Neoliberalism and Textbooks (I promise this is better than it sounds)

There is a lesser known argument about neoliberalism which sees neoliberalism not as a power grab by the elite, but as a form of statecraft which allowed politicians to distance themselves from hard decisions.

From Matt Stoller’s summary of Greta Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis:

The argument popularized by Inside Job filmmaker Charles Ferguson and Roosevelt Institute fellow Jeff Madrick in his book Age of Greed is that financialization occurred because of a nefarious set of players who sought to reorganize society on a social darwinian model. This is the Gordon Gecko narrative, that greed is good. Another argument, broached by Tom Ferguson and Sidney Blumenthal in the 1980s, and then popularized in the 2000s, is that the conservative movement was the result of a group of far-sighted and well-funded businessmen who saw in the 1970s rise of Ralph Nader politics an implacable set of enemies who needed to be defeated in the realm of ideas. But this isn’t entirely fair – one thing I learned from Krippner’s book is that Ralph Nader, among other consumer advocates, supported financial deregulation, specifically the end of Regulation Q, which capped interest on savings accounts.

A simple way to state Krippner’s thesis is follows. In the 1970s, politicians got tired of fighting over who would get what, and just turned those decisions over to the depoliticized market. This is known as ‘financialization’. Then political leaders didn’t have to say “no” anymore to any constituency group, they could just say “blame the market”. It’s very much akin to the rationalization for inequality one hears from elites these days, that it’s globalization and technology, as if those are just natural trends with no human agency or decision-making involved.

This argument was relatively new to me, but the more I think about it, the more it matches my experience.

Take textbooks. I thought, before I got deep into promoting open textbooks, that most faculty hated publishers. After all, a larger class at a research university is taking $100,000 or so of student money a and giving it to the publisher, whereas the average professor is making less a tenth of that for teaching the class.

Come to find out, however, that a lot of faculty, especially in the larger classes, love publishers. I’ve heard story after story about how Publisher X flew down an expert to personally help the faculty member integrate a product with their class or set up a private videoconference to talk about course restructuring around active learning or the addition of analytics. Very often, faculty are pulled into projects with publishers as partners or consultants and get a small fee, but the big thing publishers have going for them is they act as course consultants, providing experts and support for faculty building the course. The phrase I hear time and time again is “There is simply no way I could teach this course without the help of Publisher X.”

Now compare this to Teaching, Learning and Technology centers (TLTs). Teaching, Learning, and Technology centers do exactly the sort of work that publishers do above, but more generally, and more efficiently. An average TLT might have a budget equal to the amount of student money spent on the top five or ten textbooks used at your university (this is a guesstimate, but only the order of magnitude here matters). The average TLT’s budget, in fact, looks like a rounding error compared to the amount spent on publisher resources. Yet TLTs are famously under continual attack for wasted money, even though they serve far more people per dollar spent than publishers do. The general rule at a TLT is that if you’ve had an eight year run without getting disbanded or dissolved due to faculty pressure you’ve had a good run, and it might be time to brush up that CV because it can’t possibly last.

So why are TLTs under constant attack, whereas publishers are much loved? Because TLTs are 1970s-style liberal statecraft, based on the idea that we collectively decide what is important for us as an institution, and deliver it as effectively and efficiently as we can. The problem with this is evident: it presents choices as zero-sum, so the money that supports one initiative is being “stolen” from another. The TLT budget could be used for faculty raises or new lines or whatever. So the TLT has to go.

Neoliberalism solves that problem by masking it. The net effect is still the same — we shift some money out of tuition to textbook costs. But now that that money doesn’t run through the institution it gives the appearance of not being zero-sum. It seems like trade-offs are not being made. No one looks at publisher efforts and says “If it wasn’t for publishers we could afford more history professors or better salaries for adjuncts.” They say, wow, that publisher is amazing! So helpful, always there when we need them, so well resourced!” When that consultant is flown in to help you with your class, you don’t think “Wow, how can the institution afford this with the state budget cuts?” Instead, you think “This publisher is indispensable. They care.”

