Review of John Smyth, The Toxic University

Review of John Smyth, The Toxic University
Palgrave, 2017
Book website:

By Filip Vostal

In seven dynamic chapters, John Smyth uncompromisingly – and often devastatingly – charts the causes and manifestations of an ongoing transformation of contemporary academia, including how market hegemony reshuffles academic governance, the organization of academic employment, academic values, university culture and the overall ethos of institutions of higher education and science. I suspect it would be difficult to find an academic – or other professional working in academia – who would categorically disagree with the principal argument Smyth offers: that the academy is in a deep state of multiple crisis. Smyth nonetheless adds several explanatory or excusatory gestures: that academics are profoundly passive, complicit and resistance-less in such crisis ensued from the ‘invasion’ of ‘commercial logic’ into academia; that academic leaders, with their affective state and false consciousness, cripple the autonomy of research and teaching and the ethos of academic collegiality.

Smyth begins his account with a treatise on neoliberalism, where it comes from, how it ‘infiltrated’ academia, and whether or not the spaces within academia that would ideally enable resistance towards neoliberalism still exist. He then goes on to show how this neoliberal agenda is being pursued, (not) acted upon and how the putative complicity of academics gave rise to the ‘toxic’ culture that is now enveloping academia. Smyth proceeds to analyse the idea and practice of the ‘zombie’ entrepreneurial leadership that sustains neoliberal academia. This is followed by a chapter that takes issue with heightened competition among academics and the corrosion of collegiality – all due to neoliberal forces that create ‘academic rock stars’ strategically mobilised into ‘fake hierarchies’ (e.g. rankings) of academic worth.  Smyth claims that the ‘performative apparatuses of neoliberalism’ – auditing, rating, ranking, measuring, comparing – effectively diminishes the dignity of academics. They are, according to him, humiliated and excluded, as academic work is ‘owned’, not by them, but by the neoliberal university, with the result that the essence of academic work is ‘repurposed’ for neoliberal ‘perversions’. The following chapter argues that the university as the driver of the ‘civil commons’ has made a concession to the neoliberal rationality of monetization and privatization, and that such detachment has tragic implications. Smyth closes with more rehearsals of how the neoliberal mindset took over academia and suggestions of what is to be done. The book can thus be read as synthesis of recent critical treatments of academia’s malaise, one that culminates in a useful, almost didactic, compilation of some of these treatments (pp. 188-201).

Whether or not one likes the author’s somewhat bombastic rhetoric (i.e. zombification, academic apartheid, toxicity, stupid ideas) is a matter of taste. However, Smyth’s Frankfurt School-tuned critique, larded with excessive language as it is, perhaps veils more than it reveals – especially when it comes to providing the kind of insights that would take our current thinking about what is happening to academia in new and original directions. The problem is that Smyth’s critique of the toxic university does not articulate anything that has not previously been addressed by the large amount of already-existing scholarship on the topic. In a move that unintentionally resembles some strands of STS – a field that has examined the (re)construction of (scientific) facts whilst also considering the broader socio-technological context – the author, I think correctly, suggests that the dramatic reshuffling of the institutional setting of academia affects both the nature and content of the knowledge that is produced. Smyth however does not proceed to the level of particulars; nor does he systematically bring any primary or secondary empirical material into the picture. The in-depth contextualization of the tragic suicide of Professor Stephen Grimm of Imperial College in London is a notable, if isolated, exception.

