Liberal Education

Standing up to Managerialism

“Managerialism” represents a relatively new orientation to college and university administration, one that arises from the coincidence of three distinct features of the contemporary landscape: market rationality, nihilism, and the modern wish for a new beginning. Here I want to offer simple clarification as to the nature of this phenomenon, and take note of its affinity for programs of strategic planning and assessment. My suggestion is that managerialism is a major factor in struggles over the shape and substance of education today, and one that is not friendly to education as the cultivation of the kinds of human beings we so urgently need. But, on the positive side, I also want to suggest that an alternative is available and gradually emerging in our educational communities and practices.

Three features of the educational landscape

In the context of higher education in the United States, market rationality represents the advance of scientific rationality and commodification into areas that previously had been governed by professional judgment and the art of teaching (and also, in the full complexity of our situation, by problematic values associated with race, gender, class, etc.). With this feature, we have what some refer to as the “corporatization” of the university, indicating admiration and adoption of what are taken to be the standards of business in a free market economy. The influence of market rationality is greatly enhanced and lubricated by the incredible advances in computer technology of recent decades, combined with economic insecurity, reduced public confidence in education, and a generalized tendency to see little possibility between the extremes of capitalism and communism. And because market rationality focuses attention on cost-benefit analysis and what is measurable, rather than on more challenging questions of meaning and relationship, it is a powerful temptation in an era characterized by great uncertainty and huge changes that are not well understood. Market rationality offers at least the illusion of order and control.

Nihilism refers to the tacit conclusion that all relationships and transactions in the world can—and should—be understood not only in terms of money, but more generally in terms of interest and power. Ideals, principles, and commitments are not to be trusted; they should be seen as the projection of personal interest. This late modern understanding—sometimes implying that “the common good” and “the invisible hand” were myths all along—means that alliances are grounded in nothing more than temporary alignments of interest, resulting in constant wariness and suspicion, even among those with whom one is allied for the moment. This feature is frequently expressed in aggressive “deconstruction” of those who attempt to maintain “higher” values, competitive social construction to be in possession of the dominant interpretation of any given situation, and in the war of all against all that has become so explicit in late modern society—and that, ironically, was the very condition from which early modernity sought escape.

The third feature, the wish for a new beginning, indicates that quintessentially modern desire to be free from everything that has gone before, in order to wipe the slate clean and start over. Here unwritten understandings, history, and local wisdom count for nothing or, worse, are scorned as projections of someone’s previous domination.


When these three features begin to intertwine and interact, managerialism emerges as the mode of administration. It thrives in environments where universities have adopted models of strategic planning that are informed, strangely enough, by the same traditional Western ways of understanding that many in university life have come to see, through the various forms of postmodernist critique and comparative studies, as deeply problematic. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, Western thought came to be largely structured by the idea that things of this world are only real insofar as they correspond with or are deduced from abstract and eternal principles that exist outside of the world.

We see this orientation in most contemporary strategic plans with their establishment of first principles of “mission, vision, and values,” followed by deduction and “alignment” of lower principles with the higher. The problematic nature of this epistemology becomes clear once we find that within this frame there is little patience for what some feminists and some champions of democracy call “reflexivity,” the capacity of “lower” practices to trigger refinement of “higher” principle. As a consequence, there is blindness to the emergent design that is integral to genuine inquiry, the capacity to revise in process rather than having everything unfold on schedule from a preset plan. Correspondence epistemologies also effectively prohibit the discovery of something new, which is often taken to be the essential point of distinction between education and training. The tendency is rather for the strategic plan and its accompanying assessment program to push relentlessly downward, through the curriculum and—via objectives, goals, measures, rubrics, and data—into the syllabus, bringing closure, standardization, and almost inevitably the pedagogy famously identified by Paulo Freire as “the banking model.”1

Rene Descartes, usually understood to be the founder of modern philosophy, took the correspondence paradigm one step further. He doubted everything of “body”—like unwritten understandings, history, local wisdom—until he could clear the slate and get to a “clear and distinct idea.” This allowed him to sever any vital connection with the world, thereafter relating to it on the terms of abstraction only, leaving out everything not comprehended by the abstract construction, and accepting no new input from fresh experience. The way of being that issued from this orientation—commonly known as Cartesianism—effectively relegates all perceptions other than those of the abstract ideas to the category of “something else,” something irrelevant or annoying.

