Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Four subcultures of the university

A while back I was in a discussion about "What is the culture of the university? What would a sociologist or anthropologist say?"

I thought about this quite a while and came to the conclusion that most universities (particularly research universities in the Western world) do not have a single culture, but rather four distinct subcultures.

First, let me make an observation about modern cosmopolitan cities: New York, Brisbane, Bangalore, Paris, London, ... Within each city, there can co-exist several distinct social groups and subcultures, e.g. African-American, Jewish, homeless, business elite, Muslim, WASPs, Hispanic, ...
Culture is not just about what kind of restaurants they eat at. It concerns values.
Although they may occupy the same physical space (and to a certain extent the same political and economic space), the values of these communities are often distinctly different. If you don't think this I suggest you talk to someone from one community who has married someone (or tried to) from a different community. Or someone who has changed their religion from that of one community to another. These cross-cultural actions can be traumatic and divisive. There are small groups of people who may bridge more than one subculture, but they are in a minority. In reality, the amount of meaningful engagement and communication between the communities can be extremely small. Previously, I posted about when the conflicting values of faculty and students collide.

So here are my four subcultures of the university.
I am deliberately being provocative and extreme to make the point that the university is more fractured than some realise or might acknowledge.

Scholars, monks, and nuns.
This consists of most faculty, graduate students, and a few "nerdy" undergraduates, such as those in special honours program. They love learning and understanding things. Money is not so important. Some will happily work long hours because they love what they are doing. Research should not have to be justified in pragmatic economic terms. They think students should come to university to "expand their minds" not to get a piece of paper or a job. The university has intrinsic value.

Undergrads and party animals.
This sub-culture is provocatively captured in the novel, I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
According to Wikipedia
“Despite Dupont’s [the university] elite status, in the minds of its students, sex, alcohol, and social status rule the day. The student culture is focused upon gaining material wealth, physical pleasure, and a well-placed social status; academics are only important insofar as they help achieve these goals.”
Many undergraduates may not be party animals. Many are not as privileged as Dupont students. But,  the majority (and their parents) still have a completely functional view of education: it is a means towards employment and social advancement.

The neoliberal management class.
This is not just the very highly paid senior managers but the massive support staffs that go with them. Keep in mind that at most universities more than half of the staff are not doing any teaching or research. The 4 key values are management, money, metrics, and marketing. Neoliberalism is like a religion: it defines rationality and morality. It is not to be questioned.

The invisible underclass.
This includes the cafeteria workers, janitors, "adjunct faculty" on short-term teaching contracts, and unpaid "visiting scholars" from the Majority world. They are poorly paid, have uncertain employment, and virtually no voice. Their main value is survival. Yet the university would grind to a halt without them. A testimony to their invisibility is that I did not originally include them in my original version of this post. However, I read a moving New York Times article by Rosa Ines Rivera, a Harvard cafeteria worker and an article about a Singapore student group that ran a special event to honor janitors at their university.

What do you think? Is this characterisation reasonable?


  1. Neoliberialism , you are very right. 100% true. The last para tells all.

    For years, higher-ed watchers have been warning against the corporatization of the American university. Students as “customers.” Amenities over academics. Loan debt of $250,000 for a transcript full of courses whose A’s no longer mean anything. For the most part, these warnings have been met by dismissal, scorn, or glee. Will anything change now? What’s happening in Wisconsin is a worst-case scenario come to life, and $9 million will do nothing to stop the demise of the integrity of research produced there—and everywhere else, too, if we don’t start electing lawmakers who actually value research.


  2. Ross, your description is apt and describing each "tribe" in stark (and perhaps exaggerated) terms is thought provoking. The comparison with groups in other areas of society made me think about how little regular contact there is between the various groups you mentioned at a university.

  3. Going by the cultural classification in this blog post, I would guess undergraduate majors in the sciences, social sciences, humanities might have a less functional/utilitarian view of education as compared to maybe the more application oriented majors such as business, engineering, etc.

    1. I agree. However, many science majors want to go to medical school and humanities majors want to go to law school. They often seem to have a completely functional/utilitarian view.