Towards a Suboptimal University

Zach Kaiser


In 1955, Eugene Garfield created the Science Citation Index, which was designed to make literature searches easier and assist in scientific research. And yet in the intervening 65 years, what Garfield spawned would become the key barometer of academic work, generally known as Bibliometrics. Garfield later founded the Journal Impact Factor, which would be merged into the Web of Science, subsequently acquired by Clarivate Analytics. The original intentions of the SCI receded into the background as the “means” soon became the “ends,” and indexes became “misused shortcuts” for attaching value to scholars and scholarship. [1] There has since been no shortage of metrics-proliferation, including Academic Analytics and the h-index. The proxy for impact became conflated with impact itself to such an extent that its history and existence as a proxy disappeared from view. 

But the productivity of scholars and their institutions relies on a great deal more than the relative value of disseminated research. It relies on the GPAs of incoming freshman, quantifiable scholarly bona-fides of graduate students, and everything on which those indicators rely (e.g., physical and mental health, sleep, library visits, social interactions, etc.). 

In a zero-sum game where institutions compete for decreasing amounts of state appropriations and decreasing federal grant dollars, and when life and work seem entirely quantifiable, we are forced to strive for constant optimization of everything (even our shrinking leisure time).

My email inbox illustrates another dimension of the reaches of self- and institution-level-optimization over the last several years. In 2017, an upper-level administrator encouraged participation in a program with JOOL Health (which has since been renamed Kumanu). The email suggested we use JOOL’s “mobile app as a personal guide for improved health, happiness, and work-life balance,” and encouraged us to take advantage of this system that offered a “science for your life’s purpose.

Then, in 2018, our insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan partnered with FitBit as part of their Blue365 Initiative, to offer discounts to FitBit users who met specific goals—making explicit the implicit linkage between employee physical health and institutional success. [2] See also Amazon’s Halo and their partnership with John Hancock insurance.

Lately, I have started to receive strange emails from a Microsoft service called MyAnalytics. On August 31, I received an email titled “Focus Edition,” in which I was told that this month I had 95% of my time “available to focus” and 5% “collaboration time.” Meanwhile, in an email titled “Wellbeing Edition,” I was told that I had “4 quiet days” in which I was “protected from quiet hours disruptions.” (My one-year old daughter would refute this). Meanwhile, my “Network Edition” email told me that I have “17 active collaborators.” I quite literally do not know what these emails mean.

Obviously, MyAnalytics is very crude. A joke, surely. But who is to say it won’t become more sophisticated? I think it’s important here to echo Sun-ha Hong’s concept of “control creep”—that we can never make the mistake of thinking that data collected in one context won’t be used for other purposes. But the incentives of being quantified and optimized often outweigh the risks, especially when jobs and the institution itself depend on them. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the tendency towards the optimization of individuals and institutions, with the (false) pretense that the more we know about ourselves and each other, the better we’ll be at predicting the outcomes of the university’s interventions. The concept of being legible to computational systems of prediction is a key issue in the post-pandemic university. Indeed, this fall, at a small school called Oakland University not too far from Detroit, a controversy erupted about the adoption of the “BioButton.” Seeking to ensure a safe return to campus—as many institutions under immense financial pressure were inclined to do—Oakland University tried to require the use of the devices, made by BioIntelliSense. Enabling “proactive” decisions, this surveillance apparatus is part of a broader institutional effort at total system optimization that seeks to maintain the status-quo in the face of any perturbations, including a global pandemic.

It’s easy to say that it’s capitalism’s fault: capitalist realism is the university’s structuring “economic science fiction.” This is true regardless of how “critical” your research is. I say fiction here because it is precisely that—because another world is possible—and this fiction produces the “distribution of the sensible” in which we live, the contours of what seems possible and impossible, sayable and not sayable, imaginable and unimaginable. To look closer is essential if we are to find not only refuge and resistance, but places to attack the distribution of the sensible—places that out the optimization-seeking institution as abiding by a fiction and demonstrate that there are other ways of world-building that actively displace the system to which we are currently beholden in favor of a better one. 

The tendency towards optimization—both at the institutional and individual levels—co-produces, along with other tendencies under capitalist realism, a political subject who seeks to be legible to the systems that help them self-optimize. Constrained within this “distribution of the sensible,” in which that which can be sensed and therefore acted upon must also be quantified and computed, the political subject of the optimized university is bound by these parameters and can never see beyond it—teacher and student alike.

I’d like to try to think about what a “suboptimal university” looks like, and the ways in which such an institution becomes a site of liberatory educational praxis in a way that the optimized university by necessity precludes.

Designing the Suboptimal University

It may seem quixotic to suggest that it’s possible to enact a redesign of the university that extends beyond critique. I work within a system (the Departement) nested within another system (the College) nested within another system (the University) nested within yet another system (the state neoliberal political-economic apparatus), all of which are made of sub-systems structurally coupled to one another, making it seem impossible to affect real change. But without action to pair with reflection, we achieve nothing. 

