University Culture and its Discontents- Some socio-analytic reflections on a university as a non-potential space

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Title: University Culture and its Discontents- Some socio-analytic reflections on a university as a non-potential space
Year: 2007
Authors: Ahlers-Niemann, A.

Drawing on my own experience in a university - as student, researcher and instructor - in this paper, I will elaborate some of the contemporary psychodynamics of the organizational culture of a Department of Economics and Management at a German university. While a university previously had been considered 'alma mater', there is striking evidence that at this university, in particular, and at universities in the Western world in general, basic aspects of care and containment, referring to the image of the nurturing mother, have been lost. What Bion identifies as the motherly function of containment, so crucial for learning and development, has ceased to exist. Due to major changes in society and economy (e.g. globalization, the economic demands on all aspects of science and universities, and a fundamental change in the relatedness of society and university) the image of the university as 'alma mater' and other ideals such as the freedom of teaching, learning and thinking have become meaningless. Following these changes, I worry that the university soon will be an organization that has lost all of its previous ideals. In order to continue to give a positive appearance, the university has no other choice but to create a narcissistic self-image, which will go along with the establishment of totalitarian structures and behaviour. The attempt to comprehend the dramatic changes of the university's landscape from a socio-analytic perspective will be guided by the following working hypotheses, which are derived from my own experience both as a role-holder in this organization and from working with students in the frame of socio-analytic methods such as Group Relations Conferences, Social Dreaming, Organizational Role Analysis and the Social Photo-Matrix.
The first hypothesis is based on the idea that contemporary universities lack opportunities for relating and identification both on a horizontal level (amongst students) and a vertical one (between students and academic staff). This leads to a high degree of fragmentation, splitting and disorganisation in the experience of the role of student and of studying. It can be hypothesized that, this lack of opportunity for relating is a major contributing factor to a university culture that is to a large extent characterized by non-relatedness and anonymity. Due to a lack of containment culture cannot be sustained or worked through. The lack of relatedness and identification leads to feelings and experiences of loneliness, anonymity and helplessness. This leads me to the assumption that the role of student has become primarily a passive and lethargic one, intensified by the anxieties typical for this role and phase of life. These anxieties are not merely personal but also have a social impact. In the third and final hypothesis I will further elaborate that anxieties about failing, of not being good enough and the transitory nature of life have become an unconscious driving force for the restructuring and change of universities.
In face of the increasing 'economisation' of departments and whole universities and the concomitant shift in the role of the student toward that of a customer, this paper questions which, if any, of the original ideals of a university comprised in the image of the 'alma mater' still exist and are effective. In the context of one of the primary tasks of a university, i.e. to educate students, the question will be raised (and partly answered) as to whether and to what extent the potential space a university previously provided has meanwhile become a non-potential space.
I will end my exploration with a look into the future of the university. Based on what has been described in my hypotheses, I will attempt to elucidate where these trends and developments will lead, if they are to continue undiminished and without reflection. Ultimately, individually and collectively, we will have no other choice but to become aware of our disappointment, resignation and despair. Perhaps - once acknowledged and despite all hopelessness - we may attempt to find new hope and perspectives. Thus the university (in the not too distant future) may possibly become a meaningful place that again allows respective identity for all its role-holders.

Keywords: socio-analytic, university, non-potential space, contemporary psychodynamics, organizational culture
Language: English

Date: 6/29/2007
Name of Event/Conference: 24th Annual Meetings of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

Submitted by:
Elizabeth Novogratz

Corresponding author:

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