But of course trade-offs are being made — students don’t react to the cost pressures of tuition alone. They react to total cost of attendance, which includes textbook cost. So in one case you take student money and spend it on a TLT support (via tuition) and it’s a never-ending existential battle about whether the TLT has a right to exist, and in another you take student money (via textbook purchase) and spend it on publisher support and everyone feels relatively fine about that, because it’s just the “market at work”. Ocassionally people complain about the cost of those textbooks, but after all what can you do — it’s just the market at work.

I write this not to let the publishers off the hook, but to point out something I didn’t fully realize until now — publishers exist because they solve an internal political conflict. They allow administrators to make sure that students and faculty get some of the support they need while creating the impression that such support happens as a consequence of a market, not political decisions. But of course, political decisions create the carve-out that allow the market to function.

In other words, the textbook market can be seen as a form of institutional politics which allows institutions to distance themselves from the results of their own policies, solving the problem of warring academic constituencies.

Anyway, just a thought I had coming into work today. Curious what people think.

9 thoughts on “Neoliberalism and Textbooks (I promise this is better than it sounds)

  1. Great line of thought here, masking the displacement of costs directly to students by appearing as a more “efficient” or leaner organization. I think calling it statecraft here, though, is confusing and messes up the overlapping roles of 1) university actors (administration, faculty, students), 2) the state (funds, policies), and 3) economic forces (market logic, some board members, publishers). It’s confusing, I think, because the state is actually at work here but you’re calling a university’s internal logic “statecraft”.

    But the more important takeaway here is taking seriously the impacts of extra-institutional logics and processes on decisions within the institution. Great to begin exploring the complexities of decision making behind textbooks and TLTs. Thanks!

  2. Good insight. Deans/Department Heads, Provost et al would love to externalize their knottier problems. However, I don’t think they often think this way, ie. “How do I externalize an internal political decision-making process?” is not a question they ask themselves.

    That said, I think it’s easier to externalize something than to re-internalize it. In other words, it’s easier to “buy” a solution than to “build” one – something we already know. The problem is the side-effects. We don’t actually buy software and the content has meta-data that, when aggregated, says more valuable things about us than the content itself – to someone. We don’t benefit from selling ourselves and the market will try to hide this benefit – it’s assymetric information.

  3. Great post Mike! Your thinking about how this situation externalizes economics and politics seems right on the money [sic], but I’m with @MillerJamison and John on the question what’s driving this mechanism. It seems like it fits an all-too-common pattern where the privatization of a common good masks other pathways.

  4. Thanks for bringing this up!
    On a side note: interesting “general” rule when it comes to disbanding/dissolving TLTs. In my most recent experience it was the administration that disbanded the TLT structure, not faculty-driven. Administration did not gain any favor with faculty. Faculty support on campus was disrupted. Perhaps only a matter of time before the reduced level/type/quality of support becomes the norm in these situations and no one knows any different…
    Regardless the source of the “attack,” TLTs are certainly susceptible.

  5. I think decision avoidance rather than evil master plan reflects how the real world actually works. Certainly I’ve been struck to the extent to which charter schools simply allow a complete abdication of planning. I was particularly annoyed by some quotes from a city councilman here about how much he liked serving on a charter board (this is from the meeting minutes):

    “John Igliozzi talked about how he has been in public service for a long time and typically, school board meetings are very stressful. He finds it remarkable that at Achievement FIrst Rhode Island board meetings, it’s completely the opposite, a dramatic stark contrast… In response to the remarks of the parents who spoke during public comment, he said he doesn’t hear these types of positive stories at the Providence Public Schools board meetings
    and he feels, as a father of two children, that he’s always looking for partners in education.”

    Of course, the AF board is mostly advisory and pretty much just seem to rubber stamp things and make suggestions. Seems pretty likely that parents showing up to public comment to talk about how much they like the school had someone suggest to them that it would be a good idea.

    So, yeah! It would be more fun to be in government if all your meetings were stage managed and no decisions were necessary.

    • For a larger textbook implementation, where $35,000 a semester is on the line, it does happen, particularly if some piece of tech is not working or the faculty member needs some training in using the tech. There’s certainly a lot more phone calls, email, and video demonstrations, but for larger sections people will come to you.

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