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Will there still be Universities after the Revolution?

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Will there still be Universities after the Revolution?

Andrew Wernick

The UK Government’s adoption of the Browne Report has all the charm of shock capitalism.  Amidst a declared state of fiscal emergency, and simultaneous with axing university teaching budgets, the ministerial equivalent of the IMF comes in with a bail out whose conditions amount to the privatization of what had been a tax-payer-funded public institution.

The plan is ingenious.  The government loan that compensates for the withdrawal of block grants will flow through students who become individually responsible for the debt, leaving universities and departments to scramble for funds through competition for students.  Inter-university competition will, in turn, encourage efficiencies, such as the closure of low enrollment programs, while promoting greater differentiation among institutions (why should they all do everything?) Of course no market can work without information, and so – to supplement the existing plethora of indices and league tables – the projected value added, in terms of life-time income, by acquiring this or the other degree will be made publicly available.  This will enable students to invest their borrowed fees in ways that make financial sense, and universities to allocate resources in line with what student demand signals about future labour market demand.  To help ensure that the current imbalance of too many humanities and social science graduates, and not enough Science Technology Engineering and Medicine (STEM) ones, is corrected, a 20% subsidy goes to universities for teaching the latter. Further tweaking, for example with fee caps, can be done over time.

The assumptions are starkly reductive: that higher education is training not bildung; that it is properly regarded as a service industry with students its customers; that its social value lies in the contribution it makes to the production of (highly qualified) labour power and to the economic growth this makes possible; and that the best way to optimize that production is through incentivizing students to invest rationally in courses that maximize their own income earning potential.  The claim can also be challenged that, through the salary-linked payback of student loans, access to universities will not become more inequitable, enrolments will not be dented and the HE sector will stay on track to enroll 50% of the cohort. 

It would be a mistake, though, to think that mere ideology is in play.  An enterprise model is encouraged throughout and the door is opened to the entry of fully commercial universities. However, privatisation does not go all the way. Tuition is tripled, but fees remain capped. The government will still hold the purse strings, including for basic research, in what remains a highly regulated system.  Marketisation, in fact, is imposed here not just as a simulation model, in which the rational choice paradigm (misrecognised as the logos of capital) precedes the territory it is mapping.  It is imposed tactically, as an instrument of planning.

This is evident when one considers what the new tuition regime is designed to achieve. In one fell swoop, three over-riding policy objectives are addressed.   First, a cost transfer that relieves the Treasury while ‘securing a sustainable future’ for a mass-based system.  Secondly, a better fit between the available mix of courses and places and the skills needed in a ‘knowledge-based economy’.  Thirdly, driven by price and brand competition, a more functionally differentiated system topped by a cluster of super-universities able to compete globally for foreign students, whether through direct recruitment, overseas branch-plants, or on line. 

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It should be noted that no thought is given to reducing the public cost of universities by reducing the scale of the system. To the contrary, the steady trend to increased participation (from 5% of the age group in 1970 to more than 40% now) is affirmed as a continuing goal. 

This is not because of any commitment to the virtues of higher education as such, let alone out of any consideration that the more affluent a society becomes the more it can, and should, expand support for cultural and intellectual activities as ends in themselves. For the past fifty years the driver of university growth, and state support for it, has been techno-economic, summarized in the mantra that with robotics, computerization, biotech and much else, industrialism has given way to a knowledge-based economy.  This is reflected in the way in which a growing proportion of university offerings have been given over to technically and vocationally oriented courses—dramatically signaled in the UK by the re-designation of the polytechnics in 1992, which doubled over night the number of degree giving bodies.  In the new dispensation, higher education is no longer just about training elites and the higher professions.  It is broad-based investment in human capital.

To be sure, state support for university expansion has not been all supply-push. Governments have responded to rising aspirations as well as to employer demand for credentialised labour, in which no doubt there has been some inflationary circularity.  In addition, the taking on by primary and secondary schools of added social responsibilities, combined with an only partly related dumbing down of the pre-university curriculum, has elongated the system, so that universities in their junior years have the edu-function of yesteryear’s 6th forms.  An unspoken factor in the expansion, too, is that universities have become a kind of youth corral, disguising what would otherwise be mass unemployment.  But the economic growth motive has been uppermost, spurred on by the freeing of trade and the big bang of the Thatcher-Reagan shift. In a competitive world where production is knowledge-based and capital is highly mobile, for a nation-state to under-invest in research and development and in the supply of highly educated labour is to risk decline.  Asia is now the West’s model.

