Corporate speak invading higher education


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?

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

Making a place

I’ve just finished reading this book – Making a Place: An oral history of academic development in Australia, edited by Alison Lee, Catherine Manathunga and Peter Kandlbinder.

Here are my fairly rough notes and reflections. I found the book to be very frank about academic developers’ experiences, as most of the interviewees have now retired so they can really spill the beans without fear of repercussions!

  • It’s good to know the history of the field in which I’m working. In fact, I think it should be mandatory reading for all new Aussie academic developers.
  • I enjoyed reading about the contributions of people who didn’t necessarily publish or publicise their work – they just got on with doing it.
  • I loved Barbara Falk’s description of the early seminars she ran on uni teaching – still mostly the same topics 50 years on.
  • There are many quotes that still have resonance today e.g.

‘It was vital to have senior people who saw academic development as valuable because one of our biggest problems was that the Deans were always fighting for money. Very often they saw academic development as a waste of time and money.’ (p87) –  Terry Hore & Ian Thomas

‘ …what you got was the setting up of deans of teaching and learning, pro vice-chancellors of teaching; a whole organization sort of alongside the academic development units. I have a feeling that that really sidelined some of the academic development units…’ (p129) – Roger Landbeck

  • I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the history of my own academic development unit (ADU), which was established in the 1980s. Apparently the University of Sydney was ‘the last major university in the country without an ADU….I came to the CTL in 1982 and in the beginning there was just the Director (Michael Dunkin), Mike Prosser and me. We were like a beleaguered little ship in the night.’ (p159) – Jackie Lublin. It was great to read about how everything started, and to be aware the origins of some of the programs we still offer today.

You can read more about the how and why the editors conducted the study here.