De-Marking the University: Hierarchy, Walls and Critique

Authors: Patrick Mcgreevy*, American University of Beirut
Topics: Higher Education, Social Theory, Historical Geography
Keywords: critical university studies, social critique, university autonomy, history of higher education
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony L, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The idea that the university should be set apart from the world has been central to discourse about higher education since universities first appeared at Bologna and Paris over 800 years ago. It was the granting of corporate rights to its members that distinguished the Western university from earlier forms of higher education. Being set apart, in this sense, marked the university’s inception. There has never been complete agreement on the desirability or even the actuality of separation. Certainly universities in every age have accommodated themselves to prevailing power structures, yet calls for separation have never ceased to appear. In a 2015 essay, for example, Terry Eagleton lamented the erosion of the distance that traditionally existed between universities and “society at large.” “That critical distance,” he continued, “is now being diminished to almost nothing” as universities “capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism” (“The Slow Death of the University.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2015). Others counter that critical voices are effectively contained and defanged by separation, especially with the growing precarity of the professorate. The university remains an astonishingly hierarchical institution. Does the very gesture of separation, and its constant replication, mark an even more basic hierarchy, and at the same time, an enfeeblement of critique? Perhaps the highest walls are found around the Western-style universities in authoritarian settings such as the GCC monarchies. As Eagleton noted, the power of concentrated wealth increasingly dictates academic priorities. Do higher walls provide more or less leverage for challenging this situation?

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