Usurpation of the University?

Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence (Bauman 2002, 222-23).

Last August I discussed a symposium to be held at the Australian Philosophy of Education Society with David Aldridge. That never happened but this note is what I was thinking of at the time.

Is transcendence as transgression a usurpation? We expect it is and is and is to be celebrated.

In Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock (2014) propose the idea of “closure”  as a way of understanding institutional and individual academic behaviours in contemporary universities, where, “… competition for resources and rewards produces two forms of ‘closure’ that are reshaping higher education” (p. 413). “Social closure”, economically described in terms of goal or reward seeking behaviour, defined as:

the process by which social collectivities [in this case, the universities] seek to maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities (p. 413)

And “intellectual closure”:

the consequences of social closure that are expressed in the everyday practices of faculty and graduate students that reflect a narrowing of choices and standards associated with intellectual work (p. 413)

The narrowing of choice occurs on all sides and is not only associated with intellectual work. There is risk of narrowing to exclusion some inclusion or diversity factors. Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock (2014) are entering into an ongoing debate about the demise of the university, asserted by many, including Jon Nixon’s (2013) Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education and Maskell and Robinson (2001).  put it

… There is a threat from forces with, … a conception of higher education which is not only not that of the university, but is actively hostile to the university. (in submission)

The assertion of  “narrowing of choices” in conditions of intellectual closure is also echoed in Webster & Kruglanski’s earlier (1994) concept of “cognitive closure” where one key element, is that (with my emphasis) :

the desire for secure or stable knowledge, [is] assumed to increase under high need for closure. A secure knowledge is one that can be relied on across circumstances and is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreements (p 1050).

Webster & Kruglanski associate a high need for closure with authoritarianism (1994: 1054) and repressive political regimes. Roets & Van Hiel (2011) associate a need for closure with the workings of prejudice in society. And, while Roets, Soetens, Au, & Yanjun, (2014) do show that there are cultural variables at least regionally nuanced in populations, “closure”, sometimes expressed as “close-mindedness”, carries a negative affective semantic burden. Closure doesn’t feel cool.

So, in a consummative moment I want to suggest that closure begs usurpation. Usurpation and closure together are the “moment”: the thousand-mile journey’s first step into the liminal space of threshold concepts and transformational learning.. Methodically for a moment, set “closure” against “openness” and acknowledge the metaphors of space that tell the story, in the academy, of their separation and their relationship. Which way is the door swinging and for whom? Which direction on the limen is emergent transformation?  Which system of belief is at the cusp of usurping another? 

Usurpation (Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock, 2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to appropriate – maybe even creatively –  more of whatever is going. It needn’t be negative. But it may be (inevitably?) cyclical, episodic, periodic, measurable and predictable. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

As evidence, we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial, or neoliberal themes: Women’s Studies or Business Studies for example. Is this the “moment” Media Studies replaces 17th Century Drama in the English curriculum? Ultimately some greater or lesser value is attributed to one inscribed position or another. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). Is the student experience usurping scholarship? 

Both decisiveness (high need for closure) and tolerance of ambiguity (low need for closure) may be required of academics. But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. But as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.

In a symposium we hope to explore  the concepts of [technology enhanced learning], [student engagement] and [learning experience] as usurpers of other possibilities that might be foregrounded in higher education.

Inclusivity in fact directly challenges – is the “other” of –  the university’s powerful counter narrative of exclusivity

We should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – … the inbetween space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture… By exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves. (Bhabha 2004: 56)

We might suggest that usurpation be better seen as the proper condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today. Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being usurped and indeed facilitates that process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy. In making this argument we might draw on Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory, in this case suggesting a space of usurpation in the moment. Third space suggests each moment is unique and no part of the moment can be privileged as originary. All in-groups and out-groups, colonised and coloniser are as historically contingent. More challenging is that the “I”: individual identity, expertise, privilege, are as equally and utterly contingent. While the “other” is always constitutive: that on which any particularity is defined: others have rights while one has only responsibility..



  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Maskell, Duke, and Ian Robinson. 2001. The New Idea of a University. London: Haven Books.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Roets, A., Soetens, B., Au, E. W. M., & Yanjun, G. (2014). Personal choice: A blessing or a burden, or both? A cross-cultural investigation on need for closure effects in two Western and two East-Asian societies. International Journal of Psychology, 49(3), 216–221.
  • Roets, A., & Van Hiel, A. (2011). Allport’s Prejudiced Personality Today: Need for Closure as the Motivated Cognitive Basis of Prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science (Sage Publications Inc.), 20(6), 349–354.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.
  • Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 67(6), 1049–1062.


See also

  • Hoofd, I. M. (2010). The accelerated university: Activist-academic alliances and the simulation of thought. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 10(1), 7–24.
  • Quade, Q. L. (1984). Comment on Romoser and Kayser’s Thorns among the Ivy. Journal of Higher Education, 55(3), 402–409.

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