Contemporary managers reflect Cartesianism and the mind-body dichotomy as they are increasingly able to insulate themselves from the ambiguities and challenges of the classroom—and, thereby, also from teaching as an art—through the granting of administrative status or “released time” for managerial duties. Annoyance with the unavoidable complexities of genuine teaching and learning is expressed as insistence that educational relationships submit to the scientific paradigm, with an increasingly aggressive response to any who would question or depart from this submission. Meanwhile, the ways in which this insistence distorts, constrains, and even violates our embodied relationships with students are not noticed. It is truly stunning that, after a century of severe self-criticism and deconstruction of traditional and modern Western culture, we do not recognize this Cartesian process at work in our universities as the same colonization that was exported all over the globe with devastating consequences, now applied to our own best practices and cultural dignity. Perhaps managerial colonization of our universities today should be seen as some kind of perverse penance.

Managerialism signals the next stage in the modern process of the rationalization of everything. It is problematic because, while rationalization brings many good things (e.g., airplanes, surgeries, efficiencies), it also entails mechanization and alienation. The problem with managerialism, as with modernity generally, is that humans are easily seduced by the benefits of mechanization, but they do not thrive within the closed systems that are inherent to it; we wind up with what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “guided missiles but misguided men [sic].”2 Humans need openness, possibility, adventure—all of which are closed down by mechanization.

In order for humans to thrive, we need direct participation in the kind of energy that leads some religionists to speak of us as created “in God’s image,” as creators or co-creators, beings capable of the creativity and innovation that makes Western liberal education so attractive, for example, in China and India. In Hannah Arendt’s more Greek and secular terms, we only become fully human within “the paradoxical plurality of unique beings” and an environment that is friendly to “action,” as revelation of our uniqueness as a “who” rather than a “what.”3 When this basic human capacity is choked off by mechanization, no matter how wonderful the benefits that might otherwise accrue, humans whither and suffer what T. S. Eliot spoke of as death “not with a bang but with a whimper,”4 the death of gradual and often pleasant diminution, or “sleep of empire.”

Maybe this humanistic language is too exotic for our time. I can make the same point by reference to an excellent book on the history of American public education and strategic planning. In The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta argues that the failure of American public education arises from the mistaken application of scientific management and the techniques of industry in the attempt to achieve order and control through rationalizing education. This attempt inevitably fails because education is fundamentally relational, a matter of who we are, not as mechanism but, again, as human beings. What is needed, according to Mehta, is a more professional structure where “the emphasis is less on control and regulation than on creating structures in which talented, frontline practitioners can learn from one another and develop and spread new ideas.”5 The limits of strategic planning, as distinct from the wishful thinking it fuels, are all the more dramatic—and ironic—when we consider the remarkable lack of evidence as to its efficacy, as Edward Miech and others have pointed out.6

Two conflicting paradigms

Really, we are talking about two very different paradigms, two different understandings of articulation, embodiment, and their relation—and maybe even the breakdown of the Cartesian worldview as a new one is beginning to emerge.7 In one paradigm, articulation is the prior activity, as it has been in much of the history of Western culture. And because it sees embodiment as only a matter of application, articulation tends to be static, a settled doctrine that then initiates the deductive process of implementation. It has the advantage of simplicity.

The second paradigm is more circular and more relational, welcoming ongoing refinement of both articulation and embodiment, and inclining less toward hierarchy and more toward democratic community. The first favors control and stability, and it moves toward training; the second moves toward discovery, reflexivity, and continuous growth in the cultivation of higher-order human capacities. The first is closed, the second is open. Education in our time has become a focal point for conflict between these two paradigms, a conflict that will likely have profound consequences for the future.