At every level we face the question of “reform vs. rupture.” Are any of us willing to take on the risk that “rupture” entails? Are reforms ever enough or does capital consistently internalize the contradictions with which we present it such that reform only strengthens its grip on our imaginations? 

Here I offer some humble suggestions—which go beyond the “reform vs. rupture” dilemma—for designing a suboptimal university:

Teaching and Ungrading

As teachers, one of the most immediate and most important things we can do is to stop grading. This begins to break the distribution of the sensible for students. It makes no sense: how can you not grade? But it opens possibilities that lie beyond the zero-sum competition of academic life. 

We can also change the content of our courses to become a vehicle for shaking the distribution of the sensible, elaborating the contours for students of the economic science fiction in which we live. This does not require a complete reworking of courses—even the most technical design class can expand its scope ever so slightly to address the structuring forces of the tools being used in class, and this expanded scope can be justified through appeals to the institution’s “mission,” “core values,” or other admin-speak.

Becoming un-quantifiable

Without the metrics that provide the rationales for our existence, it seems like we are without firm ground on which to stand. Again, however, these metrics are an important component of the economic science fiction that shapes our sense of reality. What metrics might we produce that cater to our own agendas, but allow us to justify those agendas utilizing the language of the institution, eventually rendering the metrics themselves meaningless or forcing a reckoning with their nature as a proxy? Are there tactics to undermine the value of the metrics entirely? As I recall Gary Hall arguing a few years ago, the proliferation of metrics isn’t necessarily a problem as long as we are the ones deciding what gets counted, and, I would add, that the counting happen in solidarity with one another such that the act of counting itself becomes irrelevant.  

Unions and institutional power

Faculty and staff are the ones on the committees that theoretically make decisions at the university. So why do we seem to have no power? What kind of invisible “hand” is guiding us or shaping the solution space within which we attempt to solve the university’s problems? It makes no sense. We’ve internalized the capitalist realist quest for optimization, but we actually have the power to make change. Without serious organization and an understanding that we are looking out for each other, however, we can’t see this. Organization and imagination must go hand-in-hand. Without organization, our ability to realize that which is in our imaginations is constrained by the dominant distribution of the sensible, in which “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions” reign supreme. Organization and imagination must be united in order to achieve the kind of liberatory praxis that a university can, at its best, achieve. Unions are a first step in actualizing the imagination we don’t even know we have. 

Representation and shared governance

When committees are formed to make decisions about an institution, faculty who have “service” as part of their appointment are the ones who fill the seats on those committees. But what if every member of the university community had a percentage of their job/contract that was dedicated to “service?” How would the priorities of the institution shift if the faculty senate were no longer the faculty senate but the community senate, including food service workers and graduate students? Changing who has a say in the “shared governance” of a university would, I argue, change our ideas about what is possible and desirable, helping us explode the onto-epistemic closure precipitated by neoliberal hegemony. 

Micropolitics and everyday interactions

Taking time to underscore the ways that capitalist realism and its attendant optimization-seeking practices shape our lives, and doing so in small moments—such as email chains about student competitions or in meetings about evaluation for promotion and tenure—we can again strategically produce fissures in our structuring fiction. This is especially the case for those of us with tenure: it is time to unyieldingly campaign for a better system.

Use of University Resources for Extra-Institutional Imperatives

Moten and Harney write: “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission…” What I have taken the powerful concepts in The Undercommons to mean is that the university’s mission, despite its aspirational language, is enmeshed in white-supremacist-patriarchal capitalism, and that to “steal” from it is to put the institution’s resources towards unmooring the institution from the anchor of capitalist realism. We must ask ourselves how we might steal from the institution and from the private and public entities with which the institution is linked, using those resources towards ends that refuse to play by the rules of capitalist realist optimization, that show another world is possible. [3] 

Greasing the Wheels with Sand

In every single one of these cases, we need to be vigilant about the demands we make such that an intellectually pluralist institution can remain intact. This requires an inefficiency to which we are not used to aspiring. As Krzystzof Wodiczko writes “the wheels of democracy must not be greased with oil, but with sand.” He’s right. Slick efficiency and full optimization of any dimension of our collective lives will (even unintentionally) result in the negation of other important dimensions of ourselves, and this loss will have consequences that we cannot foresee. It is in this Wodiczko-ian spirit that I offer the suboptimal university as both a pragmatic and aspirational tool for change.

A note on geopolitical context: the references made in the following document to the “academy,” the “university,” and the “we” as a political subject of those institutions are made in the context of western (and specifically North-American) higher education.

[1] de Bellis, N. (2014). “History and evolution of (biblio)metrics.” In B. Cronin & C. Sugimoto (Eds.), Beyond Bibliometrics: Harnessing Multidimensional Indicators of Scholarly Impact (pp. 23-44). London: MIT Press

[2]  See also Amazon’s Halo and their partnership with John Hancock insurance

[3]  The Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute was a case study in an attempt to do this in the name of the values of the land-grant institution, but we can do more.


Photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash

Zach Kaiser is Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Experience Architecture at Michigan State University (US). His research focuses on the relationship between technological interfaces and political subjectivity.

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