In Friday’s issue of De Volkskrant, Arthur Schram argues that all is well with the managerial university. Colleagues and students in the Maagdenhuis should just abandon their left-wing romanticism and get down to churning out the next batch of degrees, papers, or whatever they are told to produce. So let’s take a closer look at his arguments, of which we can discern two: (i) rendementsdenken mandates whatever restructuring it requires, and (ii) professional managers are the best judges of that.

The first argument trades on the ambiguity of the term rendementsdenken. The term is stretched over a continuum that runs from “balancing your books” to “maximizing your profits”. Hardly anyone disagrees with the former, and hardly anyone who works or studies at a university thinks that it should be run like a corporation, to enrich shareholders or management. In fact, hardly anyone thinks that way about any other kind of public service—such as health care and judiciary workers, for instance.

Perhaps some university programs may indeed be too costly, or not in line with other academic or socio-cultural priorities. Those are hard conversations, but nobody is opposed to having them. It’s a matter of having a frank discussion about what resources are available, how much is absorbed by administration, how much was lost to real estate speculation, and so on. Right now, academics are in the dark about what space they have to arrange their own teaching and research, let alone about where the next budget crisis is going to come from.

Then there’s another conversation to be had about what resources should be available from The Hague, and how they should be funnelled into streams: for example, direct funding of teaching and research as opposed to grant-making bodies driven by research priorities not set by those who know the subject matter best. Academics are tired of having their requests for financial transparency batted back and forth between unaccountable management and elusive politicians. We know who is responsible for what, and we want to have both conversations: about internal finances, and about external funding. We want to reorganize ourselves so that we can keep our heads well above water, while doing the teaching and research we are best placed to identify.

As stated above, hardly anyone thinks that public services should be run purely for profit. But professional managers make up a peculiar class of people who do think that way, and that is Schram’s second argument. Professional managers are supposed to be best placed to run any given institution, but that seems to boil down to the thought that their interpretation of rendementsdenken is the most extreme one. They should be in charge because they’re motivated to make sure that the bottom line is as profitable as possible. But then, who said that was a good idea? Professional managers typically have no actual interest in the work itself—teaching, research—and are purely focused on creating and maintaining structures of power, with the blessing of overreaching politicians. The best way they have to prove their effectiveness is to re-organize all work in ways that make every aspect quantifiable, and to impose an increasingly Kafkaesque system of output measurements to discipline unruly academics. We find these power structures wasteful. Even if the result is that the numbers look good on paper (which is hardly ever the case), there’s nothing to celebrate if the very nature of academic work has been grossly distorted in the process.