Saturday, September 5, 2015

Reflections on Blogging, Academia, and Diversity


by  Fiona McQuarrie

When Jennifer Berdahl was appointed to a faculty position in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sauder School of Business, a UBC press release quoted her as saying that she intended to “create change by having a dialogue directly with people in organizations”. But during this past week, a dialogue between Berdahl and UBC has turned into a situation that has gotten a lot of attention. ... [Read rest of McQuarrie's post here]

McQuarrie continues to provide a background to the story.  She then uses this story to argue that organizations that promote diversity must do more than make pronouncements of their desire.  In so doing McQuarrie discusses her perception of UBC as a "go along to get along" working culture. That might be the case, though personally I doubt colleagues would classify me as a go along to get along sort of colleague, for example.  The Berdahl situation does tell us something, but I think it has more to say about where power sits on campus then it does about diversity programming.

I think that one other factor is at play. Berdahl is in the business school - that is the perceived center of support of corporatism.  She is also a star of the business school, funded by a self-appointed gender white knight. If someone like myself in the faculty of arts said the same thing (several of us in fact did) no one would notice. In fact, no one did notice any of us outside of the business school.

This raises an interesting aspect of what I call (after Bill Readings' The University in Ruins) the University of Excellence (I say more about it in a paper here): for the most part what we as faculty say is irrelevant and ignored by those in power.  All that seems to counts is that we say something, it is published somewhere, and we get research dollars to fund it. We have great periodic moments of accountability were we get to score our output, but never truly evaluate the content (that was done in peer review). Take a look, for example, through all of the "critical studies" publications emanating from the faculty of arts and critical education, it's almost a litany of nasty churlish criticisms (in peer reviewed venues) of the corporate neo-liberal university etc. I count my own work amongst this crowd. The point is that most of what we say is ignored.  If I were to publish a devastating critique of our university in a top their journal I might even get accolades from the president's office (proving they don't really read anything we write).  Maybe we are fortunate that only our fellow choir members read our blogs and published papers.

Berdahl, who cuts against the grain, can't be ignored by the powers that be.  She has bitten the proverbial hand that feeds. I fully expect that the fact finding mission will most likely end up criticizing her, denying any infringement of her academic freedom, and exonerating Montalbano (though he will likely get a backroom scolding but we will never know for sure). The reason is that the threat that Berdahl presents is a direct result of her structural location in the heart of a business school.  Ideally those who put her there would like to hear about how to get more women like Indira S or Martha P into power, how to enhance female participation in business.  That is, they want info on improving the neo-liberal corporate regime. They do not want to hear about speculations on real local power issues in which plays of masculinity (irrespective of whether the player is male or female or other) loom large. Nor do they want to hear analyses that question the basis of neo-liberal corporatism. [As an aside, the much touted female leadership at UBC doesn't prove women are equal in the power structure or that masculinity doesn't matter, in fact it's rather a Margaret Thatcher style of masculinity that is being played out here, not a third (or even second) wave feminism].

UBC is by and large a place where one can pretty much research on what ever one wants (unless you are in a business school).  However, issues that cut close to the real power at UBC or criticisms  that come from within the favoured fellows category will get slapped down hard unless we reach out to the wider public to make the case for the linkage between open research, informed unrestricted expression, and civic democracy.

Berdahl is refreshing to those of us engaged in the long battle against the corporate theft of the public good.  She has become an unlikely hero, perhaps in ways that even she might not want. She reminds us that even within the core of the beast of capitalism there are potential allies in the struggle for social justice.

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