Corporate speak invading higher education

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Language, by Thomas Hawk, flickr

I love the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, about a group of musicians and Shakespearean actors travelling round a post-apocalyptic USA. One of my favourite parts is where two former business men (who were trapped, and now live in, an airport) discuss the corporate speak in an old document one of them has preserved in the airport’s ‘Museum of Civilisation’:

“Okay, so under ‘Communication’ here’s the first comment. ‘He’s not good at cascading information down to staff.’ Was he a whitewater rafter, Clark? I’m just curious.”

“Yes,” Clark said, “I’m certain that’s what the interviewee was talking about. Actual literal cascades.”

“This one’s my other favourite. ‘He’s successful in interfacing with clients we already have, but as for new clients, it’s low-hanging fruit. He takes a high-altitude view, but he doesn’t drill down to that level of granularity where we might actionize new opportunities.'”

“There are high altitudes, apparently, also low-hanging fruit, also grains of something, also drilling.”

“Presumbaly he was a miner who climbed mountains and actionized an orchard in his off-hours.”

This type of corporate speak is invading higher education. I’ve been in a meeting where someone said ‘yes, we can onboard that resource’, which took me a while to realise meant ‘hire a new person’ (I think!).

There’s been a huge rise in the number of professional staff working in universities (see Hannah Forsyth’s excellent book for the Australian context), many of whom have come from the corporate world. I realise that universities are increasingly run as large corporations – with salaries to match for those at the top. But the corporate-speak feels jarring to me, at odds with the intellectual endeavours of higher education.

I found this example of a Professor who quit over this issue way back in 2000. In the article, Professor Sergio Perosa is quoted:

“The new language is the offspring of a hypertrophic bureaucracy,” he said. “We know that the old academic language was muddy, pompous and rhetorical. For decades we fought against it and looked with longing towards the clarity and conciseness of the English language. But this is worse, often I have no idea what they are talking about. It is both glacial and mystifying. 

“I believed our job was to form minds, awaken interests, stimulate intellectually and transmit knowledge. I now discover that I am providing a ‘service’, like gas, to ‘customers’ who, if all goes well, become ‘products’, like tinned food.” 

Keir Thorpe suggests that the rise of corporate speak might be the fault of academics, some of whom look down on administrators.

Whatever the reason for the invasion, the language we use is important. What are your thoughts on this topic? Should we resist corporate speak, or is it here to stay?

3 thoughts on “Corporate speak invading higher education

  1. Well Universities are large corporations (well charity corporations in the UK) and the vast majority working in them aren’t academics – so it’s unsurprising that the dominate language is that of the services and management level that goes along with it.

    As for resisting it, I’m trying to think how that would work – it would need (again I’m in the UK), the universities to be made public and have some form of self-governance. Oh and you’d need to repeal various bits of consumer protection law (as students legally is another word for consumer).

  2. Hi Amani,
    Hilarious as this post is, there is the sad reality behind it…that Universities are/have become another business model, which clearly they are not so good at. My work has focused on service-learning and university-community engagement, and I must admit that similar “business-speake” has crept into the not-for-profit sector too. This is not surprising though since we have all been sold on the notion that “money makes the world go round”, where the “bottom line” is the most “critical” aspect of survival. To “form minds, awaken interests, stimulate intellectually and transmit knowledge” (Professor Sergio Perosa, 2000) almost seems like a punishable offence if undertaken in the context of higher education today, where bureaucratic and administrative processes are rampant. I guess the beauty lies in understanding the reality for what it is, and still striving to live the ideals of higher education regardless. I do remain hopeful when I work with students who are keen to learn and do not just see themselves as customers/clients or some other products but as active change agents. It is inspiring to work with students who embrace the realities of their worlds and seek to find meaningful solutions to its ill-structured problems – Students who apply their passion to their pursuit of knowledge. There is hope yet!

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