Collective Manifesto

Democratizing Knowledge in the Neoliberal University


The culturally dominant power of profit—sought through privatization and commodification—has increasingly influenced the practices of US institutions of higher education. Universities once treated knowledge as a public good and undertook the dual task of innovating and disseminating ideas to create an informed, engaged citizenry. Currently, with the dramatic expansion of its bureaucratic ruling class, the influx of corporate financing, and the related and widespread adoption of regulation and assessment, universities too often serve as means to generate money for outside sources rather than to serve the greater public interest. This models leads to faculty and students restricted in their academic endeavors. Further, faculty are assessed according to the quantity of their publications; the quality of those publications is determined by impact scores. As Lindsay Waters laments in Enemies of Promise, current requirements for tenure encourage “production for its own sake” and discourage time-intensive inquiry or peer review (36).

Students, as Karl Popper recognized a half-century ago, are encouraged only “to study for the sake of [their] personal career[s]” rather than also to develop “a real love for [their] subject[s]” (The Spell of 135). This shunts the growth potential for creative, engaged commitment to knowledge production for anything other than financial profit, deterring for knowledge creation and dissemination for other reasons. To these ends, the university ought serve the general public and the greater common good. Very simply, the university ought to be in the business of growing people, the commons, knowledge, and encouraging the protection of these. To this can also be added fostering a respect and reverence for learning. Citizens should be exposed to material and teaching that foster an awareness of world issues, problem-solving strategies, etc. thus broadening the potential for a public to be more empathetic and knowledgeable, and, to be culture-creators rather than only consumers.

Taken as implicit that the university ought to produce knowledge, it must do so with utmost care for improving life for the public. It can start by mobilizing its efforts toward distributing knowledge outward, to students, and then to the larger public. What follows forms a manifesto to these ends.


In the West, we often speak of democracy without defining it, stating its terms, or explaining its necessities. Further, in the US context, though we often assume the need to spread democracy, we take for granted its stewardship on our own soil. If indeed continuing to engage in democratic practices from the direct election of school boards to the Electoral College is what we want as a society, then, the citizens of the United States must have the best civic preparation possible. We cannot assume that democracy will simply keep on keeping on. It must be examined, and, if necessary, adjusted. But, before this occurs, citizens need to become versed in democratic principles and processes. This becomes even more important as the assumption of the 20th century, that capitalism breeds democracy, has been proven incorrect by the rise of China's communist capitalism.

The civic education required to steward democracy includes a profound examination of the ideas embedded in democracy (such as 'freedom') as well as the responsibilities regarding democracy.

Karl Popper, in his two volume set, The Open Society, posits that history is not governed by laws, thus, building on his premise: just because democracy has functioned in the past does not indicate anything about how it may continue into the future. It cannot be assumed that democracy including citizens electing the people that represent their interests will continue, or, that the efficacy of this as an expression of democracy will continue. Further, democracy has come to be assumed to be the system that produces the most equity among peoples. It may be that other models arise or can be conceived which may prove even more 'democratic' than what we currently know. Further, for Popper, the best means to keep democracy roaring is to stay engaged with its processes through "piecemeal engineering," which for him includes engaging in incremental adjustments and changes to its institutions. However, without these ongoing changes toward democracy, institutions can also incrementally become less democratic.

As the place most responsible in a democratic society for the cultivation of the most informed citizenry, the university has an obligation to model democratic practice. Along with knowledge creation and dissemination, this should be its second mission. Otherwise, should democracy slip on past in our larger society, the university will lose its capability to remain a place of knowledge creation. It may then become an institution for totalitarian or oligarchic propaganda at best, or their direct employ, at worst.

While a clear-cut definition still eludes philosophers in the field of epistemology, knowledge is generally considered a skill or a familiarity with “facts,” principles, or subjects gained through experience, education, imitation, research, or even culture, instinct, or point of view. The debate of “justified true belief” and how individuals can obtain it is ongoing and problematic. Due to cognitive limitations, we are notoriously bad and unreliable at answering the question, “what do you know?” In the profit-driven society, there are varying attempts to manage or commodify knowledge, as by attempting to make tacit knowledge explicit. Once the knowledge is explicit, something can be done with it, whether that means safeguarding it or sharing it broadly with the public. There is a romantic (but in the spirit of our manifesto, very important) notion that knowledge should be free and publicly available, which the World Wide Web facilitates. Corporations, governments, and economic systems, on the other hand, are much more interested in controlling access to knowledge and treating it as a product that can be bought and sold.

