Excellence is the goal contemporary society strives for: excellence in sport, in business, in art, in
scholarship, and in life in general. Yet as Bill Readings so pointedly observes, contemporary society has emptied the idea of ‘excellence’ of meaning. The search for excellence structures workplace competition, student recruitment, and the evaluation of practically all aspects of the contemporary university environment.
In its operational mode excellence is little more than a set of quantified indictors—dollar value of grants, number of publications, ranking of publication venue, completion rates of students, and so on. These indicators are tabulated by individual, unit, or university and then ranked accordingly. Deriving from the tautological market principle that those who win are by definition excellent, being top ranked makes one excellent.
There is, however, a problem if too many people get the reward. The crux of excellence is its reliance upon failure as the foil against which it is itself determined. Excellence is no absolute; it’s a normative measure that relies on failure and the threat of failure to propel people to engage in acts of self-exploitation simply to keep their employment or their place in the university of excellence.
In a utopian world we would banish all talk of excellence because people would finally be freed to actually achieve and accomplish things in an atmosphere freed from market competition.
I say more about these ideas in my autoethnogrpahic essay, Reflections on Work and Activism in the 'University of Excellence.'