Cisco and Microsoft — Their Part in My Downfall; or, the Lost Ethics of Higher Ed; or, Maybe, a Sob Story

By Toby MillerMay 10, 2018

Cisco and Microsoft — Their Part in My Downfall; or, the Lost Ethics of Higher Ed; or, Maybe, a Sob Story
I SPENT MUCH of last fall worrying how to put pound notes in my wallet.

Because I live most of the year in the United Kingdom, I must deal with the fact that an unelected, uneducated, uninviting, and undistinguished monarch is on one side of the currency. So I try to look exclusively at the obverse of pound notes, which represents people who are prominent for what they did, rather than who their papas were. (Jane Austen, for instance, is on the tenner.)

Ordering currency in a billfold became especially complex recently. From 2001 through 2016, the five-pound note featured the 19th-century social reformer Elizabeth Fry. But she was replaced by arch-imperialist and staunch 1930s fan of Hitler and Mussolini, Winston Churchill. I don’t want that person staring up at me each time I open my wallet, any more than the unelected, uneducated, et cetera person.

Plus, the new five-pound note initially contained tallow, which led to protests by animal-rights activists. Thankfully, the Bank of England caved in quickly, consenting to return to vegan currency.

But then things got even more complicated in terms of money in my pocket.

Already locked in an oleaginous divorce, I was removed as director of the Institute in London where I worked.

Losing jobs has happened to most of us — whether as short-order blue-collar chefs or short-order national-security chiefs. We are used to being told how many times we must retrain in our lives, that secure employment no longer exists, and so on.

But it hadn’t happened to me since late 1987, just after “Black Monday” on the Stock Exchange.

A new head of sociology, who had been on leave during my year there, got up at a farewell lunch for someone in a vaguely fancy restaurant. Announcing that she would be a more humane chair than the norm, she then asked where I was; looked across to me among the 30 gathered; and offered as a peroration of her speech to the multitude, “Oh, and Toby, we’re not renewing your contract.” These were the first and last words she spoke to me. An anti-abortion health sociologist with a minor in occupational prestige and theories of scapegoating, she was later revealed to be the beneficiary of large sums of money from a bordello.

But I digress.

Back to the fall of 2017, and getting 86’d as director. My sacking took the initial form of a three-line Decanal email proposing that I “step down.” No reason was given. I had not received any formal or informal evaluation of my work over the two and a half years of my time there.

The dean provided some detail of the poverty of my performance three weeks later, during a meeting I asked for with him and the president of our union local.

I was described in person as “woefully inadequate.”

I’ve been looking for antonyms of “woefully.” I can’t find any. Not really. Once that adverb’s been applied, you’re shit out of luck finding a binary opposite.

This dean — the man who by contrast with me is ipso facto superordinately adequate — leveled the following charges (an advisory: please be seated when reading this):

As the dean enumerated this extraordinary set of failings, he warmed to his task — leaning ever further forward, as if sharing gossip with a group of intimates or inmates. Encouraged, no doubt, by a sense of rightness and righteousness, the faithful apparatchik’s eyes lit up like a chap embarked on a quest with like-minded souls.

But the union president reacted bug-eyed to this list of incompetence. He couldn’t believe it. And when I suggested that these things were distortions or, just possibly, completely fucking unimportant, and anyway that my boss hadn’t bothered to communicate such matters to me beforehand, or indeed breathed a word of criticism, we settled on the need for a professional development review of my work by the superordinately adequate one (something that should have been done annually).

The dean clarified that he wanted me out no matter what, insisting that must be the outcome. But presumably he realized that his superordinate adequacy had not accounted for a little zinger known as “due process.”

The dean then described me as “exceptional” in representing the interests of the Institute internally, and the school externally.

But I was “not a team player.” As a consequence, the entirety of senior management, plus anonymous faculty members, wanted me gone.

I figured the professional development review would either be an opportunity to set targets for overcoming my manifold, manifest deficiencies, or an exit interview. Either way, the school would rid itself of me as director, sooner or later.

I had a little while to decide what to do.

It seemed likely that I’d remain “woefully inadequate” in the eyes of the big man on campus (cf. the dude at Ohio State who directs the tuba players at football games, marching in a quasi-military outfit).

When added to the detritus of my break-up, the denunciations convinced me not to struggle on.

My resilience was lacking and I was not entirely supported by colleagues (who were the anonymous faculty, and what had they said?). A bloc had been broken; a formation was quickly falling apart.

I went to the meeting with the dean, this time alone, in January, having filled out the form that was a required prelude to my review. He wanted me to step aside immediately and be replaced on an acting basis by a company man. I dissuaded him of this, while consenting to depart in mid-March.

