13:15 – 15:45
    Place: Flygeln, Geocentrum I, Salvegatan 10, ground level
    Organized by the City, Environment and Landscape (CEL) research group, Department of Human Geography, Lund University

  6. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    “Universities benefit from the large pool of cheap labour provided by PhD students and postdocs, but there aren’t enough academic jobs to go around, so young scholars should prepare for the possibility of a future outside the academy, one postdoc advises…” – from this week’s Times Higher Education.

  7. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    More here from Phil Baty, editor at large of Times Higher Education: is the oversupply of PhDs “the academy’s dirty big secret…the great academic taboo…”?
    Also check out the THE‘s ‘Insecure scholar’ blog – the first post is available here – which focuses on “the daily struggles, petty indignities and insecurities of an academic life on casual contracts”.

  8. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    Another excellent resource – the Postgraduate Workers Association blog.
    From – “The Postgraduate Workers Association is a campaign and network that aims to work with the UCU and NUS to ensure fair conditions for research students employed by universities.
    HE institutions, faced with a funding crisis, are attacking the conditions of established academics and PG employees alike. We stand in solidarity with all facing attacks like these, but it is also crucial that we self-organise our
    own sector if we are to oppose the exploitation of ourselves and colleagues.”

  9. Antipode Editorial Office Post author

    Women and Geography Study Group workshop – “Gender and Career Experience of HE Geography”
    11am-4.30pm Tuesday 18th September at UCL, London, UK
    The RGS-IBG Women and Geography Study Group are holding a workshop based on the survey the WGSG conducted last year. The workshop will include advice and discussion on:
    – Getting a permanent post in HE Geography
    – Panel session on getting your first job in HE Geography
    – Career experience in HE Geography survey results and implications for pursuing a career in HE Geography in the current climate
    – Getting promoted in HE Geography
    – Mentoring: how to do it and how to get it
    Confirmed speakers are Prof Katie Willis, Prof Peter Hopkins, Dr Rosie Cox, Dr Kendra Strauss, Dr Avril Maddrell and Dr Helen Walkington. Lunch will be provided.
    This is open to everyone. If you would like to come please email Melissa Stepney ([email protected]) and Laura Price ([email protected]) in the first instance.