The following is an excerpt from Dark Academia: How Universities Die by Peter Fleming (2021), reprinted with permission from Pluto Press. Use the code NPQ30 at Pluto Press for an exclusive NPQ reader discount.


The most dreadful experience I had with the authoritarian turn in higher education occurred when a new Head of Department was appointed. While sitting in my London office an email pinged and I opened it. Attached was a ‘memo’ from an administrator advising me of my teaching duties for the year and signed by our new boss. At a recent departmental meeting he’d told us that a few things were going to change around here. Zero faculty input regarding our teaching was a taste of things to come. The atmosphere grew miserable and I soon left for another university. A colleague who stayed later told me that access to the administration area was soon (electronically) barred to academics. Whereas once you dropped by to chat with a programme officer, a generic email address was now your only means of communication.

Open discussion about major issues facing departments and academics was once an integral part of how universities operated: not only out of choice, but necessity too given the highly trained, idiosyncratic and self-motivated workforce involved. This is different to what passes for ‘consultation’ today—a formal ritual designed to generate consent after crucial decisions have been made behind closed doors. As previously noted, universities have always had bureaucracy and authority. But corporatisation has radically reorganised how power, status and compliance intermix, both in a quantitative sense (the number of managers and administrators issuing orders) and qualitatively (the tone of authority exercised). On the surface, everything might look fine as a sort of faux consensus prevails. Technocrats devise procedures and academics respectfully follow them; ‘an ecstasy of obedience’ as British writer Marina Warner memorably described it after her brush with Essex University.1 Dig a little deeper, however, and we uncover the dark underside of these top-down structures, especially in settings that otherwise require collegial cooperation and professional self-governance. Regular bureaucracy is shadowed by a troubling twin, what I term darkocracy. And as we’ll see, the discontent it fuels (and sometimes feeds off) has converted universities into factories of sadness.


A striking feature of the modern university has been the expansion of non-academic personnel vis-à-vis teaching and research faculty. The figures speak for themselves. Let’s take the US: 450,000 faculty and 270,000 administrators were employed by universities in 1975.2 By 2009 there were 728,977 full-time faculty (a 63 per cent increase) and 890,540 administrators (a 231 per cent increase). Another study found that universities hired around 520,000 non-academic administrators between 1987 and 2012 (or 87 every working day).3 This incredible surge in both numbers and spending has outpaced student growth and appears to be correlated with the employment of casual teaching staff.4 Similar patterns can be found in other countries. In the UK, academics are a minority (compared to managers, technicians, professionals and other non-teaching/non-research staff) in 71 percent of the country’s universities.[5] Academic staff numbers in Australia grew by 6773 between 2009 and 2016, whereas non-academic jobs grew by 10,327 and now outnumber academics 1.6 to 1.6

And then there’s the growth of well-paid senior executives at the top of the organisational pyramid, occupying roles that seem to have materialised out of nowhere. As Benjamin Ginsberg amusingly notes in his book The Fall of the Faculty,

Universities are filled with armies of functionaries—the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.7

None of this can be justified by increased student numbers, more complexity or the need for a wider division of labour in higher education. Nor can enhanced ‘efficiency’ (a cherished byword in the neoliberal lexicon) be behind it. The tsunami of bureaucratic sludge often makes completing even basic tasks a practical nightmare.8 As anyone working in the tertiary sector will attest, disorganisation is the norm and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing much of the time. Although it sounds counterintuitive, this reflects the universities attempt to emulate the corporate form, which celebrates executive chains of command, technical solutions above collegial deliberation and continuous programme/performance reviews. Governing academe in this manner is a recipe for serious trouble.

The problem is, according to Benjamin Ginsberg, with the exponential growth of managers and administrators, universities are soon driven by their imperatives, not the academics who teach and research. Deans and Provosts might still assert the importance of academic freedom, public education and intellectual curiosity. But only if such qualities are subservient to predetermined technocratic targets. Otherwise they’re treated as an impediment to the smooth running of the enterprise.

