Disclosure and exposure in the neoliberal university

Alison Phipps

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This Spring, as part of a collaborative partnership of colleagues from the UK and 5 other European countries, I helped to launch a European Commission-funded project entitled ‘Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence‘. Our main aim is to create university environments in which students can disclose experiences of sexual harassment and assault, through providing ‘first response’ training to key staff. We have committed to training 80 staff in each of our 13 Partner and Associate Partner universities.

As we begin our work, I want to think more deeply about disclosure. The word is loaded, and the act is too: laden with emotion and often perceived as a threat. It means to reveal, to expose, to name something which creates discomfort and shame. Our work is loaded. Sexual harassment and assault in universities is pushed under the carpet in every national context I have studied, both within Europe and further afield. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground portrayed US university campuses as sites where sexual predators roam with impunity. Although I was not a fan of the film’s restitution-retribution narrative, it relayed powerful testimonies by survivors who described a heartbreaking silence which resounds across national borders.

In both the US and the UK, disclosures are made within institutions shaped by neoliberal and new managerial rationalities. These both force and inhibit speech in a variety of ways. While not over-simplifying neoliberalism and/or over-stating its effects, a key question for our project must be: what does it mean to respond to disclosure in this context?

Silences within the neoliberal institution have been the subject of much discussion. Less often, we explore how HE sector frameworks, practices and cultures are dependent on particular types of disclosures. Evaluation requires information: as Stephen Ball argues, we must make ourselves ‘calculable’ within contemporary performative regimes. The REF demands descriptions of our departmental intellectual homes; the NSS asks students how they feel about our teaching; we represent our ideas and ambitions in particular (or on particular) forms for annual appraisal. Benchmarking exercises such as Athena SWAN and Stonewall Diversity Champions require us to document our successes, admit our failings and promise to fix them. Foucault’s modern confessional comes to mind here: just as we are asked to give up the secrets of our bodies and minds to doctors and psychiatrists, audit culture demands that we give up the secrets of our labour.

Neoliberal rationalities intersect with the gendered cultures of universities. I have written extensively about student ‘lad culture’, contending that within the contemporary university, this often articulates itself through modes of sexual audit. Like other forms of audit, these force particular types of disclosures: ‘conquests’ must be documented and assessed. The notching up of ‘lad points’, Heidi Mirza reminds us, is not restricted to students: retro-sexist masculinities are at play at all levels of the academy, from the bar to the boardroom.

Citing Felly Simmonds, Mirza also reiterates that for those marginalised within academic environments and discourses, legitimacy often depends on disclosing private information. Women of colour, LGBT+ people and others are excluded from the realms of abstract theorising and speech. We are pushed into the personal register, but this position is vulnerable to dismissal and derision. Partly in response, feminism and other resistant political forms have rightly reclaimed the personal as epistemology. However, I have argued that in a neoliberal context in which both knowledge and experience have become capital, personal disclosures can be weaponised within political movements to shore up power and privilege. Disclosure is complex, then, for our engagements with and our resistances against, the neoliberal institution.

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Disclosure is exposure. But exposure for whom? We expose ourselves when we disclose what has happened to us. We also have the potential to expose those who have hurt us, at individual and institutional levels, but this is commonly not realised. We fear exposing ourselves but perhaps even more, we fear exposing them: there will be consequences. This thought is often enough to stop us from disclosing in the first place.

Disclosures are situated within reckonings: for survivors and for the institution. The terms of these are frequently dictated by marketised reputational games. The same systems of monitoring and evaluation which demand some disclosures deny others, insisting that everything is presented with a ‘good spin’. This gives rise to the figure Sara Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. Like disclosure, complaint is a loaded word. As Whitley and Page remind us, it places the focus on those who complain, rather than those who are complained about. Ahmed puts it like this: ‘those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage. And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation.’