Knowledge being what we know and residing in the mind makes the notion (or fad) of Knowledge Management something quite disputed, since knowledge can be thought of as assembled information from the world that probably cannot exist outside the mind. How does one demonstrate knowledge effectively? Questions (and problems) of knowledge are (or, in the aspects where they aren’t so much, ought to be) intrinsic to the university. The university should function as a center of knowledge production, evaluation, and distribution, with emphasis on the latter two. Scholarship taking place at the university should be concerned with normative questions of what constitutes high quality knowledge.

We can begin determining these criteria by committing to the importance of slow, thoughtful research rather than the current credentialing model, and, by examining how, when engaged in interdisciplinary work, an individual gets from one idea/theory/argument to another.

The university should also be concerned with knowledge’s distribution to the public and to the academic community in order to emphasize collaborative (rather than competitive or self-absorbed) scholarly endeavors. Indeed, the web is the obvious candidate for knowledge distribution. Collaborative inquiry of this kind, given its non-hierarchal model, contradicts the corporate structure of the neoliberal university. As a sort of concluding reference point, again, Karl Popper:

Kant argued that knowledge is not a collection of gifts received by our senses and stored in the mind as if it were a museum, but that it is very largely the result of our own mental activity; that we must most actively engage ourselves in searching, comparing, unifying, generalizing, if we wish to attain knowledge. We may call this theory the ‘activist’ theory of knowledge (The High Tide 214).

Neoliberalism/Neoliberalization of the University
To David Harvey, the results (practice) of neoliberalism often conflict with its principles as a theory. Rather than a system of personal freedoms that allows for individual and national prosperity (64-67), the practice of neoliberalization is a deliberate restructuring of public policy and manipulation of “common sense” to facilitate an upward migration of wealth and the restoration of upper class power. Within a milieu of recession and under the influence of neoliberal theory as endorsed by the Friedman-led Chicago school, figures such as Reagan and Thatcher won public support with talk of freedoms and necessity while systematically rewriting tax law to advantage the wealthy, disempower labor unions to advantage corporations (44-6), and orchestrate international finance practices to the disadvantage developing countries (74-5). Regardless of neoliberalism as theory, then, the practice of neoliberalization and its requisite exploitation of the disenfranchised directly contradict the true liberal ideals espoused by universities, particularly the disciplines in the humanities.

This clash of principles has not impeded the influence of neoliberal approaches of monetization, privatization, and quantification in the operations of US universities. These sites of learning, as described by Steve Fuller, once treated knowledge as a public good to be distributed to students. However, as neoliberalization further breaches academic borders, universities increasingly mimic the practices of directing funds to the top (establishing upper class power), networking with corporations (privatizing), and commodifying output (monetizing). Within even the humanities, which would ostensibly concern itself with precisely that which one cannot count, productivity is measured by publications, citations, and even student evaluations—all in accord with the neoliberal preoccupation with “profit,” in its various guises, and demonstrability.

Whereas the theory of neoliberalism intends to open avenues for everyone to earn and achieve, the practice severely limits the lower classes’ access to the means of knowledge production, distribution, and use. While the humanities has adopted many neoliberal strategies for sustenance and internal regulation, it remains the task of those within the humanities to recognize the incommensurability of humanistic thought and neoliberal policy and, further, to articulate alternatives to the neoliberalization of the American university.

Normative Statements

Teaching ought to be the primary goal of higher educational institutions.

How have we gotten to a place in which it seems radical to insist that teaching be the primary objective of higher educational institutions? Strong teaching is urgent for the health of our democracy and the resiliency of our nation. We deserve active, engaged, focused, interested, challenging experts in our higher educational classrooms.