To repeat, universities have always had administrators. Very important ones. Student-facing support staff, for example, perform an indispensable function. Payroll and the rest. Moreover, certain academic-led administrative roles—like Department Chair—are not new either and serve an important purpose. What we’re concerned with instead, constituting the basis of ‘darkocracy’, are power networks controlled by functionaries in these institutions. Although some in their ranks may look like academics, many have been trained elsewhere or are career administrators. And those who were once scholars are now better labelled as para-academics, since they’ve acquired the ‘boss syndrome’ and find themselves looking down on their erstwhile colleagues with mild disdain.

By the same token, the impressive quantity of bureaucrats, administrators and managers isn’t the main problem. It’s something about their character that matters more. In short, university management today tends towards authoritarianism, sometimes overt, often hidden, but always experienced as pointlessly excessive by its recipients. These ‘coercive bureaucracies’ (as opposed to ‘enabling’ ones) have engendered a mood of dejection in higher education.[9] Academics obviously loathe command hierarchies given that their labour process relies upon the opposite: professional self-efficacy, collegial consensus and a degree of egalitarianism. The darkness evolves over time. It begins with outrage, transitions to frustration and finally settles as a deep-seated dismay. But seldom is it expressed as open rebellion (collective or otherwise). On those rare occasions when academics do resist, we gain a glimpse of the aggressive inner workings of darkocracy as it strikes back with malice, as I’ll soon demonstrate.


Top-down management structures are essentially about obedience and following orders, with little room for free community discussion or debate. At the end of the day, someone holds power over you no matter how cosy or friendly the relationship may seem. In this respect, university managerialism adheres to the essential tenets of Taylorism. Bosses are assumed to have superior information and insight compared to subordinates, which obviously doesn’t go down too well in an academic setting. This managerial prerogative flows from the very top (the council, Vice-Chancellors, Presidents and Provosts) to the very bottom (teaching adjuncts, students). Hence why scrutiny always travels down the system, hardly ever up. We know nearly nothing about what happens above us (apart from generic email announcements), even though we probably ought to.

As a consequence, not only do academics frequently find the university apparatchik too autocratic, but also increasingly superfluous given how remote they seem from the value-adding activities on the ground. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic really highlighted this administrative detachment. Senior managers don’t teach, of course. So when presented with the formidable task of moving and delivering lessons online, they were mostly bystanders to the real action. In many institutions chaos reigned in the upper echelons. Some leaders retreated and disappeared. Whereas others became paranoid about the discretion afforded to frontline teaching staff and ramped up the surveillance.10 But here’s the ironic part. The goodwill, initiative and sheer amount of labour-time summoned by teaching faculty ensued not because of authority but despite it. Academics drew on many qualities—like their collective commitment to the vocation—that the corporate university has devalued for years.

When an intrinsically collegial institution is governed like a multinational enterprise (which is one of the least democratic places in our society, bar correctional facilities) then the chain of authority is sacrosanct. Don’t be fooled by the argument that corporations in our post-modern age are flat and empowering tigers. Most remain sluggish and rigid behemoths that have cornered the market. I think this is why academic capitalism holds close ties with the rise of autocratic state capitalism and its cognate institutional forms. It’s ironic. Under the aegis of market competition many universities (like most large corporations in the Western world) now bear an uncanny resemblance to organisations inspired by Xi Jinping.

Importantly, the contemporary university no longer belongs to academics, even if they continue to identify with it professionally and misinterpret the institution as a proxy for their vocation. To understand why, we must examine an ideological battle that’s been raging in the background. Undoing this symbolic sense of collective ‘ownership’ was a major precondition for commercialising higher education, something that has spread throughout the public sphere. Subsequently, academics are no longer a collegium of peers but hired labour … employees who sell their skill and availability to employers who enjoy true entitlement over the university. Consequently, academics are contractually obliged to do as they’re told. It’s unsurprising, then, that this mindset can open the door to more energetic expressions of authority, at least compared to earlier governance models.