Institutionally, disclosure is reckoned up as a market problem. As I have previously suggested, this operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Disclosures, rather than the acts of sexual violence they refer to, are what is disreputable because economic values have replaced civic ones. Institutional reckonings around disclosure reduce students and staff to fungible objects within cost-benefit frameworks. This means that disclosures are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten the welfare of the institution.

As a result, as Ahmed contends, complaints often become an injury to the offender: this is especially the case if he (and it is usually, but not always, ‘he’) is seen as an asset. Disclosures can take down star Professors or threaten fraternity endowments and sporting success. Citing Code’s work on testimony, Whitley and Page argue that disclosures can eventually become challenges to hegemonic accounts of what a university is. Spin does not survive long in the face of sustained truth-telling: this is the ultimate reputational risk.

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One of the ways power operates is to cover some people up. Some of us are used to revealing ourselves: our bodies are marked as public property; experience is our most legitimate source of knowledge. Others are not to be exposed. Whitley and Page point out that confidentiality, while essential to facilitating disclosures, can also operate as a means to protect high-profile individuals and institutions from damage. The ‘laddish’ disclosures I have documented are made by men, but it is women’s bodies which are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual harassment and assault, they are minimised and denied. When we disclose within such power relations, we only expose ourselves.

In a neoliberal institution, layers of bureaucratic leverage are bundled around the powerful. Whitley and Page highlight how hierarchies between staff and students both enable and conceal abuse; student communities are also characterised by varying degrees of social and institutional privilege, as are relations between staff. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, conducts your annual appraisal, and assesses your requests for research leave. There are more impersonal bureaucratic controls as well, including stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet. As Ahmed points out, the word ‘harass’ derives from the French word for ‘tire’ or ‘vex’, and harassment and bullying succeeds by increasing the costs of fighting against it.

I have argued in the past that audit culture also makes it difficult to look up from our desks to support our students and colleagues who are suffering. This, in turn, normalises harassment and assault and inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ If boundaries are being crossed in the open, then there is nothing to expose.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of UK women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is not that simple and it will not be easy to fix. It is about whose speech counts and how, and what kinds of disclosures are elicited and ignored. For our project, there will be a challenge involved in moving beyond the act of disclosure to explore its context. Indeed, disclosure is not just an act: it is an idea and a process which goes to the heart of issues of power and violence in the neoliberal institution.

This post was originally published on Genders, Bodies, Politics.

Protecting abusive academic men because of their ‘genius’ must stop

Jemima Repo

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In the last two weeks, we have seen gender, higher education and celebrity revolving around one issue our news feeds. No, I am not referring to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the LSE, but rather the series of revelations relating to violence against women in academia and the celebrity-verse. First, on 20th May, Buzzfeed broke the story about two allegations against renowned Yale professor Thomas Pogge for sexual misconduct. Then, on 28th May, global news outlets reported that the Los Angeles Superior Court had issued Johnny Depp with a restraining order in response to his wife Amber Heard’s evidence of a history of domestic violence during their relationship. Finally, on 30th May, one of the world’s best-known feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed, resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths University due to the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Brought side by side, three separate events speak volumes about how the obsession with male genius and creativity continues to sustain rape culture.

Ahmed’s bold move to give up her position in protest of her university’s  failure to protect its young female students is rare in academia. As we know, the prevailing response to complaints of sexual harassment received by universities is to hush it up. This was the case at Yale as it has been and continues to be at countless other universities in the UK, US, and beyond. Virtually all academics have heard familiar anecdotes or first-hand accounts about male professors who sleep with or pursue their graduate students, or proposition early career female academics. These are stories often shared in whispers, in jest, or through off-the-cuff remarks at the workplace, over a pint, or at a conference. Yet, as soon as such misconduct is acknowledged, it subsequently gets explained away as harmless, a private affair, or with that awful quip: “boys will be boys”. In addition, the “naïve” young student will be blamed for being foolish enough and not knowing better than to become involved with her professor. Given the power imbalance within institutions between faculty and students, this kind of victim-blaming is deplorable. When the accused is someone like Pogge, the head of an Ivy League Global Justice Programme with world-leading research credentials in ethics, global health, poverty reduction, and, troublingly, gender equity, or any other “progressive”, liberal, left-leaning academic male, the veracity of such accusations becomes virtually inconceivable. It is precisely the mirage of untouchability produced through the idolisation of male genius that enables predators to do what they do and continue to get away with it.

