Strategies for Feminist Leadership in the Neoliberal University

With its emphasis on quantification, financialization, and entrepreneurialism, and its attack on the public good, neoliberalism poses a threat to higher education and to feminism by commodifying knowledge, undoing forms of collectivity and solidarity, and privatizing and individualizing forms of resistance. By ending redistributive policies, including the public funding of higher education, neoliberalism also leads to endemic forms of precarity experienced by nearly everyone in the corporate university and beyond, but with especially extreme consequences for underrepresented minorities and historically marginalized groups. My strategies offer paths for resignifying feminist leadership in the changed context of neoliberal academe today. In this context, it is necessary for feminist scholars and teachers to refocus our attention on institutional and structural change even where achieving this goal often seems like a losing battle. I define feminist leadership in academe as an anti-hierarchical and collaborative practice focused on combatting injustice and insecurity through education, discussion, and speaking up for social and institutional transformation. I believe people at all career stages can implement these strategies, albeit in different forms.


Strategies for Feminist Leadership and Material Practices for Realizing these Strategies

  • Take steps to ensure the security of those around you in an increasingly precarious age. Practice mentorship, advocacy, and support.
    • Offer yourself as a mentor to marginalized individuals and follow up with them regularly. Engage in mentorship outside of traditional avenues such as the teacher-student relationship.
    • Advocate for students and colleagues who experience insecurity, for example by working to protect an undocumented student or by securing a better contract for a precariously employed colleague. Realize that helping one person in your direct circle can set a precedent.
    • Support students and colleagues who experience insecurity, for example by connecting people to mental health resources or legal representation and by checking in with them regularly.
  • Defend the university as a site of deliberation, collaboration, and debate. Foster collaboration and talking across differences with group projects, joint efforts, interdisciplinary, trans-unit, and cross-college programs.
    • Require assigned group projects in your classes at all levels and develop supporting materials and grading rubrics to promote collaboration and processes of deliberation in groups.
    • Engage in collaborative research and co-teach if possible. Advocate for appropriate evaluative mechanisms for assessing collaborative humanities teaching and research.
    • Develop interdisciplinary curricular and extracurricular programs across units and colleges.
  • Resist hierarchy and demands for managerial culture. Promote collegiality and conviviality.
    • Engage in collaborative and participatory decision-making wherever possible. Be transparent about the processes and outcomes of committee work.
    • Make a point of engaging with colleagues in research-related discussions and activities and not just around administrative tasks.
    • Foster convivial social interactions with students and colleagues around food, drink, music, nature, etc.
  • Speak up against reflexive modes of quantification, audit culture, and assessment. Start discussions about the efficacy of these modes and resist them wherever possible.
    • Evaluate how quantification, audit culture, and assessment creep into aspects of your institutional life (including research, teaching, and service) and consider how you can refuse or minimize this creep.
    • Participate in committees tasked with evaluation and assessment (e.g. salary committees; learning outcomes assessment) and intervene in the way they are adapting campus mandates to minimize an emphasis on quantification whenever possible.
    • Use positions of authority to resist quantification, for example when evaluating tenure dossiers.
    • Refuse reflexive mandates to quantify by substituting alternative measures of evaluation.
  • Attend to the important work of language. Try “calling in” as opposed to “calling out.”
    • Resist the neoliberal language of efficiency, quantification, marketing, and productivity by deliberately employing a different vocabulary.
    • When participating in mandatory processes like departmental marketing, website development, or strategic planning, speak up on behalf of language and imagery that suggests an alternative imaginary to the neoliberal emphasis on use value and outcomes.
    • Emphasize the significance of language for creating safe spaces for participation and deliberation on campus. Rather than calling out students or colleagues who use trans- and homophobic, racist, and sexist language, try calling them into a discussion.
  • Emphasize process-based actions. Acknowledge that it is hard to transform institutions, even from a position of power.  
    • Emphasizing the feminist process is important because a) realizing goals like the implementation of a new policy or a structural change to curriculum often takes years and involves the work of multiple individuals or groups, so that you may have graduated or rotated out of your term as chair before a goal is ever realized (or it may never happen); and b) sometimes the process alone can change a dynamic, promote collegiality, or give impetus to a new initiative.
  • Focus on the specific, local context in which you can enact change and avoid universalizing principles.
    • Helping one person, or changing one aspect of your teaching practice, or enacting a policy within a small program is empowering in and of itself, but it may also lead to changes being adapted and adopted elsewhere.
    • In the context of hegemonic, market-driven neoliberal models that are taking hold unevenly across different countries, regions, institutions, etc., resistance can and must take a variety of different forms.
  • Work on multiple fronts simultaneously, recognizing that different approaches to combatting injustice will be necessary across and within different institutional contexts.
    • For instance: digital activism; study groups; committees at the department, college, and university level; unions; administrative roles; faculty and student self-governance; professional organizations.
  • Embrace ambivalence, contradiction, indeterminacy, awkward and messy feelings and situations as the inevitable results of feminist leadership but also the moments that may give rise to change.
    • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, engage in circular conversations, use the wrong language, self-correct, express emotion, be labeled, expose yourself, feel angry, be joyful.
  • Cultivate refusal as a mode of resistance.
    • Pick your battles, but refusing to participate or be interpellated into certain discourses and practices is a powerful strategy.


Resources on the Neoliberal University

These resources offer an indispensable vocabulary for understanding and discussing the changed context of higher education today.

  • Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Boston: MIT Press, 2015.
  • Busch, Lawrence. Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education. Boston: MIT Press, 2017.
  • Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004.

Resources for Theorizing the Politics and Affects of Feminist Leadership in Neoliberalism

These resources provide models for conceptualizing oppositional and resistant politics today as well as tools for thinking about the messy, contradictory, ambivalent, and negative affects that attach to feminist leadership practices.

  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2017.
  • Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2016.
  • Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2016.

—Hester Baer, University of Maryland, College Park