If we add to this the urgency placed on performance (including KPIs and associated metrics, cocooned within a narrative of competition for students and/or governmental austerity) then the likelihood of friendly power structures emerging is pretty low. Bureaucracies are strange beasts at the best of times. They’re especially notorious for multiplying their own ranks. Labour economist David Gordon noted this with respect to supervisors in US industry. Why were their numbers swelling? Gordon’s answer is prescient: ‘who keeps the supervisors honest? What guarantees that those supervisors won’t be in cahoots with their charges? In such a hierarchy, you need supervisors to supervise supervisors … and the supervisors above them … and managers to watch the higher-level supervisors.’11

I think one reason why these hierarchies turned authoritarian in modern universities stems from the systemic application of neoclassical economic theory, including the principal/agency problem, moral hazard theory, contract theory, etc. These notions are built upon the assumption that economic agents should never be trusted. There’s always a chance they’ll shirk their duties and pursue an egotistical agenda. Hence the enormous importance placed on contracts and incentive systems today.12 Applied to the employment relationship, each manager up and down the chain is encouraged to keep a watchful eye below them and expect the worst. A cold-hearted subjectivity invariably develops. Moreover, in this strictly ‘results only’ environment, functionaries are punished and/or rewarded according to outcomes. Over time senior administrators become institutionally numb to the feelings of those down the pecking order. Railroading through new policies and meeting deadlines assumes overarching importance, even if it means breaking a few eggs along the way. Unfortunately, some may even enjoy breaking those eggs. You never quite know how power and authority will affect people.

Many administrators are good people and also lament the managerialism that has mushroomed in universities.13 Nevertheless, we must approach the question from a structural perspective, which is why identifying the specific qualities of darkocracy is crucial. For sure, as social psychologist Dacher Keltner discovered in a number of fascinating experiments, it makes no difference how ‘nice’ a person is, formal power automatically makes them less empathetic to those below them.14 The reason why is simple. The power-holder isn’t obliged to check their own behaviour as they would with equals.15 This inbuilt psychological distance systematically increases one’s sense of self-importance compared to those below. The influence can be so strong that powerful people sometimes believe that basic rules don’t apply to them.16 From here authoritarianism can easily sidle in.

We’ve all seen how this happens, even on a mundane level. Bosses above us (especially those we have regular contact with) might not have the courtesy to reply to an email or say thank you. For them you’re not as important by default. However, one can be sure that she or he will suddenly display refined politeness when interacting with their superiors. Keltner’s point is that the power hierarchy itself—minus the personalities involved—plays a vital part in turning ordinary people into inconsiderate oafs.


Returning to David Gordon, he demonstrated how neoliberal corporations are not ‘lean and mean’ as business gurus extol, but ‘fat and mean’ instead. Perhaps the same path has been followed by the corporate university. Years of commercialisation and exposure to market forces hasn’t transformed them into nimble business warriors, but over-bureaucratised Leviathans that treat dissent as a near treasonable offence.

Because productivity and outputs are narrowly defined as the only measure of success, more and more supervisors are hired to monitor academic staff and coax extra effort from them. This partially accounts for the chronic overwork that blights higher education today. It consists of what I call real work and sludge work. Real work are tasks that add genuine value to the institution in some shape or form, undertaken by both academics and support staff. For example, delivering a lecture or tutorial. Frontline student admissions’ paperwork. IT support and maintenance. Academic oversight of a doctoral programme. Writing journal articles and books, etc. No doubt labour intensification has made ‘real work’ more demanding of late. But then we have ‘sludge work’ too. These are activities caused by over-bureaucratisation. Forms, procedures and mandatory exercises that add little intrinsic value, yet absorb significant amounts of time.

The problem with expansionist technocracies is that sooner or later all those managers have to justify their own positions. Generating pointless tasks or hoops for everyone to jump through is a classic way of doing this. It can transform the academic labour process into an overwhelming and exhausting experience. The Edu-Factory also changes how administrative staff behave. Their roles are no longer designed to minimise the burden of paperwork that academics undertake, but parcel it out to them via email. This is why faculty workloads are conspicuously heavier in universities that employ large numbers of administrators. Sludge work soon bleeds into real work, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. The biggest casualty is intellectual inquiry. Reading a book (let alone writing one) is considered an indulgence in this milieu, something best done in your own time. As a Dutch study recently concluded, ‘if you love research, academia may not be for you … it may be easier to pursue your intellectual interests outside the university system’.17

