Book Review: Academic Caesar or Academic Augustus?

Review of Steve Fuller (2016) “Academic Caesar”, London: Sage.

“Academic Caesar” by Steve Fuller

starts with an outline of the threats to the university in our neoliberal times, although Fuller avoids taking an easy pot(-shot) at neoliberalism as the cause of all our scholarly suffering.

Fuller points out that the changing political economy of the last few decades has left the university increasingly bereft of its original purpose, which he defines as ‘producing knowledge as a public good’ (p.15). As the state’s role has changed, especially through its inf(l)ection by neoliberal principles, this has transformed the rationale for university education, since the latter had been so dependent on the former since and during the post-WW2 golden age of capitalism. Consequently, as the state has changed, so does, necessarily, the university, becoming increasingly driven by the consumers of knowledge (i.e. students) rather than its producers (i.e. academics) (p.17).

The namesake of Fuller’s book — the ‘Academic Caesar’ — is cast as the figure to steer the university through these troubled times, maintaining the university’s autonomy while acceding to the withdrawal of the academy’s monopoly on the production of knowledge and its (epistemic) rent-seeking tendencies (p.19) — something Fuller has written about elsewhere.

I, Professor

In Fuller’s words, the ‘Academic Caesar is the champion of the “Humboldtian university”’ (p.24) which combines both knowledge production (research) and knowledge dissemination (teaching); without this dual role, Fuller argues, universities as we know them may as well cease to exist as actual entities (e.g. buildings, departments, academics, students). An Academic Caesar, essentially a form of democratic dictator, is needed to defend the broadening scope of universities as (corporate) organizations that have had to find ways to hold themselves accountable to a wider-range of stakeholders — not just the state — as they have diversified their funding revenues — largely at the behest of a state that increasingly seeks to divest itself of financial responsibilities, without removing its oversight though. Such contradictions appear widespread, in that as the state has become less important as a funder of the university, its assertion of oversight has increased.

For Fuller, it makes sense for university leaders to acquire more and more functions of the state in response to these contradictions, leading to the (much-needed) rise of the Academic Caesar. As such, their increasing responsibility to a widening constituency (set of stakeholders) means that universities cannot be run as if they are responsible to academics alone (p.38). Consequently, the Academic Caesar has to balance the interests and values of students (e.g. being taught by the best professors) with academics (e.g. having time to do research) with others (e.g. spin-out managers who want access to skilled employees and patented assets) in order to maintain the university’s autonomy. Internal resistance to this is highly likely, but according to Fuller it’s a form of rentiership on the part of academics (primarily).

One of the most appealing aspects of his manifesto is Fuller’s solution to this problem, especially as it relates to forms of epistemic rent-seeking (e.g. requiring suitable genuflection to the known leading figures in a discipline through citation): ‘Incentives need to be offered for academics, on the one hand, to self-deconstruct their epistemic privilege by translating their research into teaching, and on the other hand, to vacate their field of research in favour of another’ (p.49). I agree that we would all benefit more from disciplinary mobility, perhaps not radical shifts but movements sideways into new areas that keep us on our toes, avoiding the torpor that seems to follow, all too easily, tenure or its equivalent.

Now, that is the main thrust of Fuller’s argument, and it is probably a disservice to his book since he covers considerable ground in it. I would recommend anyone interested in these topics — the future of universities, university leadership, and so on — to get a copy. Like most of Fuller’s work, it’s highly readable although it does, perhaps, run through the major claims rather quickly, requiring some filling-in of the gaps. All that being said, it’s important to consider the potentially problematic — even if unintended — outcomes that could result from Fuller’s enthusiasm for Caesarism in the academy.

Professor the God

At this point I need to veer off on a tangent, although why will hopefully become clear shortly.

As a teenager the Romans fascinated me; I even wrote a project on the rise of Emperor Augustus in my high school history class. So, returning to the figure of Caesar in Fuller’s book brought back some memories of the intricacies of power in Roman culture.

I imagine what I write next will appear crude to any seasoned Roman scholar, for which I apologize, but I think it’s helpful to consider the varieties of power at play in Roman society in order to evaluate Fuller’s arguments.

According to Brunt and Moore, editors of the , there are three key notions of power in the Roman world: , reflecting ‘official legal power’ which was limited to the performance of certain duties; , reflecting a ‘discretionary power to do what the interest of the state requires’ (p.83) and which could only be limited by someone with equal or higher ; and , reflecting the ‘influence of prestige which ensures that one’s views are accepted’ (p.84).