It is questionable whether academics are driven by a new hegemonic ‘research ethic’ (p. 101) that is organized around the kind of ‘tricks’ that assist scientists when choosing theories, frameworks, questions and methods; an ethic, moreover, that is likely to produce knowledge with a plausible, not-that-long shelf life (ibid.). Whereas the speedy turnover of ever-new (immaterial) commodities is indeed inherent to the logic of capital accumulation, Smyth unfortunately does not – and I say ‘unfortunately’ because of his righteously irritated style – provide any evidence to support specific manifestations of this practice in academia. It would certainly be interesting to know from future studies on the topic: How does capital’s demand for a quick turnover shape and re-shape the research agenda in discipline XYZ, for example? What exactly are the mechanisms through which large corporations ‘outsource’ their research departments to universities? Which are the academic themes that are supported financially due to their close affiliation with national policy interests and their likelihood to contribute to economic indicators such as GDP? Who and what occupies those new in-between spaces attached to universities – incubators, accelerators and so forth – that repackage knowledge into reified products? Yes, of course there is a massive disproportion between the levels of funding and investment that is awarded to the applied side of the natural, technical and medical sciences on the one hand, and basic research in the humanities and social sciences on the other. But what are the active political forces behind such a widening gap? How does the ever-tighter commercialization and monetization of the publishing industry and meta-data providers such as Clarivate Analytics affect academic values? All these questions (and more) deserve careful analytical explanation of the kind that I’m afraid is lacking from Smyth’s account. As to whether the research imagination is crippled, as Smyth seems to imply, this claim is not only exaggerated but highly speculative at best. After all, the proliferation of critical accounts of contemporary academia, including Smyth’s own, might be taken as providing plausible evidence that the academic mind-set is not crippled at all.

Whether such critique as is offered in The Toxic University actually has any effect is another problem altogether. Why is it that those in power do not listen or take into consideration the kind of critiques Smyth provides? Ironically enough, all those progressive intellectual strands that have emerged in past 20-30 years criticising the university have been articulated despite ‘neoliberalism’s stealth revolution’ (Brown 2015). As the author admits (pp. 2, 187), there have been any number of accounts – in the form of journal articles, special issues, books, edited books, book series – taking issue with the contemporary academy, its organization and close connection with the neoliberal economy. We have thus witnessed an inflation of critical university studies – and we may need a corresponding ‘deflationary’ (Osborne 2004) move. After all, the more critique there is of the neoliberal takeover of the university, the more neoliberal academia gets, it seems that. In other words, the situation academics are in deserves a fresh theoretical angle, a new standpoint and, perhaps above all, a substantive guide to what our ‘reconstructive’ practical conduct might be. Smyth, in a somewhat revolutionary fervour, offers a very brief guide at the end of his book. He pleads for more description, information (in terms of sense-making), confrontation and reconstruction (p. 216-17). Unfortunately, and perhaps paradoxically, Smyth’s own account in The Toxic University delivers very none of these in a substantial sense. His brief treatment of these four imperatives, which should, in Smyth’s logic, lead us to some post-capitalist academic futures, consciously lacks:

  1. forensic and detailed description (of the sort that would be gained by zooming in on a particular discipline and the systematic unfolding of what is actually happening to it – such as those Holmwood 2010 and Abott 2001 have provided when it comes to sociology and the social sciences respectively);
  2. contextual and original ‘information’ (i.e. analysis of what one could gather from such forensic description);
  3. targeted confrontation that goes beyond big ideological labels (i.e. to focus, not so much on the constant struggle over neoliberalism, but rather on asking: What are the power silos within academic institutions? Who decides about what? And how do they do so?);
  4. ideas for a strategic, sustainable and viable reconstruction of the university that won’t be easily gluttonized by the existing forces of power (i.e. what is the specific remedy to the current wrongdoing and how are we to enact it?).

In this respect Smyth’s critique is a little stale. It reads as an over-rehearsed mid-20th century Marxist account of the subject, one that lacks any rigorous engagement with recent reinvigorations of the critique of the university found in the fields of posthumanism, new materialism, ANT, biopolitics and neovitalism (all areas of theory discussed extensively in the pages of TCS, of course). These progressive rearrangements – although not without problems themselves – nevertheless offer a challenge to the established canon of ‘critical university studies’. One of the messages of these intellectual developments is that only new practices, new ways of understanding how ‘actants’ relate to one another would allow an emergence of alternatives to the over-reliance on critique as it is currently understood: a post-critical take, as it were, that would follow and bypass the canonized, routinized modes of thought that grasp social issues via outmoded dichotomies and binaries.