But not all sludge work is created intentionally. Some is also an incidental off-shoot of the disgruntlement and lack of communication characteristic of big bureaucracies. Cleaning up other people’s messes, usually entailing hours of emailing. Trying to fill the gaps caused by distant senior managers. Fighting fires (with students and colleagues) that are more symptomatic of their disempowerment than any substantive grievance. Duplication of tasks that could have been done once and so forth. This type of sludge work is soul-destroying because it must be undertaken if you want to get anything achieved but is formally unrecognised, since acknowledgement would signal a broader problem with the hierarchical order of things. Unlike hoop-jumping sludge work, this type of labour is necessary but essentially invisible, even when the emails turn hostile and tempers fray.


This raises a significant point. My description of university bureaucracies might give the impression that they’re highly formal, machine-like systems devoid of humanity. They are to an extent, of course. But something else is happening. Darkocracies also rely on an informal social dimension and that’s when things get tricky.

Supervisors have a certain amount of discretion when it comes to managing staff and appraising their performance.18 The scope of this discretion increases as one moves up the hierarchy. For subordinates, it means the everyday presentation of self becomes important. The personality trait universities desire most from academics are deference and tractability for sure, but with an added shot of loyalty.19 This unspoken rule determines how favourably you are treated by management within the formal bureaucratic system. Patrimony is therefore pervasive in universities, mostly manifest behind closed doors. If a member of faculty fails to exhibit loyalty then they will suffer accordingly by being ignored, labelled a ‘troublemaker’ or given unappealing teaching duties. Dissenters are especially vulnerable to the unpredictable intrigues of darkocracy. Whereas most academics endeavour to quietly work around the bizarre forest of rules—keeping beneath the radar—open opposition is a different matter and is liable to attract retaliation.

US professor Ron Srigley gives a vivid example.20 When the Vice President introduced a controversial new performance system it was met with little resistance since all ‘were petrified of losing their positions’. One academic did speak up, however, sending an email to his small department outlining some concerns. Out of the blue, the troublemaker was called into the Vice President’s office and told (in Srigley’s words)

he was naïve to think his university email account was not ‘transparent’ to his ‘managers.’ No discussion, no context, no actual accusation, and no reprimand. Just a thinly veiled threat that if he didn’t watch out he’d find himself at the bottom of the academic East River … He learned subsequently that his email account hadn’t been compromised at all; he’d simply been betrayed by a fellow-traveling faculty member. Which means the president was just having a little fun threatening him.

Darkocracies thrive on these arbitrary and unaccountable expressions of power, including the backstabbing colleague who threw his fellow-traveller under the bus. What happened to Professor Thomas Docherty, renowned critic of the neoliberal university, offers an even more depressing example. In 2014 Warwick University accused him of ‘inappropriate sighing’ and directing ‘negative vibes’ at an ex-Head of Department. This earnt Docherty a nine-month suspension.21

In any organisational situation that individualises work, rebukes non-compliance and affords authority semi-discretionary powers when managing others, bullying is almost inevitable. It is said to be rife in the UK higher education sector, with senior administrators, ‘star’ professors and other influential officials the main culprits.22 An Australian study found one quarter of 22,000 staff from 19 institutions had been victims of harassment and bullying. Among women, it was one in three. So why do victims rarely report it? Because that isn’t how darkocracies work unfortunately. A university’s complaints system is often overseen by the very authority structure in question.23 As political scientist David West observes:

… complaint procedures take place within the organizational hierarchy that produced the complaint in the first place, a hierarchy designed to confer authority on superiors and induce obedience in subordinates. Senior managers are, by the institutional logic of their position, inclined to support immediate subordinates who are the objects of a complaint. Finding in favour of the manager has the advantage of reinforcing the message that managerial instructions should be obeyed.24

What about the Human Resource department? Aren’t they meant to protect employees from this type of harassment? In theory, yes. But HR always defers to senior management, who in turn seek to minimise the adverse publicity a grievance might attract. They may also be the bullying aggressor themselves.25 In other words, when a boss is involved, victims of bullying simply cannot trust HR and so often keep quiet and try to work around the problem instead.