An Academic Caesar would need all three forms of power, some of which are reflected in the current power structures of higher education and others that are not. could be seen as the authority of a university president to undertake the duties of their office, as with any organization, while might reflect the academic prestige of a university president based on their academic achievements (e.g. publishing, citations, etc.).

All well and good.

However, with Fuller’s Academic Caesar, the most important form of power would be , or the power to act in the interest of the university as the holder sees fit — and with limited countervailing power. So, the main concern I have with Fuller’s argument — and in light of my own very partial understanding of the rise of Augustus — can be summed up as follows: what if instead of an Academic Caesar we end up with an Academic Augustus?

Now, Fuller does consider this possibility (e.g. p.35), but it’s worth remembering that Caeasarism flows quite fluidly into imperialism. The risk is that the Academic Caesar, necessarily embodying these three forms of power, can give rise, all too easily, to the Academic Augustus; a person whose authority, presence, and heritage ensure that they remain in place, worshipped even, for decades, and who can anoint their own successor.

We risk, in this scenario, appointing a god rather than a Caesar.

So, where do universities go from here? A central question I don’t think Fuller tackles head-on is the extent to which universities are actually being neoliberalized at this present juncture. Despite the voluminous output of academics on this topic — Wendy Brown’s (2015) being one particularly backward-looking, rose-tinted example — it is not clear that said neoliberalism — by which I mean the installation of markets at the operating system in universities — actually holds.

To me, working in the Canadian context, it seems particularly anomalous to talk of a ‘neoliberal’ university when faculty hiring is still embedded within national labour regulations effectively reserving Canadian academic jobs for Canadian people — I simply cannot see anything like a ‘free’ market in this protectionism.

Even the recent UK strikes over pension changes can be seen from a different perspective as not an attack on creeping neoliberalism in the university, but rather a response to more common, invisible accounting regulation changes — see Clive Barnett’s excellent take on the pension shenanigans as a consequence of the of UK universities rather than their neoliberalization.

So, it is probably more apt to argue that universities are still a mish-mash of feudal, liberal-capitalist, social democratic, neoliberal logics and tendencies, complicating an already complicated picture further for any Academic Caesar.

Now, my perspective is framed by working in the UK and Canada, so obviously I cannot make claims about the whole world. But, one major complaint about ‘neoliberalism’ in both seems to be about the use of metrics as performance indicators, although this often seems to be more of a complaint about counting things, rather than the undue influence of metrics on research agendas per se; as such, it can be seen as a defensive critique of change. And it is a critique that does not recognize how counting — of publications, research money, citations, and so on — actually opens up the academy to a range of marginalized groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities) whose epistemic standing was peripheral the supposed neoliberal era descended upon us.

I don’t think it makes any sense to appeal to a glorified past of the university, since it simply does not exist. Instead, I agree with Fuller’s point in that there is something worth saving in the original ideal behind combining research and teaching at an institution dedicated to producing knowledge for all, where this is determined autonomously from external influence.

However, we have to avoid returning to the feudal days of yore in universities where male professors ran the roost and dictated epistemic concerns for everyone else.

With this in mind, could have offered more everyday solutions to common contradictions that crop up all too frequently in academia.

One, for me, is the explosion of make-work in the production of institutional documents like ‘strategic research plans’ which seem to serve no purpose except as legitimating narratives for government educational ministries. These provide a false sense of knowing where knowledge is going, which defeats the whole purpose of an autonomous university.

Instead, it would be great to see university presidents end these wasteful efforts — and the endless consultations — and decide not to interfere in individual research and teaching direction, to ensure it remains autonomous. The implications of this, though, would be an end to centralized planning and the of the very administrators who need to make this decision in the first place.

Perhaps a real Academic Caesar would simply end centralized research funding distribution, and instead distribute research funds automatically to each new hire — perhaps with suitable milestones — and leave it to individual academics to determine what and how they do their research. The savings on the administrative costs of research funding agencies, research excellence schemes, and suchlike could then be distributed as well.

The flipside of this, though, is probably the necessary centralization of hiring decisions on the basis of a clear set of scholarly achievements and criteria (including, if nor driven by, those dreaded metrics), thereby taking the decision out of future faculty colleagues’ hands and their (potentially) biased perceptions of candidates (e.g. ‘who do I want to work with for the next 30 years?’, ‘are they a good with the department?’, ‘do I like their ideas?’ etc.).

Professor at York University, Canada who's interested in Big Tech and emerging forms of digital rentiership; obsessed with thinking about assets!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store