As Hoofd (2017) and Benda (2018) point out, it remains analytically problematic to assess the neoliberal transformation of academia as if it were a wrestling match between malicious external forces: an ungraspable, almost mystical, power-push from above, on the one hand, and a long-gone pristine, purified and detached ‘slow’ academia, on the other. One inconvenient observation is that many instances of ‘toxicity’ – audits, KPIs, balance sheets, targets, but I’m also thinking here of a particular mindset and ideological drive, along with the construction of a charged future(s) of the kind that is sustained by mainstream economics (Fourcade et al 2015) and business schools (Parker 2018) – actually have their origins within academia. And there is more: the contemporary ‘uberification’ of capitalism also in many ways originates in universities (Hall 2016). As Hall notes, long before this configuration became the trendsetter with respect to the accumulation strategies of contemporary capitalism – strategies that, as Smyth and many others note, corrupt academia from outside its walls – it appeared in the corridors of universities. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Travis Kalanick & Garrett Camp (Uber), Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk (Airbnb) – all of them developed business models that have become paradigm-shifters whilst being enrolled at universities. If such figures managed to transform once-wild, ‘crazy’ and geek ideas that were skilfully taming the available technological instrumentarium into multi-billion global capitalist enterprises, why are non-commercial progressive ideas about the university moving primarily into disent?

Smyth’s book suffers of a widespread problem that plenty of other accounts criticising contemporary university (including, of course, Vostal 2016) do – they don’t offer any real alternatives to status quo. It seems that critique has indeed ran out of steam, to respond to Latour’s 2004 question. Critique apparently has dissolved in the ‘cacophony’ (Boland 2019) of critical voices, turned into a co-opted, individuated and ‘cool’ discursive device (Frank 1997; McGuigan 2009) that serves the configurations of power (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005). How, then, are we to enact a progressive transformation of academia in an age of more or less toothless critical debates? Offering another critique of the current state of academia, and call for a return to liberal (i.e. western) values – values that are deeply entrenched in modern institutional governance – of the kind Smyth promotes towards the end of his book probably won’t do, I’m afraid.  Liberalism, after all, is the initial stage of neoliberalism. It seems to me that change won’t occur without experimentation. Rather than yet another critical rehearsal – which is still way better than complicit silence – the often cognitively dissonant reader would certainly benefit from more practical advice on how exactly we are to challenge and subvert the current hegemony. One possible micro-experiment, even if a tricky one given the parameters of the evaluation systems that co-shape career prospects (especially of ECRs), would be to change our own publishing practices. We should publish differently than Smyth and indeed the author of this review so far: perhaps with publishers that are not (owned by) large for-profit ventures. Another, more atavistic possibility would be to a ‘prefigurative politics’ in which we are the change we want to see. Accordingly, if one wants to aim at changing (however small a component of) a power regime, it’s social relations and institutional order, it is better to be a part of them. In the words of Hall: ‘It is important to engage actively with institutions. Simply abandoning or rejecting them in favour of establishing places outside where “the common” can be achieved risks our work being co-opted by these institutions all the more’ (2017: 20).   


Great many thanks to Gary Hall and Fabian Cannizzo who commented on an earlier draft of this essay.


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Filip Vostal received PhD in sociology from the University of Bristol, UK in 2013. From 2014 he has worked as a researcher at the Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the Institute of Philosophy CAS. He has published his work in journals such as Time & Society and European Journal of Social Theory. Filip is the author of Accelerating Academia: The Changing Structure of Academic Time (2016, Palgrave Macmillan) and currently runs a project that anthropologically investigates temporality of knowledge production in physics (funded by Czech Science Foundation). He teaches science & technology studies at the Charles University and social theory at the Anglo-American University in Prague.