On a more general level, HR features prominently in darkocracies since they act as enforcers or, as some might say, ‘hitmen’, for senior executives, especially during industrial disputes. While managers see them as friendly support, employees tend to view HR as a threatening entity whom they would rather avoid if possible.26 This represents a historical shift from the rather benign role of personnel management (dealing with payroll, etc.) to a more legal-supervisory function, propelled by the wider contractualisation of society. While presenting a pleasant professional development gloss to their job, including work-life balance pro-grammes and ‘Fun Fridays’, HR usually performs the dirty work for deans and deanlets. Their loyalty to management is undying. They would happily fire themselves if the nomenclature ordered it. A HR consultant recently confessed,

as a department, it is purely there to support senior management. I have seen cases where HR staff, deemed to be too employee-focused, are actually got rid of. I’ve been in HR for most of my career and while we were very much there to help initially, that has evolved to the other extreme.27

What she really means by ‘evolution’ is the neoliberalisation of employment relations, which stresses power differentials between management and staff, labour and capital, rich and poor and so on. HR’s role is to manage the instabilities caused by market individualism and keep a lid on any potential unrest that may ensue. For instance, during the UK 2018 pensions dispute, HR sent all sorts of threatening emails to teaching staff, suggesting they’d be held personally liable if students sued the university for refunds. It was a classic standover tactic designed to instil fear and doubt. So much for ‘Fun Fridays’.

The pensions strike and similar high-prolife clashes are obviously undesirable to the neoliberal university. The governors of darkocracy would prefer to dispense with conflict on a discrete and individual basis. In order to minimise negative publicity, therefore, Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) or ‘gagging orders’ are now in vogue. They were originally designed to protect firms from losing valuable trade secrets when employees departed the organisation. Universities now love NDAs, deploying them to move individuals out of the institution with minimal reputational damage, including whistle-blowers and victims of sexual harassment and/or bullying: signees are prohibited from publicly disparaging their former employer or discussing the incident in question. Instead of suing, rallying union support or going to the media, the situation is quietly defused with a NDA and lump sum cash payment. Between 2017 and 2019 UK universities spent £87 million on gagging orders, entailing 4000 settlements.28 It’s an easy way out for universities, with minimal inconvenience … for them, at least. As one sexual harassment victim observed, ‘universities would rather pay off people to leave, than push out the person doing the bullying’.29 Indeed, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before NDAs are used to prohibit critical investigations of the neoliberal university itself.


Most studies endeavouring to link disorders of the soul (depression, anxiety, paranoia, suicide ideation, etc.) with neoliberal capitalism focus on market individualism. Not only does it isolate people from each other but makes them solely responsible for what are in fact socio-economic forces. In the words of Mark Fisher, feeling like a ‘good for nothing’ is instilled among the vast losers of this cut-throat game from the outset.30 But I think we must also examine the harms wrought by neoliberalism’s bureaucratic collectivism; psychic pathologies that flow not from the lack of people, but a surfeit of the wrong kind, microsocial pressures that get under your skin. This isn’t simply about failed economic subjects being blamed for their misfortunes. A university worker might be relatively secure, but that’s no protection from the ills inflicted on a different register by dark bureaucracies. These maladies are secretly carried around with us and repressed until finally vented, usually at home or in our dreams.

Let’s conduct a small thought experiment. Imagine a young academic who is otherwise confident (but not overly so), comfortable with themselves (yet seeking to advance their career), displays a sunny disposition (with a healthy dose of intellectual scepticism) and is passionate about their chosen discipline. They understand the importance of collegiality because it helped them through their graduate studies. They now look forward to embarking on a long and fulfilling career.

What emotional challenges would this otherwise sane and stable person encounter upon entering the corporate university today?

To begin with, the power hierarchies we’ve examined are not only objective but psychological too. They impute bosses with a sense of superiority. And by turns the subordinate always feels inferior and less worthy comparatively speaking. When accentuated in a social system, the impression of insignificance can grow and erode one’s self-confidence. This elicits a number of responses, many of which are not healthy. Individuals may overcompensate by becoming egoistical careerists, continually reminding anyone within earshot of how great they are. Others might simply try harder, not realising that contemporary appraisals systems are designed to ensure everyone falls short in some shape or form. This introduces anxiety into the mix, which today is an ordinary part of university life.

