A Response from Davydd Greenwood

Davydd Greenwood sends in a second response to Eli Thorkelson’s recent comments on Creating a New Public University and Reviving Democracy.

We are grateful for a review that invites a dialogue and we hope these topics will be discussed more broadly and from additional perspectives. Eli has been an important partner in this work ever since his undergraduate years and will continue to be long after we are gone.

Eli is right that the link between organizational analysis and education is the most innovative part of our argument and he asks why we don’t separate organizational from philosophical analysis.

If, as we propose, the mission of higher education is a form of Neue-Bildung, our argument is that it is utterly impossible to educate this way in institutions organized as NeoTaylorist vocational training schools. Trying to do that would be like asking why you don’t bend your elbow to a 240-degree angle simply because you want to. It is organizationally impossible to deliver an integrated, mentored, open, and active pedagogical experience and to pursue research driven by curiosity and wonder in institutions designed to create customers, products, and who measure success in rankings and money.

Eli remarks that this implies radical changes in the working and life conditions of existing faculty. We agree and he asks why they would collaborate? A. This is a good question. More than a few faculty, especially the “academic rock stars” that John Smyth refers to in his book, The Toxic University would oppose it. However, that is not an argument against the reform. It is a reality of the problem of reform.

Current faculty should wake up. The percentage of tenureable and tenured faculty is declining rapidly and occasionalized, contract employment on a fee-for-service basis is quickly becoming the future of academic work. A few academic rock stars at a few elite wealthy institutions may survive but the vast majority of the faculty either will oppose NeoTaylorism or will find themselves reduced to a throwaway working class existence sooner rather than later.

We think Eli is mistaken in linking our arguments to social democratic ideology. We are neo-pragmatists with an analytical view of the structure and dynamics that make for good organizations. At issue here is not some massive social program to give everyone an education. The issue is to create universities in which pragmatist modes of inquiry, participatory pedagogy, participatory research agendas, and participatory management work together to educate students in both skills and civic practices, liberate the greatest possible knowledge and energy in the faculty and staff, and reduce the coercive and exploitative power of senior academic administrators.

We don’t believe in social democracy but in the ability of participatory practices of knowledge development, application, and action to produce the best possible outcomes. The neoliberals and NeoTaylorists have had their turn and even the International Monetary Fund says neoliberalism is a failure. The trouble is that participatory practices will unseat the current powerholders and they will selfishly fight us in a struggle for their lives. Look at how the casino capitalists successfully fought off regulation after they wrecked the global economy in 2008.

Families, communities, businesses, schools, and political systems are the key contexts of civil life and all benefit from being organized in solitary, participatory, and fair ways. This is not social democracy. This is DEMOCRACY in action.

Eli rightly asks if team-based organizations are a sure recipe for human thriving? As he suggests, the answer is that they are not. Any form of organization can be debased and ruined. A team-based organization can be a free-for-all and a dystopia unless it is properly structured, properly supported, and vigilantly protected structurally and normatively by the stakeholders. Team-based organization are not a bunch of hippies holding hands in a circle with beatific smiles on their faces.

In our experience, well-designed and successful team-based organizations have clear rules and behavioral norms and missions that are agreed to by the participants. They base their decision making and actions on using and debating the best information available from those in the best position in the value production process to know what will and will not work. They are labor-intensive in the sense of being time-consuming dialogue arenas that seek to approximate “ideal speech situations” and that build discipline for organizational decisions on dialogue and debate. The compensation and power structure of such organizations need not be fully egalitarian but must be built on quite limited inequalities in compensation. Mondragón operates with a 1:6 differential between the general manager and the lowest paid member. Imagine if a university president were paid only 6 times the salary of a janitor. How would things be different? Such organizations exist and we have seen them in operation in Mondragón and elsewhere

From our perspective, participatory leadership is not an option to be entertained; it is a sine qua non for the operation of productive, solidary, and collaborative organization. The aim of participatory leadership is to liberate potential, support openness, create safety for innovation, and run interference for the organization in the larger environment. It is a requirement of effective participatory organizations. Ordering people to participate from an office remote from the sites of value production has been tried and it has given us the pathetic universities we now experience.

Eli cogently asks how to get people to participate in a future that is not pre-defined. We understand that most people are both insecure and not very daring under current conditions. We also acknowledge that the future is uncertain because it is up to the participants to design the future they are going to live and work in. However, the strength of such systems is precisely because the participants get to build it and have an equal say in how it is built and run that makes it a future they can imagine themselves living in. It is not up to us to tell them what that is like. They have the knowledge and experience to design it and awareness of the failures of the current system they want to overcome. This is also why such organizations are likely to differ from case to case because they will result from different situations, stakeholder experiences, and environmental conditions/challenges. Finally, we think we are very near the end stages of the collapse of public higher education. Before it collapses around them, will the stakeholders have the courage and good sense to risk a better alternative? Or will they stand on the deck as the Titanic sinks and not risk getting on a lifeboat?

Thanks to Eli for promoting this dialogue and we look forward to hearing more voices and views on these issues. This is precisely why we wrote the book in the first place.

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