Friday 22 June 2012

Accountancy and Accountability

The scourge of many educational institutions at the present time is the dominance of University accountants. Budgets are slashed, staff laid-off, students short-changed and the essence of what it is to be a University reduced to a balance sheet (which in many cases shows a healthy surplus!). A kind of "econometrics of the University" drives morale ever deeper into a depression from where the strength and will required to treat students and each other decently becomes harder and harder to muster. Wounds are inflicted upon wounds and the desensitization of those who are left to the barbarity of it all is the only available survival strategy. This must be madness: but what kind of madness?

Socrates has four kinds of divine madness, as Plato describes in Phaedrus: erotic (madness of Aphrodite), prophetic (madness of Apollo), telestic (madness of Dionysus, ritualistic madness) and the madness of the muses. I'm sure the madness of the accountants isn't erotic (I might be tempted to be rude about the prerequisite imagination for that... but I shall avoid casting aspersions). On the same grounds, I do not believe that the madness of Universities has anything to do with the muses. Whilst there may be one or two Nero-like VCs out there who have heard voices about what their institutions should do, I think on the whole that the situation is the result of the absence of any muses.

Is it prophetic madness? Well, there may be an element of that - after all, there is some doomsday scenario (where the University runs out of money) that the accountants are trying to forestall. But the prophecy is only a narrow vision: the world is much richer than the balance sheet shows, although of course the balance sheet is important. But there are also a variety of ways of dealing with that - if only there was the imagination (back to the muses) to deal with it.

What about telestic madness? I think this is closest to the mark. What the accountants (and many VCs) are caught in is the ritual of accountancy. These are the rituals of the balance sheet. They involve extravagant human sacrifice through which managers are purged of their sins. Irrespective of the havoc caused to morale, academic credibility, individual lives, student experience or reputation, the extravagance of slashing, of building surpluses, etc, serves the needs of the money God. It's a bit like Harvest Festival, but with student fees instead of potatoes. But whilst the institution is caught in its telestic spell, there is little to be done. For it is not only the Universities which are caught in this, but right now, the whole world. In the absence of any coordinating principle, confusion and disorder produce only expediency.

We've been here before. Socrates knew this kind of madness well. So did Shakespeare. He has Ulysses utter these remarkable lines on the subject of order, or 'degree', and the chaos that ensues when degree is suffocated. This is where we are now: "the general is not like the hive", "The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.", "Everything includes itself in Power; Power into will, will into apetite; and apetite, an universal wolf [..] must make perforce an universal prey, and eat himself up.":
The specialty of rule hath been neglected: 
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand 
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions. 
When that the general is not like the hive 
To whom the foragers shall all repair, 
What honey is expected? 
Degree being vizarded, 
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask. 
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre 
Observe degree, priority and place, 
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form, 
Office and custom, in all line of order; 
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol 
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered 
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye 
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil, 
And posts, like the commandment of a king, 
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets 
In evil mixture to disorder wander, 
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny! 
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! 
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors, 
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate 
The unity and married calm of states 
Quite from their fixure! 
O, when degree is shaked, 
Which is the ladder to all high designs, 
Then enterprise is sick! 
How could communities, 
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, 
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, 
The primogenitive and due of birth, 
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels, 
But by degree, stand in authentic place? 
Take but degree away, untune that string, 
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets 
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters 
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores 
And make a sop of all this solid globe: 
Strength should be lord of imbecility, 
And the rude son should strike his father dead: 
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong, 
Between whose endless jar justice resides, 
Should lose their names, and so should justice too. 
Then every thing includes itself in power, 
Power into will, will into appetite; 
And appetite, an universal wolf, 
So doubly seconded with will and power, 
Must make perforce an universal prey, 
And last eat up himself. 
Great Agamemnon, 
This chaos, when degree is suffocate, 
Follows the choking. 
And this neglection of degree it is 
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose 
It hath to climb. 
The general's disdain'd 
By him one step below, he by the next, 
That next by him beneath; so every step, 
Exampled by the first pace that is sick 
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever 
Of pale and bloodless emulation: 
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot, 
Not her own sinews. 
To end a tale of length, 
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.
Shakespeare had been where we are now. What we must ask is how they got out of it.  I believe the only way out is the re-establishment of our principles: of decency to one another, of honourable conduct towards future generations, as to past generations, and more than anything else, a love and respect for life, not to balance sheets, or any other less worthy fabrication. 

Universities are on a sticky wicket with an obeisance to the balance sheet. Because University is by definition Universal. Balance sheets are not universal, and the religion that surrounds them is false. For those working in Universities today, however, there must be a moment of conscience. Principles have to be campaigned and fought for. Econometics, which has played a leading role in the development of our current crisis, emerged in the US universities under a McCarthyite regime which would only trust an economics grounded in equations and an idealised and ineffective model of  the world, rather than a critical economics which was fundamentally politcal (and by implication, Communist). Economists caved in. They wanted to keep their comfortable academic jobs. And this is where it's got us. 

How corrupt do Universities have to become before those who want to do the thinking that Universities are meant to support have to abandon them? And if we don't abandon them and instead serve the Money-God, what will be the consequences for future generations?


Ismael AA said...

Nice post, Mark!

My take has been that accounting allows for the governance of professional organisations by non-professionals, or failed professionals.
Hence, the university, the hospital, the public administration become governable by outsiders or by those who have little concern for their profession's practices and values.
It is relatively easy to spot a profitable market for, say, international management studies. Anyone with an MBA can do it. Success or failure would then be measured in accounting terms.
Much harder to inscribe one's institution within a historical tradition of excellence in, say, comparative litterature. Success or failure would mobilise the judgement of a decent community of academics. And survival needs constant battles with funders, public or otherwise.

Mark Johnson said...

Great to hear from you Ismael!

I think the nature of the 'professionalism' of the institution is being contested. The accountants accuse academics of being unprofessional and lazy, just as we accuse them of blindness. Each group means different things by 'professionalism'. The dominant group is the scientistic one; the 'critical' group is failing to get its message heard maybe because the critique isn't ontologically grounded.

It is one of the features of managerialism that it reduces the nature of institutions to a single level (ontological monovalence again!).
Maybe we should dispense with professionalism as a concept altogether. Do you know Ivan Illich's 'Disabling Professions'?