Institutionalizing Critical University Studies

One thing I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while is the slow institutionalization of a subfield of “Critical University Studies” (call it CUS). For those who may not have come across it, CUS is a sort of compromise category that brings together a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and criticism on higher education. Jeffrey Williams began publicizing the field qua field in a 2012 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he noted, as I recall, that the name was modeled on “Critical Legal Studies.” CUS, by contrast, still lacks its own Wikipedia article (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but I’ll just note for now that CUS brings together some very different political views about higher education, ranging from social democrats like Davydd Greenwood to revolutionaries like the Undercommoning project.

Anyway, I realized today that there are actually three book series in CUS, which seems like a clear barometer of institutionalization. It may be useful for new people to the field to see them all assembled in one place:

Let’s briefly compare the mission statements of these three series to see how they position themselves.


Around the globe, universities are being reformed to supply two crucial ingredients of a purported ‘global knowledge economy’: research and graduates. Higher education’s aims, concepts, structures and practices are all in process of change. Together with its sister journal, LATISS, this series provides in-depth analyses of these changes and how those involved – managers, academics and students – are experimenting with critical pedagogies, reflecting upon the best organization of their own institutions, and engaging with public policy debates about higher education in the 21st Century.


Aims of the Palgrave Critical University Studies Series Universities everywhere are experiencing unprecedented changes and most of the changes being inflicted upon universities are being imposed by political and policy elites without any debate or discussion, and little understanding of what is being lost, jettisoned, damaged or destroyed.  The over-arching intent of this series is to foster, encourage, and publish scholarship relating to academia that is troubled by the direction of these reforms occurring around the world. The series provides a much-needed forum for the intensive and extensive discussion of the consequences of ill-conceived and inappropriate university reforms and will do this with particular emphasis on those perspectives and groups whose views have hitherto been ignored, disparaged or silenced. The series explores these changes across a number of domains including: the deleterious effects on academic work, the impact on student learning, the distortion of academic leadership and institutional politics, and the perversion of institutional politics. Above all, the series encourages critically informed debate, where this is being expunged or closed down in universities.

Johns Hopkins UP

Over the past decade a new wave of criticism of higher education has begun to emerge. This series will lead this new field by publishing some of the best, often provocative, and most original works of Critical University Studies.

Critical University Studies focuses on contemporary changes in higher education, in the US and around the globe. The series will explore the shift toward privatization and corporatization, zeroing in on various causes and effects, such as high tuitions, high student debt, the stress on profit-accruing research, the replacement of full-time professors with what is now a majority of adjuncts or part-timers, the remaking of administration as corporate management, and the marginalizing of the liberal arts. As universities become more like corporations, banks, and entertainment companies, how does this affect educational quality, independent research, and the public good? Higher education has entered a new era, and Critical University Studies will explore how it got where it is and suggest better directions for the future.

In general, Critical University Studies books will be short monographs analyzing key changes and targeting key problems in contemporary higher education. The series will represent a variety of perspectives, such as exposés of current practices, short accounts of recent history, and theoretical engagements with what is occurring. While scholarly and analytical, the series will feature books that make sustained, focused arguments about specific critical issues and also propose solutions to the problems they describe in both the United States and internationally.

I haven’t been able to review all these books very systematically, but at a glance, the European-based series seem more international and comparative (and more inclined to publish edited volumes as opposed to monographs), while the US-based series seems more oriented towards the US situation. No doubt this has some relationship to book marketing considerations that are important to the respective publishers!

It seems to me that keeping an eye on how we produce and publish critical research on higher education is a major goal of the Academography project. What does our writing do? Who is it reaching? These have been existential questions for me since I first started doing my own ethnographic work on academic culture… I’ll see if we can get in touch with the series editors (some of whom are friends of mine — this is after all a small world), and see what they can tell us about their projects.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

4 thoughts on “Institutionalizing Critical University Studies”

  1. What is at stake in the “institutionalization” of CUS? It pays to be clear about this. In the neoTaylorist world of the university, multidisciplinary studies (other than those funded in the sciences and engineering by the government and private sector) are examples of Mary Douglas’ “matter out of place”. The only model neoTaylorists understand is siloed disciplines and departments under the thumb of a dean, provost, president, professsional association, accrreditation authority, and auditors. The analogy with prior generations of Science and Technology Studies and feminist studies (now reduced to departments) is clear. The best account of the details of the procerss I know is Ellen Messer-Davidow’s Disciplining Feminism. The capacity of contemporary universities to sweep up matter out of place is awesome. Having been victimized by this repeatedly, I clearly did not find a strategy of resistance that works. Practically speaking, if resistance is to work, how do you envision it?

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