A Review of Team Diversity: An Ethnography of Institutional Values by Bonnie Urciuoli

Urciuoli, Bonnie. (2005). “Chapter 10: Team Diversity: An Ethnography of Institutional Values.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (159-172). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In this chapter Bonnie Urciuoli invites us to critically examine the institutional values of the university. She argues that universities are becoming increasingly corporate in nature and uses her own institution as the foundation upon which she builds her case. Drawing upon publications from several organizations directly involved or affiliated with the University Urciuoli provides ample evidence to support her claim that corporate culture, as demonstrated through language, has become a dominant feature in the academic institution. Publications and literature increasingly ground language in terms of tangible and transferable skills, of particular importance to Urciuoli is the use of the term diversity. From here the author then points to the significance of this corporate shift on student identity and student participation in university life.

Urciuoli begins by explaining how her interest in this particular subject was borne out of a larger project. The project was set at her own university, a small private liberal arts college located in upstate New York. Here she was examining the ways in which notions of diversity and multiculturalism were created in student life. In the course of this project she became interested in the larger institutional structure in which student life was situated. As her focus shifted from student identity to the broader academic milieu she comments that there were three salient points which emerged. The first was the role that college recruiting and publicity play in establishing this corporate tone with its emphasis on skills. Secondly, that increasing the diversity profile at the university had become a mandated initiative. Thirdly, Urciuoli comments on the implications of the use of diversity over multicultural, the former being corporate in nature and increasingly appearing in the academic sphere. The increased usage of diversity, she argues, represents an imposition of external corporate values in university life.

This shift in the usage of terminology has significant implications in terms of value creation and the student identity. Urciuoli describes the use of diversity in university parlance, over that of multiculturalism, as a strategically deployable shifter (SDS). Shifter is a term drawn from grammatical theory and it refers to how words can direct our thinking. SDS builds on this notion by acknowledging how words may appear to be synonymous on the surface but that each word holds a deeper embedded meaning. As such, when we employ a specific term we can create or control the context in which we are speaking, while also subtly directing what the other, or others, think. The replacement of multicultural with diversity will conjure up a different notion in a student’s mind, and will represent a different type of association. Urciuoli argues that diversity is a corporate value and its permeation throughout the institution represents a “hegemonic entrenchment of what learning should be” (p. 162).

To support this assertion of the corporatization of university language the author draws upon several examples from her own university. Urciuoli begins with an examination of the Resident Advisor manual. She notes that the language is grounded both in the acquisition of transferable skills and the fostering community. Diversity emerges here as a skill employed by the Resident Advisor to foster an inclusive environment. Urciuoli links this notion of diversity to works in human relations literature on workplace organization. She draws upon a specific example in the work of Loden which emphasizes the benefits of shifting “company culture towards valuing diversity” (author’s emphasis, p. 165).

Urciuoli  then proceeds to compare the stated purpose of several of the multicultural organizations on campus against that of the fraternity-sorority council. She finds that multicultural organizations propose to educate others about their culture whereas the fraternity-sorority council emphasizes skills and leadership. While seemingly divergent, both organizations draw upon a notional “diversity-as-a-contribution-to-the-whole” (p. 166) and further establish corporate values within the university.

Lastly, Urciuoli examines the embedded structure of the Posse Program, an organization separate from the university but which the university is a member. The Posse Foundation’s operational premise contends that students of colour would be most successful in predominantly white colleges if they were to go through college in a cohort. The literature of the Posse Program is what is of most interest to the author as it provides the best depiction of the SDSs mobilized to align with corporate values. The author contends that this essentially multicultural organization focuses primarily on leadership and team skills which are more representative of the corporate diversity model. Through these examples Urciuoli develops a common thread of how these works seek to imbue students with the corporate skills of the ideal employee.

Through our discussions in class it was highlighted that what Urciuoli is really commenting on is the politico-economic context in which academics function. The increasingly corporate nature of the university demands that disciplines ‘prove’ their worth through economic outcomes. Our discussions centered upon what this ultimately means for professors and students. The corporate model of the university has many ramifications, including impacting what we learn, what we know and how we think. It has the potential to create an environment where education is an industry, and the university is essentially an assembly line for constructing the ideal student and, ultimately, the ideal employee.

Urciuoli paints a convincing picture of the corporatization of the University. She provides substantial evidence to support her argument that the language which pervades the academic institution aligns with corporate ‘speak.’ However, less evidence is provided to convincingly support the claim that academic institutions are being corporatized. Corporatized here referring to an outside force pushing inward, and/or as a dissemination of values from the top down. She states that the usage of terms such as leadership and diversity are “not simply borrowings” but that they “indicate a hegemonic entrenchment of corporate notions” (p. 162). I am not convinced that this adoption of corporate language represents, de facto, the corporatization of the institution in the manner in which she suggests. Urciuoli has proved that corporate language exists but correlation is not causation.

Urciuoli’s University, a private liberal arts college in upstate New York where almost 40 percent of the students come from private schools, does not represent a typical North American university—which is not private, and where a far lower percentage of the population comes from private schools. Private schools are expensive. Private universities are also expensive. Students who attend these institutions tend to come from families who can afford the tuition. While not all may come from corporate households a larger portion likely do. Thus, corporate language may well be a common part of their lexicon, it is simply what they grew up with. In this scenario the ubiquity of corporate language may be an organic, bottom-up creation where students and alumni contributed to the dominate language of the institution. Further, this corporate language dominated environment may be confined solely to her institution or to a few other institutions of similar constitution.

Should Urciuoli’s assertion of corporate dominated language have a broader application across many or all universities in the United States, or even North America, a second alternative explanation may exist. In this model it represents Keynesian supply and demand. Certainly, attending a University is an opportunity to learn and grow, but most students attend University to prepare themselves for the working world; rather than pursuing a career in academia. In this scenario the marketing of transferable skills represents the University responding to the demands of the market: the students. The job market is competitive and capitalizing on, and re-framing, experiences in terms of the skills that can be applied later in life simply makes sense. Here the University is providing the students with what they want, or ultimately, what they need. To not do so may mean that the University is a less viable option for students in a competitive market. For better or for worse academia is an industry and if you cannot meet the market demand the consumer will go somewhere else, that is, to another university.

Corporate and corporatization, as concepts, have taken on increasingly negative connotations over the years. The well-known mainstream work No Logo by Naomi Klein and the documentary The Corporation are two examples of works which highlight the less savory aspects of corporate culture. This side of the discussion is fair, but it seems to promote the same sort of reductive associative thinking that the author discusses in this chapter. That is, diversity equals corporate, and corporate equals bad.  Some aspects of corporate culture can be, and are, bad. Not all aspects necessarily are, though. The corporate model is also remarkably efficient and effective in cost-saving measures. This is why many public sector institutions attempt to mirror these models. Additionally, to suggest that corporatization is an external force seeking to permeate the sanctity of the academic sphere removes agency from the individuals who actually comprise this sphere; the students, professors and staff. These individuals are not completely powerless in determining their own fate.

Ultimately, Urciuoli provides a solid work establishing the existence of corporate language and values at her University. However, there are several possible alternate explanations as to the origins of this phenomenon. It may be, as the author argues, an imposition from corporations on what constitutes desirable skills and the ideal employee. However, the explanation may equally lie elsewhere.

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