The dilemma all along has been that, even when supplemented with fees, private fundraising and alternative revenue streams, the requisite expansion could not be sustainably financed if it was based on the cost structure (and professorial contact) that prevailed before expansion began. Hence a policy, as one Ontario Education Minister put it, of ‘more scholar for dollar’ and, in the UK as elsewhere, a succession of funding systems designed to grow enrolments while exerting a constant downward pressure on unit costs.

Increased productivity has meant expanded scale, a cheaper labour structure, and technological substitution.  It has also meant outsourcing, command style management, and skimping on support services. But belt-tightening has its limits, and can have perverse effects.  In an international exchange-system of degrees there are thresholds of quality. Hence too, therefore, periodic bouts of system-wide restructuring to bring the pattern of winners and losers into line with what rational investment in the sector might dictate. The cuts that followed the 2007-9 financial crisis have been a case in point. The difference this time is that rather than attempt a further rationalization from above, the calculation is that the competition unleashed by a fee-driven system will force universities to rationalise their own resources.  Spontaneously, then, through the hidden hand of the market, areas of excellence, especially in domains that matter, will get more, while those less excellent and useful or in over-supply will get less.  The same competition, it is hoped, will also promote greater diversity among types of institutions, with cost structures to match – ranging from low-fee teaching mills at one end to high-fee, high-prestige, research-oriented ones at the other, competing among themselves for the highest grade students.

That the Browne Committee was urged in this direction by the Russell Group (of ‘research-intensive’ universities) is not surprising. It indicates, at the same time, that such reallocation has more than one purpose.  In promoting ‘excellence’ the new policy is explicit not only in seeking to optimize the level and mix of higher education as an infrastructural input into the domestic economy.  It also understands universities as corporate enterprises themselves.  As such they compete, moreover, not just nationally but externally, in an increasingly globalised market for degrees and contract research.  They, or the best of them, are part of the export sector.  Universities, in short, have come to have a dual relation to the capitalist economy, as infrastructure and as producers of exchange value.  Both have to be attended to. Together with the new austerity – which itself reflects globally competitive pressures on taxes, the social wage, and the public sector – it is this double exigency that UK policy, and that of many other jurisdictions, is responding to in the current round of university restructuring.

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Overall, then, against the background of a massifying expansion, a functional rationalisation of universities in line with the perceived needs of a changed economy has come to combine with a more direct commodification process in which, to an increasing degree, courses are marketed, research is commercialized and universities come to resemble business corporations.

Even before the Browne Report British universities were far down that road. In a hybridic system, foreign students were a cash cow; fee-paying domestic ones were already becoming a cross between consumers and indentured ‘cognitive workers’; academic labour was already becoming casualised or converted into limited contracts; universities were already becoming Board-and-CEO type organizations (EP Thomson’s Warwick University Ltd was published in 1971), replete with corporate logos and entrepreneurial initiatives, and the decline of collegial self-governance at all levels. The diminishing place of the humanities and social sciences, and of non-applied science, amid the verdant growth of vocational and professional programs was also becoming palpable, with once key departments like philosophy no longer being considered essential to the academic ensemble. And all this on top of the micro-managing machinery that came with Thatcher and New Labour: targeted funding, the separation of teaching and research, a forest of quangos, the audit culture, and whole institutions given over to Total Quality Management and the production of performance indicators.

These trends are ubiquitous in the developed world. But with its combination of privately incorporated universities, public funding and centralized state management the UK has been something of a paradigm case.  Just as the form of British universities has facilitated business-style corporatization, their relation to the state has encouraged a diffuse managerialism, while centralizing resource bargaining among VPs, unions and bureaucrats, concentrating decision powers at the top, and draining the politics of direction-setting away from the deliberations of individual institutions. It has also meant a system moving in lockstep, punctuated by crises and disruptive turns in policy that frustrate long-term planning.  The relative insulation, at the same time, of Oxford and Cambridge to the worst of these changes – and their high world rankings – has maintained the appearance for decision makers of more continuity than there has been, while feeding resentment into the deteriorating morale of the professoriat as a whole. Halsey’s survey in 1989 showed 40% of UK academics were seriously considering emigration. Today, for all but a handful of stars, there’s nowhere to go.