Our imaginary academic would then experience the stress associated with relentless measurement and evaluation. Are you good enough? Do you have what it takes to be an excellent researcher? For those facing the daunting North American tenure-track system, these metrics make or break careers and the pressure to perform is intense. Schools may confer ‘star’ status on certain academics, praising them with awards and acolytes. This stokes a sense of inadequacy and/or competition among everyone else. Most neoliberal university performance reviews, however, are based on the principle of continuous improvement, so an element of self-doubt touches even the most accomplished scholar. Add gender and race inequalities into the formula (universities remain dominated by white males), then these feelings of worthlessness are often amplified.31

Any academic entering this cultural system will also have to navigate social power at the informal level. Have I been amenable enough to my Departmental Chair? They didn’t reply to my email invitation regarding an upcoming talk, is something wrong? Did I mess up somehow? Has a jealous colleague spread lies about me? Darkocracies are highly neurotic environments, mainly played out offstage in one’s private life. Repeating a hypothetical encounter with a co-worker or supervisor in your head over and over again, for example. This soon begins to affect personal relationships too.

Our young scholar will inevitably meet some very unhappy colleagues. These disgruntled individuals seldom direct their vitriol at its source—a supervisor, promotions committee or dean—for obvious reasons. So they displace it sideways, towards more accessible targets (colleagues, junior administrators, students, etc.). Professional envy and sabotage may also feature here. And invariably a psychopath or two will be quietly prowling the hallways. As our imaginary academic goes about their daily business, he or she will naturally avoid these unpleasant co-workers. Over time, the thought of coming into the office may fill them with dread. Thank god for email they half-joke. It’s hell … but a lesser one. Coronavirus has a silver lining after all.

And finally, given the high levels of ‘real work’ and ‘sludge work’ our young scholar will conduct over a prolonged period, they’ll soon display symptoms of extreme fatigue: these include chronic tiredness, insomnia, irritability, aching muscles, impaired judgement and alcohol abuse.

Feeling inadequate and stressed. Neurotic and paranoid. Dreading the office. Highly irritable and unhappy. Constantly tired and addicted to office email. Our imaginary academic is now a creature of the neoliberal university. The labour of love they once knew has somehow opened a black hole at the centre of their being. Before long, the darkness closes in.




Peter Fleming. “The Authoritarian Turn in Universities.” Dark Academia: How Universities Die, pp. 50-65. ã 2022 Pluto Press. Reprinted with permission.

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1. Warner, M. (2014). ‘Why I Quit’. London Review of Books. 36(17). Available at

2. See Spitzer, R. (2012). ‘The Disappearing Faculty’. HuffPost. Available at

3. American Institute for Research (2014). ‘Is “Admin Bloat” Behind the High Cost of College?’ Available at

4. New England Center for Investigative Reporting (2014). ‘New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom in Higher Ed Administrators’. Available at shows-problematic-boom-in-higher-ed-administrators/

5. Times Higher Education (2015). ‘Academics in the Minority at More Than Two-Thirds of UK Universities’. Available at www.

6. See Churcher, M. and Talbot, D. (2020). ‘The Corporatization of Education: Bureaucracy, Boredom and Transformative Possibilities’. New Formations. 100–1: 28–42.

7 Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty, p. 2.

8. I have borrowed the term ‘sludge’ from Herd, P. and Moynihan, D.P. (2018). Administrative Burden: Policy Making by Other Means. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

9. See Adler, P.S. and Borys, B. (1996). ‘Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive’. Administrative Science Quarterly. 41: 61–89.

10. See McKie, A. (2020). ‘Covid-19: Universities Treating Staff in “Vastly Different Ways”’. Times Higher Education. Available at www.

11. Gordon, D. (1996). Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial ‘Downsizing’. New York: Free Press, p. 40.

