In 1970 students occupied the Registry building at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England and discovered evidence that politically active staff and students had been the subject of administrative surveillance. The students released these documents and a public reckoning followed: What ought to be the relationship between industry and universities and ought both embrace the same managerial strategies? Warwick was well poised to be the center of the debate and not just because it deployed a strategy of worker control familiar in the industrial sphere. Warwick’s vice-chancellor, Jack Butterworth institutionalized close ties between industry and the university on the University Council and Warwick made industrial relations a key part of its emerging graduate business program.
One thing that firmly cemented this episode into the historical imagination was the role of E.P. Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class and a faculty member at the Centre of Social History at Warwick since 1965. Thompson’s essay, “The Business University,” published during the controversy would expand into a volume he edited with anonymous student unionists, Warwick University Ltd. Thompson’s essay sought to carve a position between that of the “red moles” and those he terms academicus superciliosus, for whom “academic freedom is for ever on their lips, and is forever disregarded in their actions.” The position he develops is a diagnosis that endures well beyond the circumstances at Warwick. Delivered cheekily, it questions the relationship between industry, the state, and education, particularly when efficiency is emphasized above all else:
by far the most important educational products of a university must be those which go to reinforce a system which in fact is directed by criteria of profitability, although the public image is of efficiency and economic growth. Supplementing this ever-present, persuasive propaganda of priorities, there come new methods of management, a new insistence upon the subjugation of the individual to institutional loyalties. The demands of the institution become larger — moving outwards from the working life to the private and social life of its employees — and its attempts to enforce loyalties by moral or disciplinary means, by streaming its procedures or by managing promotions and career prospects, become greater. The managers at the top, need not even see themselves as police-minded men; they think they are acting in the interests of greater ‘efficiency’; any other course would damage the institution’s ‘public image’ or would encourage subversion.
Unfortunately…neither efficiency nor productivity were ever, in the long run, achieved by the manipulation of people, by limiting their rights, by defrauding them of their own initiatives, by denying to them participation in the control of their own affairs.