The results, to be sure, have not been all bad. Expansion has been frothy as well as lean-and-mean. It has broadened the base of social participation, dramatically so for women, and helped dissolve hidebound hierarchies and exclusivities within the academic guild.  Cost-motivated consolidations and revenue-motivated initiatives have facilitated inter and trans disciplinary developments. While areas like classics, modern languages and philosophy have become vulnerable, the continuing popularity of humanistic and critical studies has enabled newcomers like cultural studies and its cognates to emerge, and across a swathe of disciplines has helped break the icy hold of British empiricism and its hostility to continental ideas. Even the much maligned Research Assessment Exercise has given a chance for enterprising academics in small or cash-strapped institutions to attract research funds and challenge the old and established ones, particularly in new areas which the latter may disdain.

But this has all come at a price. In both teaching and research, the reified and alienated character of university work has steadily increased;  as too have insecurity, competitiveness, self-promotion and a compulsive productivism that, with faculty over-loaded and students juggling assignments and class-time with other part-time jobs, makes risible the Greek meaning of schole as leisure, conceived as free activity by free people in free time.  And this is not to speak of a pervasive sense of fraud and disappointment in the pedagogical process – you pretend to teach and I’ll pretend to learn – and a rising fog of admin-speak that at its worst is suffocatingly anti-intellectual.  The paradox it presents us with is that there was never so much academia, but never so little of it imbued with anything resembling what used to be thought of as an academic spirit.

The new fees and funding policy is not in itself, then, the only issue.  Nor, amidst the general furor about cuts in social spending, does it raise only questions of equity and justice—whether for students or for those damaged through layoffs and closures. In the sharpness with which the Browne reforms register a phase shift in the post-industrial transformation of the university, they bring to the surface a fundamental set of questions about the university itself, questions that have been festering a long time.

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In the first place is a nest of issues concerning the public character of universities and their place in the polity.  By essentially defunding undergraduate teaching, the new policy has not only brought to a definitive end official rhetoric about the social value of a highly educated citizenry that had accompanied the headiest days of expansion in the 60s and 70s.  It also completes the demolition of a central pillar of the welfare state going back to the Education Act of 1944. There is something at once anti-democratic and philistine about this – both in its depreciation of the social benefits of higher education for citizenship, shared culture and the common good, and in the neo-liberal lurch towards commodifying a vital chunk of the public realm.

In the counter-cry, however, to defend the ‘public university’, there is an ambiguity of language that risks obscuring another and equally important aspect of the question.

Publicly funded or not, UK universities were always, following a medieval tradition, ‘private’ institutions. Their incorporation (typically by royal charter) has guaranteed them a measure of autonomy; but it has also made possible their transmogrification from charitable to quasi-commercial to entrepreneurial entities without any rupture in legal status.  One would not want to endorse a form of organization for the university that concentrates power in the hands of its executive team, still less its marketing department, or that otherwise amounts to the loss of autonomy by those who constitute the university at its core.  But neither might one want to see the potential for a more meaningful autonomy disappear.  Indeed it is their all too public status – tax-payer-supported therefore government supervised – that has led UK universities down the path of intrusive regulation by the state.  Some might even welcome the change, as presaging a loosening of bureaucratic controls.

But it is a case of fires and frying pans. In a fully market-based system, even a democratized private institution in which the academic interest held sway would be heteronomous vis-à-vis the market, and to this extent not autonomous at all. On the other hand, if the university is to be shielded by public funding from the pure operation of market forces, then that public, and its interest, has some right to be involved.  But then how is the representation of that interest (an issue in itself) to be balanced off against institutional autonomy, especially one that is not merely that of its management? It is a measure of how far things have gone that it seems utopian to recall the days when academic decision-making was not  confined to in-house matters related to the teaching program and when universities were able to preserve a quasi autonomy from both the market and the state via a buffer body at arms-length from their public paymaster.

The question of the place of the university in the polity discloses, at any rate, a further one about the polity within;  wherein what is at stake is not only the external relation of the university to state and economy, but the impact of that relation on the prospects for reversing the atrophy of academic self-governance.  