The fundamental distinction between control, order, and production, on the one hand, and practical wisdom or judgment, on the other, brings us to the question of what we can do to moderate overemphasis on the former and to support the latter in our time of constriction and fear. Those of us who are committed to the transformative power of education as necessary to a free society must remain open to the vitality that flows from continuous efforts to articulate and embody our ineffable ideal of the educated person. We need to remember that an ideal can never be reduced to a doctrine; it is an entity about which there is more than one right answer, where each answer is approximate and contingent on the circumstances from which it arises.

In fact, this, in itself, can be seen as a definition of the education, maturity, and worldview we seek: the liberal education of coming to the developed ability to be at home in the dialogical life (or “the examined life”) wherein one becomes capable of engaging with both other and self in relation to entities such as “quality,” “education,” and “democracy,” and enjoying the benefits that flow from the pluralistic environment. We need to teach our students and administrators—and each other, again and again—how to live and move and thrive within the complexity and dynamism that are actual to our situation, honoring the sense in which education is a lifelong function of not only accomplishment but also hygiene.

It helps in this honoring to know that we are not alone, that there are others out there who are advocating and embodying an alternative to managerialism that is consistent with the second paradigm I have been discussing. The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) offers one example. Arising from the new interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, and its complementarity with the practical wisdom of the contemplative traditions, the mission of ACMHE is “to educate active citizens who will support a more just and compassionate society.” This is accomplished through “recovery and development of the contemplative dimension of teaching, learning and knowing,” leading to “an ethics of genuine compassion.”8

The YESplus Program and its “Art of Living” course offer another example of this alternative to managerialism.9 Arising out of the Hindu tradition and also drawing on the resources of contemporary cognitive science, the YES stands for “Yoga, Empowerment, and Service.” YESplus is distinct in its linkage between meditation and service, working toward a point of merging the two activities into a fully transformed and integrated way of being. Examples of how YESplus has been joined with local programs and initiatives can be seen at Cornell, Stanford, and Brown Universities.


Staying in touch with others who share the alternative paradigm—and who realize that the choice before us today is ultimately at this level—can help us maintain awareness of the fine and utterly crucial line between strategic planning and assessment as the wedge through which managerialism can enter and colonize, on the one hand, and, on the other, as an opportunity for democratic leadership and process. This awareness can help us remain open to the possibility that strategic planning and assessment are not necessarily tied to hierarchy and number, an essential possibility since there is no way we can or should seek exemption from the requirements of accountability and continuous improvement. Faculty protests involving cynical withdrawal only cede power to the managers, confirming them in their disdain for faculty and validating their wish to replace professors with service providers (whether in the form of prepackaged, machine-delivered lectures or contingent faculty).

We must, then, do what we have done in previous eras of challenge: step up and meet a new constraint with the persuasiveness of our ideal, communicating with the public through results that do not always comport with the sometimes crude assessment instruments that are imposed upon us. We must remain faithful to our students and the dignity of practices we know to be conducive to their well-being and best development, turning strategic planning and assessment constraints into ways we can refine and expand our work, and thereby provide “data” more rich than had been hoped for. Along with our students, we need to continue moving—even against strong headwinds—toward a more complete embodiment of our ambitious ideal of the educated citizen as the best hope for the modern experiment with democracy and toward the cultivation of the more developed form of adulthood our era so urgently requires. For the change we seek needs to come not from the top down, but from the bottom up, through the integrity of our encounter with each student.


1. See Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1998).

2. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 172.

3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 176, 179.

4. T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The rock,’” The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1952), 96.

5. Jal Mehta, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 270.

6. See, for example, Edward Miech, “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and Strategic Planning in Education,” review of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, by Henry Mintzberg, Harvard Educational Review 65, no. 3 (1995): 504.

7. I discuss these themes in greater detail in Overcoming America/America Overcoming: Can We Survive Modernity? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012).

8. See

9. See -18-35-yrs.

Stephen Rowe is professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Previous Issues