The University of the Spectacle

by James Compton

westerncomptonThe whole life of those universities in which modern conditions of managerialism prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All scholarship that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

I am reminded of this sad state of affairs every time I walk on campus. As students, staff and faculty attempt to go about their scholarly lives we are confronted by gigantic Orwellian images. Replacing the single image of Big Brother, looking down upon us are businessmen in suits, C-list reality-TV celebrities, and other cheerleaders of ‘entrepreneurialism.’ “Be extraordinary” they command.

We are not expected to reply. The University of the Spectacle is not interested in dialogue; it is an enormous tautology: its means and ends are identical.

In the command to be extraordinary we find the core contradiction of the University of the Spectacle. To be extraordinary is to be different, to go beyond the usual or customary. And yet the banners represent the denial of difference. They are the endless repetition of the same – represented as difference.

The University of the Spectacle inverts the academy’s core values. Students and researchers of social work, English literature or visual arts will not find themselves in these images. No sociology will be committed. Indeed, all traces of scholarship have been removed. The utilitarian managerialism at the heart of the University of the Spectacle has no time for such activities. After all, where is the value-added proposition?

The University of the Spectacle negates the independent search for knowledge. In its false image is the university’s real material existence made manifest most concretely in the strategic budgeting process, otherwise known as Responsibility-centered Management (RCM).  Here we see the core contradiction repeat itself in a banal mantra lifted directly from the Harvard playbook: “Every tub must have its own bottom” (there’s always a central script that masquerades as individual administrative wit).  Tubs are faculties and schools responsible for their own bottom line, defined exclusively in monetary terms. Conspicuous by its absence is the academy’s core mission of teaching and research.

In the University of the Spectacle power is centralized in the Board of Governors and senior administration. Responsibility is decentralized and offloaded onto individual faculties, and schools who must compete among themselves in a zero-sum game for an ever shrinking portion of the budgetary pie. The model has led to a winner-takes-all mentality. Research and teaching that can be monetized and leveraged by private interests wins. Service to the public loses.

Separation is the alpha and omega of the University of the Spectacle. In its image we are united in what separates us, the university as spectacle. The utilitarian management system demands it. Be purple, be proud, be silent! This was the message delivered so clearly by well-heeled donors in the days leading to the non-confidence votes in Board Chair Chirag Shah and President Amit Chakma. Debate and critical inquiry are unwanted. Indeed, they are viewed as “reckless and divisive.”

The University of the Spectacle demands fealty to the brand. Communication is essentially one-way. Here we find its strength and weakness. The illusion of control is exercised through the monopolization of representation and brand management. A new logo, complete with Hellmuth, a custom-made sans serif font and a new shade of purple – Pantone 268 – give comfort to those who wish to command. But once the walls are breached panic spreads – literally.

The University of the Spectacle requires quiet compliance. The smooth efficiency of the utilitarian RCM machine cannot function if this is denied. Utilitarian managerialism strives to negate friction; a healthy scholarly community celebrates it. The Double Dip scandal has awakened the students, staff and faculty at Western. Where there was once silence, we find debate. Where there was once the repetitive thump of a rubber stamp, wielded from on high, we hear multiple calls for collegial governance.

Change is not only possible, it’s happening. Scholarship is being directly lived.

James Compton is Associate Professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario
(With thanks to Guy Debord)

The University of Spectacle is part of the important 100 Days @ Western: The Alternative Listening Tour, which can be found at:

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