A disjunctive language of private vs public does not help us to think the problem.  It requires a notion, rather, of intermediary bodies and civil society, as well as an appreciation of what makes the university – in its originary function as a centre and guardian of free intellectual enquiry – distinctive and irreducible.

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A second set of issues concerns the unambiguously subordinate place that the new policy assigns to the teaching of humanities and social sciences. With its preferential subsidy for science, technology engineering and medicine, and its cold alignment of education to jobs (what would Newman say?), this trend, too, the new policy appears to have brought to a tipping point.

Of course the study of history, culture, society, language, literature, the arts, thought etc will not disappear.  Students accredited in such areas will continue to serve as an input into the creative industries, teaching, and a host of white-collar occupations, for which there will remain an end demand. The arts will also continue to serve as a niche market in the education of elites.  However, general and a-vocational demand for non-STEM courses is set to decline, while education for personal enrichment becomes strictly a luxury good – one thinks of Prince William studying art history at St Andrews.  In the UK, we may add, the stepped up pressures on humanities and social science departments are made worse by a specialized degree model that leaves whole departments vulnerable to enrollment decline and institutional re-positioning.  A course credit system such as prevails in North America would be friendlier, leaving more room for electives while enabling students to choose and switch majors after admission. Nor, unlike in the US, is there a history in the UK of the humanities and social sciences being grouped together as ‘the liberal arts’, with the educational legitimacy, classical or Deweyite, that this might bring.

The lack of commitment in current UK policy to anything smacking of culture, reflexivity, criticality etc., is indeed striking, especially when contrasted with the evolution of policy in Europe and elsewhere.  For example, the Magna Charta Universitatum (Bologna 1988) – which ties its signatories (including most UK universities) into what became the EU’s integrative Bologna Process – names being ‘the trustee of the European humanist tradition’ with ‘constant care’ for the attainment of ‘universal knowledge’, along with academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the inseparability of teaching and research, as one of the European university’s defining principles. A similarly central role in universities for knowledge and/as heritage, though more wrapped up in a globalised multiculturalism, is affirmed in the policies of the United Nations through UNESCO.

Faced with a policy that, in effect, defines the humanities and social sciences as valueless in themselves, the understandable response has been to argue their worth.  But this seems an uphill struggle. The case in terms of growth and human capital can be hard to make.  On the other hand, the non-economistic values that might support such arguments – of educated citizenship, reflexive awareness, intercultural understanding, not to mention the general flourishing of imagination, taste and intelligence – have faded, or else sound too oppositional to find favour with decision-makers. Nor, given globalization, post-imperial weariness and problems in defining the UK as a nation, is there traction (or progressive content) in justifications of the humanities and social science in terms of strengthening national culture and identity.  In any case, if we stay on the grounds of social utility, how are we to disentangle such claims for the value of the arts, or for de-centred self-understanding, or for social theorizing, or for scholarship and intellectual culture in general, from the regnant logic of instrumentalism? This difficulty is rendered still more so in a world where the needs of the future have little purchase on current markets, and no distinction is made between short and long term cultural use values.

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For the gloomiest critics what is at stake in the Browne Report, and the direction it ratifies, is nothing less than the survival of the university as such. Terry Eagleton (Guardian 17 Dec 2010) puts the matter succinctly.  The humanities are ‘vital to the whole business of academic learning’, but for economic reasons ‘governments are intent on shrinking them, not expanding them.  Might not too much investment in teaching Shelley mean falling behind our economic competitors? But there is no university without humane inquiry, which means that universities and advanced capitalism are fundamentally incompatible’.  Bill Readings had argued something similar in The Ruins of the University.  Capitalist globalization had displaced the nation-state and with it the centrality of (national) culture to the legitimating mission of the modern university – delivering the institution over to an empty and self-referential performativity.

Underlying such a diagnosis is an almost Platonic distinction between universities as they actually are and a ‘real’ one that they may or may not approximate, and that may be appealed to as a regulative ideal.  At issue is the survival of the university in the university or, if you prefer, of the real one within the nominal one.

