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Let me put it this way: something very wrong has transpired. Readers who’ve had executive careers spanning three decades or more in America’s public and nonprofit institutions know what I’m talking about.

neoliberalism

You’ve experienced ‘it’ – the neoliberal turn of America’s social institutions—the unrelenting mission of steering America’s social institutions from Progressive to Neoliberal, that is, from serving the public good to optimizing self-serving benefits.

You’ve experienced ‘it’ – the neoliberal turn of America’s social institutions—the unrelenting mission of steering America’s social institutions from Progressive to Neoliberal, that is, from serving the public good to optimizing self-serving benefits.

We see it in the public policy sphere. Tax ‘reform’ enriches elites, raises the Federal deficit and, then, politicians seek to reduce the deficit by cutting Medicare and Social Security (an example of what Coretta Scott King calls ‘policy violence”). We see it in the nonprofit health care sector when a once-largely charitable enterprise now attends “more or less single-mindedly to profits.”

And there’s a good chance you—yes, you—helped make the Turn possible. Nobody held the title ‘operative,’ but that’s exactly what we were. We were directors, executive directors, division chiefs, assistants of this, associates of that, vice presidents, presidents, and CEOs.

We embrace the private sector model, often uncritically. We help public nonprofit and public institutions become corporatized (run like corporations) and industrialized (positioned with peers in industries, just like auto companies). We infuse capitalistic thinking into structures, processes, and rubrics.

The ‘game’ we play involves ‘hitting home runs’ (getting big grants) and ‘snagging big fish’ (getting monster donor pledges). Success is measured in terms of dollars and cents. Budget management is revered. Fundraising is king. Branding is the rage.

And if we try steering the ship in a different direction…well, good luck. They’ll be loads of questions, asked and again, by neoliberally-dominated boards—elites with money, title, and networks. How are we doing against the competition? Where are we vulnerable? Who’s an up-and-comer? Where can we cut? Where’s our next REALLY BIG play?

Experience a crisis? Job #1 is clear: Protect the Brand. Defend. Deflect. Deny. Keep the press at bay. Hire a crisis management firm. Get out of the jam with the least damage.

What I’ve just written comes to life in stories about lived experiences. Here are three of mine, shared in temporal order from the beginning, middle, and end of a 40-year career.

My field was public higher education. It may not be yours, but that doesn’t matter. The issues are thematic. You’ll get the gist.

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Story One: We, The Engaged. One afternoon I was in my office working on a lecture when I heard a knock at the door. It was a distinguished faculty member (by title) who wanted me to accompany him to a meeting that afternoon. I’d only been on the faculty for about a year and it was my first full-time academic job. I couldn’t say no. Later that day, we entered the meeting. Colleagues were sitting around a table. It was an academic governance meeting. My colleague introduced me, telling his peers (and me) how important it was for younger faculty to see academic governance at work. I, too, would be at the table soon, he said. But, today, my job was to observe. I did. I watched carefully as colleagues engaged seriously, thoughtfully, and deliberately—for the good of the university.

It was an embodiment of the culture of the place…at that point, at least.

Story Two: Alignment, People! Twenty years or so later…. A new executive administrator needed help, help in getting us “to get it.” Clearly, we weren’t, and he was tired of getting nowhere. So he called in a colleague from another place, a high-ranking executive, who delivered a lecture to us at a ‘you-will-attend’ meeting. The subject was organizations, specifically what good organizations look like and how they operate. Those at the top are in charge, he told us. Our job wasn’t to question or carp (we were doing both). Our mission was is to get the job done—to ‘deliver’ is the word he used—quickly and well. It’s all about alignment, he emphasized, interconnected hand-offs, a baton pass.

It was an embodiment of the culture that had evolved. The turn was taking hold.

Story Three: “I Played Them Like a Violin!” Another ten years or so passed…. A colleague and I were at a conference waiting for our session to begin. With time to burn, we searched the halls for sessions to attend. Intrigued by one session title—‘a primer in executive leadership’—I settled into a seat. It was a session for newly minted and ‘wanna-be’ chief executives, who sat dutifully taking notes, while a panel of experienced elders sat on the stage expounding, one after the other, about what they had learned over the years. The stories were varied, but the theme was identical: how to get your board, faculty, and others (e.g., donors) to do what you want. “I played them like a violin!” one panelist crowed. The crowd chuckled as he shared what was tantamount to state secrets—‘truths’ rarely spoken in public.

The ‘turn’ was now complete.

Today I have loads of regret. I didn’t do enough to counter the trend, fight the flow. I didn’t see Neoliberalism coming. And, even when it was clear that things were amiss, I underestimated its force. I had assumed the culture I inherited would never change fundamentally. And then it did.

One reason is Neoliberalism’s stealth-like quality. It shows up unannounced and, then, settles in. Intent is never expressed either clearly or completely. Bags of tricks are never revealed. I remember receiving a memo from the Provost’s Office with the title, ‘Criteria for Change.’ I had no idea what that meant, but the words seemed benign enough. They weren’t. The piece was about how to eliminate academic departments and schools.

That was then. Today is now. And, just like the ominous creep of climate change, there’s limited time to get things right. I also worry it may be too late. Are we at a point—as John Glubb writes in The Fate of Empires—where “decadence” (i.e., the focus on wealth, power, private gain, and the loss of sense of duty) is too deep, too pervasive for a return?

Time will tell. But no matter what, Progressives have no choice but to rebel and reposition America from its Neoliberal Turn … and the societal rot it has enabled.

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Frank Fear

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