The academic job market and its evaluation process for tenure have drifted from focusing first on this urgent mission in favor of academics mimicking production line quotas for academic publications (the sciences) and books through academic presses (the humanities). Academic culture currently derides teaching, relegating it to more amateur graduate students or an army of untenured adjunct instructors. The more pressure that has been put on academics to regard their position and themselves akin to assembly-line workers pumping out product, the less time or energy they have to teach. The balance between teaching and research is being lost, with the latter clobbering the former. However, in former eras, these two enriched each other. Social epistemologist Steve Fuller notes,

At its best, the university was a catalyst of social change when its two functions engaged in mutual regulation: teaching curbed the esoteric tendencies of research, while research disrupted the routinizing tendencies of teaching… (25)

Concurrent interaction with both fundamental and cutting-edge material can fan the flame of insight for researchers while creating a symbiotic relationship of feedback between generations of academics/students.

Moreover, by disregarding teaching, academics miss out on opportunities to engage with the community (also something oddly often denigrated by academic culture) to empower citizens to develop as thinkers.

We must reorient ourselves to make teaching the first priority in institutions of higher education by practicing what we preach: restructuring the current assembly-line model for academic tenure to favor strong teaching; requiring substantial pedagogical coursework and practice by terminal degree students toward earning their doctorate; rethinking how students receive assessment away from a model that treats them as products on an assembly line; and, requiring high-level researchers to teach—as this benefits society by encouraging wider access to new thought and cutting-edge material and re-engages the academic with a community beyond her laboratory or desk.

There should be reciprocity between teaching and research.

Scholars ought to sustain a mutually beneficial relationship between their scholarship and their teaching. Above, we contend that teaching, rather than research, ought in fact to be held in the highest regard by universities. Here, we mean to assert that professional academics need not consider the two pursuits—research and teaching—to be mutually exclusive. Steve Fuller describes a disconnect between research and teaching that is propelled by private interest:

The recent drive to have universities mimic business firms as generators of intellectual property amounts to… a campaign of institutional dismemberment, in which the university’s research function is severed from the teaching function… we have seen the emergence of quasi-private ‘science parks’ whose profitable ventures threaten to arrest the normal flow of knowledge. (5)

By “the normal flow of knowledge,” Fuller means the flow of knowledge from generation to discussion, from the professor’s innovations in research to the introduction of those innovations to the classroom, where students are kept abreast of developing knowledges. In this model, research should not detract from teaching, but enhance it. By compartmentalizing these two intrinsic aspects of the academy, the institution weakens both.

By incorporating current and ongoing research into classrooms, scholars are potentially better able to engage students and open the floor for discussion of up-to-date material. At its heart, this declaration intends to liberate the fruits of academic work (knowledge) from the privatization model endemic in the neoliberal university.

Scholars ought to conduct research for the public good.

The university and its scholars should not serve private interests. University research should be conducted toward increasing public knowledge, termed here "open knowledge." Regardless whether the subject is a more obscure topic in the arts or of central concern to the sciences, the end goal of research should be public use and dissemination. This would then include the limiting of commercialization of university-sponsored or affiliated research, including the curbing of patents or copyrights as end goals. Rather than commodification as the marker of success with university academic or research output, general use and open source would be the new standards.

The results of this focus on open knowledge may incline scholars to undertake investigations which explicitly—even if not directly—improve our world, such as raising doubts about cultural dominants or pursuing practical solutions to specific environmental problems. In the case of the humanities, an example of such inquiry may be found in Gary Gutting’s description of French philosophers, who “move easily between philosophical reflection and political activism” (8).

Scholars ought to disseminate research to the wider public.

Again, whether on a topic obscure or central, scholars should engage the public in conversation (another marker of "open knowledge"). This supports the growth of a knowledgeable public. Furthermore, to the public, academics should communicate in precise, intelligible language.

While the difficult terminology and concepts of high theory, for instance, ought not be avoided necessarily among academics, a process for enhancing the accessibility of complicated thought ought to be undertaken to avoid a socially decontextualized reverence for “the magic of high-sounding words … [and] the power of jargon” (The High Tide 28). Scholars may choose to supplement their research with approachable iterations of their more enigmatic work. Alternatively, scholars may choose to create such iterations for the works of others, interpretations of complex works explicitly designed to introduce difficult material to interested and to interest laypersons.