As is the way with ideals, the real university, or that which is real in it, can be conceived in a variety of ways:  for example as an autonomous centre for the production, cultivation and transmission of intellectual culture; or as a collectivity of those disinterestedly pursuing and teaching knowledge, truth and, for the ancients, wisdom; or as a Kantian community of scholarly writing. It is not however just an arbitrary mental construct.  On the one hand it is anchored by a universal – the truth at which free enquiry aims, regardless of how this is conceived.  On the other hand, it has an empirical referent in the congeries of practices, milieus, and collectivities in which such enquiry is embedded.  The ‘real’ university, in other words, is a dimension of the actual; one moreover that, however mediated, distorted or repressed, is at least implicitly present in academic practice in so far as it engages in thinking, learning and knowing at all.

The specter, in the death of the university, is the erasure of the ground on which the ideal might even imperfectly materialize within the life of the existing institution.  Of course it may continue to do so outside a university context, or as bowling alone.  But what would have died is the institution’s capacity to sustain it as living tissue within itself.  In the end, which we may almost have reached, the real university, and the classical idea of it, becomes only a ghost that no longer attaches to even a false memory of what came before. In a way, of course, it was always thus.  As the central institution at once for advancing knowledge and for training the high professions, the university has always had instrumental purposes, and was always enmeshed in power, ideology and material interests. There was never a golden age.  Nevertheless, from its origins in Greek and Roman antiquity, to its revival by the Arabs and Medieval Europe, to its modern renovation, always sheltered within it was a space for scholars, scientists and  philosophers to engage, at least intermittently, in something more universal.

That this interior sense of mission was not independently articulated until the 19th century – at the University of Berlin, Newman’s Oxford, Johns Hopkins, the ‘new Sorbonne’ etc., – indicates that it was only then that the university, finally emancipated from the church, was both able and required to finds its own voice.  But it was also then – with the rise of science and applied knowledge and a growing demand for new kinds of specialists – that it came under ontological threat.  In the 20th century the more immediate danger came from the totalitarian state; but the entanglement of universities in techno-economic development and in the education of increasing categories of professionals was also ineluctable, leading after World War II to the rise of a ‘multiversity’ (Kerr) whose plurality of ends defied any coherent definition. 

Even so the case was not yet hopeless. Pluralism offered some defense. A part of the university complex could continue to behave as though it were one. In the US, Cold War concern for Western civilization helped revive liberal ideals of education amidst the militarization of research.  In the UK some version of the Victorian two cultures settlement (sciences and arts/humanities as a complementary pair) persisted in describing the university’s core.  Even the hollowed out ‘university of excellence’ (Readings) that the multiversity turned into sheltered the arts and the non-applied more generally as long as they were excellent, and permitted some play among the ruins. Now, however – with the practical as well as discursive displacement of liberal education and les sciences humaines as something essential to the modern university – that ground too begins to dissolve.

What has become ominous, in this account, is that the element in the modern institution which might ground and substantiate something more authentic is no longer sheltered by the actual one. For Readings that element was an overall institutional commitment to (enlightenment) kritik and (national) kultur.  For Eagleton it is the entirety of humane studies, and with that not only the university’s critical dimension, but the integrity of its overall epistemic space.  However, in retracing what has come unstuck, the squeezing out of the critical/cultural/reflexive element from the knowledge totality carried by the university has not been the only diremption. 

This becomes clear if we consider the original meaning of ‘university’, which is sometimes thought to have concerned an ideal of unified knowledge, but derives from something else. In the Western tradition the word university came into currency as a name for degree-giving schools in the late middle ages. Before that such an institution was called a studium generale (wherein generale referred to the geographic/’national’ generality that marked the student body). The universitas was the guild, or guilds, of masters and students that constituted it as an organization. The metonymy through which the latter became the name for the institution indicates how closely the two could be identified.  What has happened in the course not simply of modernity but of late modernity, is that the identification has lost its meaning.  The unity originally betokened by the term university has broken up.

This has several aspects.  First, with rare exceptions, the universitas qua collective of scholars, no longer at all controls the empirical university at the level of power and governance, nor is authorised to speak for it. The dominant relation is that of employment. Secondly, it has fractured:  not just into mutually misunderstanding faculties, departments, specialisations and modes of thought and enquiry, but into the tenured and the non-tenured, the proletarianised and the salaried, the full-time teachers, those in admin, and those able to buy themselves out with grants, contracts and royalties.  All in all, then, that layer of the institution which might collectively carry an independent intellectual culture has been disempowered, marginalized and disarticulated, just as the modes of association, and the free time and space, which might sustain it have been progressively dissolved. To the extent that the university in the university continues to exist it does so in pockets, interstitially and across institutionalized space. To which attaches, then, a third disjunction: between the actually existing university and its higher mission. Like an invisible church, the real universitas, qua autonomous community of scholars, has become a virtuality, while the university so called marches to the beat of a quite different drum.  