The figure who typifies me as “woefully inadequate” still hasn’t completed his part of the form-filling at the time of this writing: mid-April, three months after the review meeting.

I guess that once you’ve come up with the perfect, antonym-free denunciation, trying to improve on it might make a chap appear, you know, inadequate by contrast.

Now I’m on what the British call “gardening leave.” An offer is on the table for me to return in 2019 as a jobbing prof. But not as director.

What is the underlying political economy and culture of this story — assuming you accept that Cisco, Microsoft, and various phone, laptop, and tablet manufacturers and marketers did not conspire to bring me down in revenge for my heartless rejection of their services, and you consent to move beyond the discourse of Decanal denunciation?

Here’s the scoop.

British citizens had basically enjoyed a free ride through undergrad from the 1960s to the 1990s. (This remains the case for the Scots.) Then fees were introduced. Since that time, colleges have come to embrace the idea of students as customers and other universities as competitors. They seek to attract as many international students as possible, who pay double what locals do (“international” currently means “outside the European Union” — think “out of state tuition”). Although that implies folks from the rest of the world, it refers to Chinese citizens more than anybody else.

There’s considerable debate about how many Chinese nationals are studying in Britain. Some put the number at 90,000; the government says 95,000. In 2015, the Chinese embassy told me the figure was 150,000. By comparison, there are 100,000 international students in the United Kingdom from the United States, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Thailand combined. (Last year, the official number of Chinese students in the States was 350,000. In Canada, it’s over 120,000.)

In Australia, where the Chinese student stat is in-between Britain and the United States, there’s a moral panic that they’re spies for the Party and state.

Closer to home, we see controversy over the dozens of Confucius Institutes that have appeared across US colleges since 2005. The American Association of University Professors is worried about the role of the Politburo and the state in these alleged Trojan horses, to the point where the Institutes are said to “ignore academic freedom,” despite being located on liberal campuses.

When I speak to colleagues from the PRC and Hong Kong, they tell me spying does indeed go on in their classes.

Hong Kong schools increasingly rely on money from mainlanders coming to study, some of whom describe the ideological tenor of lectures to their Party handlers. One department chair I know says to his class each semester: “I realize you’re going to be reporting on me to the Party. I only ask that you do so accurately.”

The Chinese situation is not unprecedented. We recall that leftist academics across the United States were subject to intelligence evaluation by clandestine informants during the Cold War; while on the other side of politics, CIA-sponsored scholars proliferated among the professoriate. Today, colleges gleefully spy on students appropriating copyrighted material, and school pupils’ internet use is subject to intense corporate surveillance.

Back in Britain, 007-like or not, many Chinese students arrive in the boonies. Finding little of interest in places laden with white cloning, insular monolingualism, and active xenophobia, they take off for the Big Smoke. Cue these colleges doing the same — establishing satellite campuses in London to grab a piece of the action. Hence our Institute.

We just teach grad school. This year, approximately 90 of our 92 MA students were from the PRC.

And do we have a deal on offer!

An MA for 17,500 pounds (about $25,000)! Just 10 short weeks of tuition (that’s right)! When students arrive, they get ranked as gold, silver, or bronze in terms of employability! And among their first classes — a forced collective internship where they can do research for a corporation looking (just possibly) to sell things in their country! Best of all — they don’t need a relevant first degree.

Wait a minute. “They don’t need a relevant first degree?”

Again, I hope you were sitting comfortably as you read that.

Here’s the deal. The university’s regulations state that graduate admission is decided by the faculty. But that doesn’t happen in the case of a “postgraduate taught programme” (gobbledygook for a terminal MA). This is where they make a lot of loot. And other than in a few cases, at my school, bureaucrats determine these admissions, based on targets they are expecting/expected to meet.

I asked around about this among friends in my field, and found it was pretty much the norm elsewhere. Nobody liked it; everyone thought it was improper; they all objected — and eventually went along with it. Like me, they were ultimately complicit. Cue Lucky Jim. (Cue also legacy admissions in the US, of course.)

The result? Extremely pleasant and interesting grad students arrive, virtually none of whom can write English using conventional syntax or grammar, and who lack familiarity with democracy, postcolonialism, liberalism, queer theory, scholarly research and writing, justice, human rights, and a few other funky things we favor.

These folks have been launched into a place where most of the faculty (who hailed from Korea, Colombia, Ireland, and Turkey, inter alia) were used to studying, teaching, and publishing in second languages — but unused to teaching students without significant experience of liberal education, civil rights, the third sector, or political participation.