To support scholars' engagement with the public, universities should maintain an interactive online repository of academic work accessible to everyone and moderated by scholars.

As an antidote to the proliferation of unread publications—essential to the production line model of the neoliberal university—researchers should pursue open, online peer- and public-review of scholarship as the model of academic inquiry.

The online repositories of academic work would provide a space for scholars to discuss their work, but they would also allow members of the community to both inform and to be informed by scholarship. In the first case, invested and educated people outside of the university would gain an opportunity to provide input on scholarly projects of varying kinds. In the second case, the free and thorough dissemination of knowledge created at the university would educate even those members of the community unable to participate more officially in the university. In both cases, the repositories, indicative of a commitment to community, resist the privatization of university processes.

The interconnectedness of scholarship and the community does not necessitate a concession to the majority, nor does it occlude esoteric research. Openness and intelligibility merely entail the expansion of the university space into the community to enhance the scholarly conversation and resist the commodification of intellectual property and the isolation of publicly-funded knowledge created by scholars, whose disciplines ought to position them on the side of the public rather than on the side of profit.

Toward making wider and better quality public knowledge possible, universities should favor allowing time for slow and thoughtful research.

By disavowing the production-line model of pumping out publications, the university can focus on the quality of the knowledge it provides rather than the quantity of publications produced or degrees granted. Moreover, the model of slow and careful research encourages a greater degree of interdepartmental (and even intradepartmental) symbiosis. Too often, research feels as if it does not interact with or bridge to anything done in fields that surround it. However, academic work is intrinsically tied to other fields. By creating an academic conversation among seemingly unrelated fields, we benefit ourselves and our communities by exploring previously untaken roads, filling in the blurry parts of the map, and building intellectual bridges formerly thought impossible.

Research is not—and should not be seen as—a way of padding a CV. Doing so, we fail to imaginatively engage the needs of our communities in projects variously esoteric or pragmatic, but invariably committed to the public good.

Higher education ought to model democracy.

In short, if the main goal of the university is knowledge creation and dissemination, if it does not do this in the context of a flourishing democracy, it runs the risk of becoming the pawn of politics or money toward the production of propaganda, at best, or for oligarchic or totalitarian validation, at worst. To ensure the university's unique role as a site of knowledge creation and dissemination, the university ought to vigorously pursue free flow of ideas, directly instruct in the modes of democracy, and maintain democratic institutional models.

The free flow of ideas has been covered previously through the discussion of the production of knowledge for the public good.

Toward a larger fostering of democratic modes and the preparation of future democratic citizens, the university ought to, at minimum: require coursework for undergraduate students in subjects such as political science, economics, contemporary culture, etc., and, instruct through models that foster engaged classroom debate, discussion, and informed written critique. Civic education at the secondary level in the United States does not fully prepare youth to be engaged members of our democracy. By extending democratic and civic instruction into the first two years of college, we are preparing many of the future decision-makers in business, institutions, and government to foster democracy. Further, by requiring and coupling this coursework with instructional methods that foster debate and hone critical writing, students will be better prepared to defend and extend democratic practice and civic participation (Nussbaum 7).

To model democracy, at minimum, the university ought to: maintain institutional transparency; require representative participation by academic staff on entities such as the Institutional Review Board (IRB); and, allow students, staff, and academic members, etc. to organize themselves into participatory and representational bodies such as labor unions. An institution of learning in a democracy must also practice democracy amongst its staff and in its policies. If you have no collective protection, you cannot look out for your own or your colleagues' interests without fear of individual retribution or ostracism. Many other interests outside of higher education are run by money. They define their collective worth by its terms (cost-benefit; shareholders; profit; production; quantification). Although wages may be high, academics are still wage earners. Academics would become a much more powerful force on their own campuses and in society if they were unionized. As a collective, they can counter interests that seek to remake post-secondary education into a free market model. This could include exploring alternative means to tenure, broadening or narrowing how tenure is sought, circumventing the IRB when it inhibits fair academic inquiry, etc.

