Elite universities: their monstrous promises and promising monsters

Year: 2017

Author: Howard, Adam, Kenway, Jane

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

To mobilize the term 'elite universities' is, explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or unintentionally, to underwrite their elite status. The term suggests that these are hallowed institutions, populated by consecrated figures, far above other flawed universities that are staffed by lesser beings and providing for those of various orders of inferiority. A methodological dilemma arises for critical studies of such institutions. How might they use the term elite universities without appearing to subscribe to its elitist connotations? Here we seek to undermine the term's seductive allure by invoking the disruptive imagery of the monster and the monstrous.

Monster figures, McNally (2012) argues, have 'explosive power' and 'estrangement effects' (p. 6). They can "make the everyday appear as it truly is: bizarre, shocking and monstrous.". In this paper we deploy monsters, methodologically, as de-familiarising figures who disturb and disrupt the 'normal' and 'natural'.

Our monster methods draw, in part, from Marx who deploys vampire, werewolf and demon metaphors to highlight the horrific exploitation, by capital, of workers, child laborers and slaves, during the emergence of industrial capitalism. His method also involves drawing attention away from 'the noisy sphere of circulation' (the market) and focusing on 'the hidden abode of production' (1867:1990). In this abode the monstrous and injurious practices of industrial capitalism are most visible. He associates the sphere of circulation with dangerous distractions and magical mystifications.

We draw on various critical and other empirical studies of elite universities' cultures and subcultures to contrast their magical mystifications with their 'hidden abodes of production'. We argue that they are monstrous, grotesquely privileged, institutions that insatiably gorge on their excess resources, reputations and high achieving academics and students. Further, we suggest that they ruthlessly operate according to a demonic Darwinian modus operandi, which involves excluding and purging the 'weak'- the unwelcome mutant.
Monsters multiply in the toxic 'hidden abodes' of elite university production where the sacred zombie and hungry werewolf dwell. These universities spawn and clone the perfect zombie student via hyper-competitive admission and assessment criteria. The cultural dynamics of compliant perfectionism place extraordinary demands on students to become hyper-focused on 'success'. Failure cannot be countenanced and the fear it invokes leads to mental health issues. But even before they gain admission, the stringent admissions processes mean that students are well on their way to becoming sacred zombies.
The hungry werewolf is the negative other of such universities' long-standing assertion of high moral principals. One of the promises they make to their super- promising students is that the university will ensure they will be great AND good -a contemporary moral aristocracy. But within the subterranean wolf dens of elite universities decidedly injurious, practices occur amongst students. These include high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and systemic sexual and other violence. Sacred zombies can become werewolves and engage in bestial pack behavior. This strengthens the social and emotional ties between them and shores up the dominant and most entitled leaders of the wolf pack. Weaker and non-pack members are humiliated.
Overall, in the paper, we make-strange the familiar allure of elite universities and highlight their monstrous promises and their promising monsters.