In US terms, we are profoundly multicultural — and profoundly ignorant of the desires of our customers/clients/paymasters, the actual existing student body. Our very international and cross-cultural graduate curriculum is not devised for people who have trouble with the language and ideology of instruction, and minimally relevant undergraduate preparation.

As I indicated above, these are nice, smart students, from whom I have learned quite a lot.

But I’m not sure I’ve taught them much. Why? Because I operate as I have done while teaching in Mexico, Chile, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, Brazil, Sweden, Australia, India, Peru, Ireland, France, and the United States — whether the students are local or foreign.

It is tough when, for example, the folks in front of you have never heard of any major political figure, economic trend, intellectual tendency, artistic format, social movement, sports team, religion, political party, architectural trend, literary theory, or popular genre beyond their own country prior to, say, 2016. And can’t easily understand what you say or what is in the readings. In graduate seminars of over 70 people.

In search of help, I spoke to PRC intellectuals I knew. I was aware of the politically awkward nature of my impressions (albeit that some were shared by colleagues from the Global South). And that I was getting paid thanks to people whose credentials for study I doubted.

My Chinese friends and colleagues told me three things:

  • The only way to urge liberal education, political economy, non-corporate knowledge, or cultural studies onto these folks is to build such norms into mandatory assessment

  • Regardless, the game is up. Top students now know that a UK degree isn’t worth the 3,500 tallow-laden, Churchillian fivers that pay for it, due to lax admission and language policies and the insular nature of monolingual British academics. As a consequence, alums from top schools in China are increasingly heading to Canada and the United States for graduate study

  • And yes, what I profit from is corrupt


I aired my concerns about these matters on campus — often, and frequently in a febrile manner.

So that is partly what got me nixed.

I think there was something else.

I kept acting as if I were still in the United States.

When I left Britain in 1978, my prevailing experience of the country could best be represented by a hand raised as a stop sign. You were supposed to behave, dammit.

That hasn’t changed, though something is different about it.

The Brits got both sides of the neoliberal memo — redistribute income upward, as part of public proclamations of individual economic freedom operating under the invisible sign of socialism for corporations; and continue to regulate ordinary conduct and self-expression to the max.

Plus a creepy Orwellian doublespeak emerged in universities, derived from the mimetic managerial fallacy. That fallacy imagines corporations to be worthy and emulable models for public institutions. It has an entirely mad and maddening vocabulary of capitalist organizational clichés: check and challenge, light touch, sector norm, business-like, enterprise, world-leading, partnering, knowledge transfer, student-facing, create impact, metrics, thought leader, comfortable with, best practice, relaxed about, maker place, hot desking, work-ready graduates, start-ups, our community, industry-centered problem-solving, I am the lead on x, agree a catch-up, industry-facing, this is the available spend, schedule a one-on-one — student experience; on, and on, and on, ad infinitum.

Such language conceals a powerful drive toward central control of everything. Students have commercial rights — but put away that cell phone! Students are customers — but lock the doors if they dare to arrive late! Students are sovereign — but punish them if they speak “privately” in class. Students are consumers — but take attendance and require them to download an application that monitors their movements.

You get the point, and a similar infantilizing discourse applies to the profs.

A while after I started the job in Britain, a guy I knew from the principal campus of my school, the one in the boonies, popped in for lunch. He had just spent his first months as dean at a big state school in the United States after 25 years at superordinately adequate U in Britain. The president of his college had said, “Stop pestering me by asking whether you can do something. Just go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t work, then come see me.”

In addition to trying things out without asking form-filling, non-publishing nothings, noodges, and nobodies, I’d left the United States assuming faculty democracy as a right, with curriculum and research autonomy part of professional sovereignty.

That wasn’t really the case in London. The idea was to do what daddy state and mommy company asked for — and do it, you know, really quickly and well! Then you might get an elephant stamp in your penmanship book. Maybe even a gold star.

I didn’t want a gold star. Or an elephant stamp.

So I think that’s another reason why I got 86’d. Along with software, hardware, and attendance issues, I had called out instrumentalism and wrongly presumed faculty democracy.

But there is good news: two friends who read this gave me passing grades. One called it “blessedly sufficient”; the other, “adequately extraordinary.” Maybe there are antonyms to “woefully inadequate” after all.


Toby Miller lives in London and Barranquilla. His most recent books are Greenwashing Culture, Greenwashing Sport, Global Media Studies, Greening the Media, and Blow Up the Humanities.


Banner Image: “Lucky Jim, Amis,” Loyola University Chicago Digital Special Collections

LARB Contributor

Toby Miller is a British-Australian-US interdisciplinary social scientist. He is the author and editor of over 30 books, has published essays in more than 100 journals and edited collections, and is a frequent guest commentator on television and radio programs.


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