It is very difficult for individual academics to counter attacks on them personally or on academics generally. In general, individuals fare poorly against institutions, as individuals have less experience in fighting legal matters and fewer financial resources to do this with (Stone). Contract workers (read: adjuncts) have little recourse if unfairly targeted. This would provide contract academics with more job protection and create an entity to which they and tenured academics could belong without upsetting the tenure process. This would also grant tenure-track academics a procedure and protection with respect to grievances without jeopardizing (necessarily) their potential for tenure.

Concluding Declaration

The university is not an enclave. While the university may be conceived of as a realm of its own, this is an unfaithful rendering. As with everything in existence, the universities across the world share, along with the people within and without, the creation and shaping of this moment and time. The difference is that, as institutions, universities shape the moment on a larger scale and have more immediate effects. Yet, “university” used in the singular is again unfaithful and masks the multiple individuals that comprise it: individuals who daily make decisions that seem independent, but that accumulate into towering waves of change. It is in these small decisions and the ideas that affect them that a whole system and way of thinking and valuing is created. If such changes as have been outlined in this manifesto are to ever be realized, it will be because each individual reading this document reviews and realigns her or his intentions and motivations.

Specifically tailored in response to a perceived higher educational model that, in the majority of cases, favors assessment by numbers rather than by quality, privatization of knowledge rather than distribution of knowledge, and compartmentalization instead of cooperation, this manifesto raises a clarion call to academics, students, and the public at large to establish in universities a balance between teaching and research. It calls for academic inquiry accessible by citizens and the curbing of the production line model of research and writing to allow ample time for thought and care in academic work. It allows for bridges between different fields of inquiry and insists that the university adjust and become a model of and for sustaining democracy. It asks that knowledge be subject to an open forum.

The gathering of these changes is necessary to protect and foster a democratic society. The university's resources should be shared not only with the diligent student or professor, but also with the everyday hobbyist or the curious child. Practices of open knowledge should make knowledge relevant, up-to-date, and intellectually accessible. Open knowledge makes knowledge a cooperative and collective effort and unbinds the fruits of research so that the public may benefit.

To illustrate these points in a more concrete form, one scenario is derived from the manifesto synthesized above, yet it is by no means the only model suggested here. For example, a citizen is concerned about the quality of her water supply. She takes this concern to an organization in the university that specifically handles inquiries from within and without the university. The university finds a student or professor with interests and skills directly related to the concern to handle the problem. These researchers, possibly in civil and environmental engineering, first get a clear understanding of the inquiry and consider what other disciplines or people might be helpful for investigating the problem (citizens in the surrounding community who might be affected or have suggestions for what is going on, a chemist to help test the water itself, a wildlife scientist to see if there have been any detrimental effects on the surrounding species, someone in communications to investigate how businesses dispose of waste as well as local citizens). Such a team tests the water. If it is determined to be contaminated, they may then try and use the results of tests to track down the source. Once found, it might be necessary to have other disciplines write policy related to pollution of the water and then a collective plan would be outlined for a solution. If the water was not contaminated, a report of the investigation and how it was conducted would be compiled by the main researchers. In either case, the results of the inquiry would be presented and discussed in a local forum and posted on a website dedicated to the region itself.

This manifesto was created under such conditions as have been posited here. It is available to the public; it is the product of students from the fields of science and technology in society and English and has been written under a cooperative model. Each point and keyword, as part of the democratic model, was discussed and voted upon. The manifesto is intended not for profit nor for acclaim, but out of sincerity for future students, educators, university officials, and any individual interested in production and dissemination of knowledge. It is a testament to the model it endorses.

Works Cited

Fuller, Steve. The Sociology of Intellectual Life. Themes and Contestations in Contemporary Academic Inquiry. Jim Collier, 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.

Gutting, Gary. Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1966. Print

——. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath. Vol. 2. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1966. Print.

Stone, Deborah A. Policy Paradox: the Art of Political Decision Making. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Waters, Lindsay. Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm P, 2004. Print.

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