The Pogge case has obvious parallels with the way in which Amber Heard’s allegations have been received. While it would be a big stretch to call academics and celebrities comparable professions, it is not uncommon to refer to some academics as celebrities in their fields and to treat them as such, attending their conference talks or guest lectures just to see what they are like in person, asking for their autograph or a photograph to be posted on social media. Also, like actors, academics tend to see themselves as (intellectually) uniquely gifted and creative. As feminists have argued, those seen as gifted and creative are usually men, while women have achieved their status through hard work. This gives men certain advantages over women, such as being able to pass as the neutral, unembellished embodiment of knowledge and experience, and hence more entitled to benefits, praise and idolatry.

Social media has been rife with people saying Depp should be given the benefit of the doubt, or even calling Heard a liar, including Depp’s industry peers, even though Heard was photographed leaving the court with a bruise on her cheek. At the same time, others pointed out that liking someone is not a good enough reason to make excuses for them. The list of Hollywood men accused of violence against women is long, but these accusations (and in some cases, convictions) have rarely been an impediment to professional success. The catalogue includes Chris Brown, Nicolas Cage, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Steven Seagal, Mickey Rouke, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, James Brown, James Caan, Josh Brolin, Mike Tyson, Enimem, Bill Murray and Michael Fassbender. Sean Penn stands out here as someone who like Pogge has been at the forefront of left-wing celebrity do-gooding, criticising the last Bush administration, rubbing shoulders with Hugo Chávez, defending same-sex marriage, and assisting relief workers in New Orleans and Haiti. Penn exemplifies the sort of prominent male figure, whether academic or artistic, who is always forgiven because of his art, and whose past wrongs are outright forgotten, without being righted, because of his philanthropic work.

The Pogge story is representative of an equivalent trend in academia. The sexual harassment and abuse of female students and colleagues that goes on is an open secret, but one that rarely damages the perpetrators, even when accusations reach public knowledge. And even then, even when someone speaks out, institutions will go out of their way to suppress and silence the issue, as it is not only professorial but institutional reputations that are at stake. When faced with a choice between pursuing disciplinary action that may bring the university into disrepute, or doing nothing and carrying on as before as if the problem did not exist, the careers of young female academics are the cast-away by-product of the latter choice. This would not be the case if women’s intellectual contributions were not seen as somehow expendable in the first place. What’s worse is that female students and academics know this, having been reminded of it daily in the classroom, the meeting room, the staff room, in job hires and promotions, conferences, and citations. Thus, women tend to know the price of speaking out against inequality, and the Depp-Heard case is yet another depressingly predictable case in point.

This is why Sara Ahmed’s resignation is particularly poignant. It sends a powerful signal to universities that there are also prominent figures in the profession who refuse to accept sexual harassment in their workplace. It also challenges all academics to acknowledge that their silence equals complicity in keeping rape culture alive. Ahmed’s privileged position may have enabled her to protest in ways that others cannot, but there other avenues of action for staff that cannot afford to give up their jobs. An important part of this is, as Ahmed suggested last year, finding a way to spread the cost of bringing the problem to attention. This includes naming the behaviour as harassment or abuse, proactively supporting students and colleagues subjected to it, sharing experiences with colleagues and friends that we trust, gathering a record of evidence of abuse in our circles as well as refusing to cite, invite, or share a platform with those who are yet to face disciplinary measures. Only then can we begin to stop the damage being wrecked on women’s personal lives, intellectual growth and careers.