12. Employment contracts and contracts-for-services are not new, of course. But what might be termed the process of contractualisation, however, refers to the application of neoclassical economics to the legal precepts of employment, as epitomised in the writings of Richard A. Epstein. It’s hastened the hyper-individualisation of work and helped dismantle the collectivism associated with trade unions, national labour legislation (e.g., the National Labor Relations Act in the US) and industry-wide awards. See Epstein, A.R. (1983). ‘Common Law for Labor Relations: A Critique of the New Deal Labor Legislation’. Yale Law Journal. 92(8): 1357–408; Epstein, R.A. (1984). ‘In Defense of Contract at Will’. The University of Chicago Law Review. 51: 947–82.

13. In this respect, Stewart Clegg and John McAuley point out that we ought to avoid the managerial vs collegiate dualism since there are a wide range of subject positions that non-academic staff take in the corporate university. Clegg, S. and McAuley, J. (2005). ‘Conceptualising Middle Management in Higher Education: A Multifaceted Discourse’. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 27(1): 19–34.

14. Keltner, D. (2016). ‘Don’t Let Power Corrupt You’. Harvard Business Review. October, 112–15.

15. Keltner nicely demonstrates this with his ‘cookie monster’ lab experiment. Three people are given a task to complete. One is randomly assigned the role of ‘leader’. Midway through the experiment a plate of four freshly baked cookies is placed in the room as a reward, one for each member plus an additional cookie. Keltner asks, ‘who would take a second treat knowing it would deprive the others of the same? It was nearly always the person who had been named the leader. In addition, the leader was more likely to eat with their mouths open, lips smacking and crumbs falling on their clothes.’ Ibid., p. 113.

16. Keltner, D. (2016). The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin.

17 Mathews, D. (2018). ‘If You Love Research, Academia May Not Be for You’. Times Higher Education. Available at www.timeshigher

18. See Bicudo de Castro, V. (2017). ‘Unpacking the Notion of Subjectivity: Performance Evaluation and Supervisor Discretion’. The British Accounting Review. 49(6): 532–44.

19. For an excellent analysis of this, see West, D. (2016). ‘The Managerial University: A Failed Experiment?’ Demos. Available at

20. Srigley, R. (2018). ‘Whose University Is It Anyway?’ Los Angeles Review of Books. Available at

21. Traynor, L. (2014). ‘Top Professor Suspended by University for “Sighing” and Giving Off “Negative Vibes”’. Mirror. Available at

22. Delvin, H. and Marsh, S. (20180). ‘Hundreds of Academics at Top UK Universities Accused of Bullying’. Guardian. Available at www.

23. Skinner, P., Peetz, D., Strachan, G., Whitehouse, G., Bailey, J. and Broadbent, K. (2015). ‘Self-reported Harassment and Bullying in Australian Universities: Explaining Differences between Regional, Metropolitan and Elite Institutions’. The Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 37(5): 558–71.

24. West, ‘The Managerial University’.

25. Research by Hollis (2015) found that in US universities, ‘workplace bullying often comes from leadership and that human resources seldom advocated for the target, leaving the target toiling in isolation, disengaging from organizational objectives, or leaving the organization’. Hollis, L.P. (2015). ‘Bully University? The Cost of Workplace Bullying and Employee Disengagement in American Higher Education’. SAGE Open. 015589997

[26] Research confirms that perceptions of HR vary depending on whether managers are asked (who are generally very positive) or employees (who typically experience HR in a negative manner). Given the power relations in management-led organisations like the university, their views generally hold sway, further deepening the disconnect between workers and senior officials. See Wang, Y., Kim, S., Rafferty, A. and Sanders, K. (2019). ‘Employee Perceptions of HR Practices: A Critical Review and Future Directions’. The International Journal of Human Resource Management. 31(1): 128–73.

[27] King, M. (2011). ‘HR: Your Friend or Your Foe?’ Guardian. Available at

[28] Croxford, R. (2019). ‘UK Universities Face “Gagging Order” Criticism’. BBC. Available at 6662

[29] Ibid.

[30] Fisher analyses this in relation to his own depression: ‘each member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment is their fault and their fault alone’. Fisher, M. (2018). K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016). London: Repeater Books, p. 749.

[31] For analyses of these dynamics in the US, see Cabrera, N. L (2018). White Guys on Campus: Racism, White Immunity and the Myth of ‘Post-Racial’ Higher Education. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Concerning racism in UK universities, see Arday, J. and Safia Mirza, H. (2018). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.