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So what is to be done?  What, that is, if we take the Browne reforms to be a further and perhaps terminal step in the direction just described?  At the most general level, three non-capitulationist orientations suggest themselves.

A first is resistance.  In the present context, this would mean pushing back against raised fees and public defunding, against the closure of departments, especially ones central to the university’s core mission, and that would generally defend against the worst effects of the new policy. The strength of such an approach (besides what it may be contribute towards a more general mobilization) is the need to obviate, or at least mitigate, institutional vandalism given its irrevocable nature. Its limitation is that of the wall that would hold back the waters, with its back turned to the damage that has already been done.

A second and more radical line would say that the game is over. The university that exists is irredeemably deformed.  Nevertheless, and precisely in their current state, universities offer great opportunities for radical politics.  They are at once a ferment of contradictions and a strategic site for struggle. The primary constituency for such a politics, evidently, is students.  As cognitive workers in training (and in limbo) they are, indeed, a key element of the knowledge economy’s new proletariat. ‘As was the factory so is the university.’ 

Whether the longstanding impasse in the self-transformative capacity of capitalism is permanent may be debated.  But with youth activism on the rise amidst a global crisis for capital this second approach makes at least experimental sense.  However, as an absolutised position, reducing the university to a zone of combat puts a seal on its death. In so doing it conspires with homogenising forces to negate a transcending universal. This, and the ressentiment animating it, may be hidden under a progressivist refusal of nostalgia – all sensible people are agreed that the ivory tower is over, and that such an elitist idea has no place in the new Jerusalem etc. Vis-à-vis the university it is nonetheless nihilist. 

There is a question here more generally for the left:  will there still be universities ‘after the revolution’?  One answer is: certainly, more than ever, but with a clearer recognition of their non-economic intellectual and cultural functions; and with as open educational access to the latter (indeed, throughout the life course) as to the usable knowledge and credentialising pathways universities will continue to provide. For the tradition descending from Marx, however, there has been a tendency to say yes to technical education but no to traditional intellectuals, who are at worst mere ideologues and at best privileged producers of thought abstracted from praxis. In that light – where the ideal is to break down the separation of theory from practice and the hierarchical division of labour that attaches to it – any attempt to revive the university as a home for the intellect would seem to be ruled out of court. The debate between these positions can scarcely be said to have begun.

A third orientation – which the first might dismiss as utopian and the second as reactionary – is the road less taken: that of renewal and repair.  Located squarely within the university and based, but not exclusively, on faculty and post-graduates (its ‘lifers’), this would entail an institutional politics of revitalization, with the aim, in the first instance, of carving out a free space and, over time, in a Gramscian ‘war of position’, recapturing the university for the university.  Its beginning and end would be a shared sense of the we of the academy, and a self-assertion of this we.  There is a minority and majority aspect to such a politics.  The first is on the ground and involves all the micro-practices needed to co-build an autonomous intellectual milieu and the spaces for it to thrive. The second, through whatever channels are available or could be created, would seek a wider autonomisation within and for the institution as a whole. These levels merge into one another, but the first is indispensible if the second is not to be empty and if the whole effort is to endure.

It need hardly be said that what is in view here is a very long-term process. Also that it runs clean against the historical grain, at least as our ruling phrases (which ignore the contradictoriness of alienated life) would have us believe.  It is not however without historical ground. With whatever degree of self-consciousness, and however intermittently, the elements of such a politics – laborious efforts to build islands of sanity, governance fights, union struggles against rogue administrations, issue-oriented campaigns that call the university to account in the name of itself – have become a widespread feature of university life.  They have not coalesced, and the compatibility of contemporary capitalism with the collective will formation needed for any long-range project may be seriously doubted.  Nonetheless, the liberation of the university can only be the work of the university itself; and however impossible this may turn out to be (another experimental question), a politics which relates the mundane activities of academia to such a goal at least has the merit of operating on home ground, and of offering those who choose to live there a non-cynical (and non-reactive) mode of institutional involvement.

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