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Faculty Resilience in a Neoliberal Age

Wade Pickren

My friend Marina Massimi, Professor at University of São Paulo, Brazil, studies the cultural heritages and practices of Brazil’s small rural communities. She and her colleagues have documented how such communities maintain their cultural traditions and report great satisfaction despite lacking many material resources. Marina points out that such communities thrive because of their rich interpersonal relationships developed over multiple generations. A term we might use for them is that they are resilient communities. I will call this “strong” resilience.

Why begin this blog post with a reference to small Brazilian communities when my title refers to faculty resilience? I do so in order to draw a contrast with the typical atomized experience of most academics, in which we are treated as free-market entrepreneurs expected to display individual resourcefulness in order to advance personalized agendas of teaching and scholarship.

This fits with a broader neoliberal emphasis on the responsibility of the individual for self-governance and adaptability to free market demands.

Such an orientation is now normative as higher education in North America increasingly functions in a neoliberal mode that de-emphasizes social relationships and minimizes the importance of human connectivity.

The cost of neoliberalism to faculty (and staff) is the demoralization that comes from isolation.

What does this have to do with resilience? Since the 1960s, resilience has emerged as a buzz word in psychological and social science disciplines. It began as a referent to the ability to bounce back from adversity and was long thought to be a characteristic of certain people but not of others. It passed into popular parlance as a personality trait: resiliency. Since then, research has created a much more complex, nuanced understanding of resilience as dependent on multiple factors that help individuals adapt. Still, the emphasis in many social science fields has remained on the individual whose resilience can somehow be measured. I refer to this as “weak” resilience.

This relatively shallow understanding of resilience is related to the neoliberal insistence on (self)governance that demands personal adaptability regardless of social or cultural context. In fact, the social and cultural do not really exist or at least do not meaningfully impact behavior; only the market does that through its requirement of competition and individual enterprise. And the market valorizes “weak” resilience as the mark of a competitive, adaptive citizen-consumer.

Academic life in this neoliberal era is re-framed to suit a corporate, market-driven ethos that devalues human connectivity.

As a result, faculty life becomes ever more fractionated as individual faculty members accept their atomized state as normal and set themselves to adapt to the market conditions of competitive individualism.

Such “weak” resilience may make an individual feel normal, but it makes it almost impossible for faculty members to have a sense of community, shared ideals, and collaborative action. Faculty often believe they are powerless in the face of such a strong normative neoliberal mode of governance. As a result, they seldom experience the “strong” resilience that Marina Massimi and colleagues find typical of small Brazilian communities.

If we wish to develop strong resilience we must resist and even reject the atomization that is the effect of the neoliberal agenda in higher education. Like the Brazilian communities that Marina studies, we may then find in each other the resources to build a resilient community at Ithaca College.

Sources you may wish to consult for further information about strong resilience:

Catherine Panter-Brick (2014). Health, Risk, and Resilience: Interdisciplinary Concepts and Applications. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43: 431-448.

Mark Olssen & Michael A. Peters (2005) Neoliberalism, higher education and theknowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345.

Wade E. Pickren (2014). What is resilience and how does it relate to the refugee experience? Historical and theoretical perspectives. In L. Simich & L. Andermann (Eds.), Refuge and Resilience: Promoting Resilience and Mental Health among Resettled Refugees and Forced Migrants (pp. 7-26). New York, NY: Springer.





  1. Interesting post. I think we’re seeing something of the opposite at Ithaca College these days and I’m enjoying connecting with colleagues I didn’t know existed until we found common cause in efforts to push back at our neoliberal president. I told the board of trustee (BoT) members who were on campus yesterday that I want my community back. When I got here there was a different atmosphere under Peggy Williams. Someone at the BoT meeting yesterday called it Camelot. I’m not sure I’d go that far but it was different and we did feel a common bond and even an IC culture. That’s been under assult but I think it’s testimony to its resilience that it’s reexerting itself so strongly in this moment. You might enjoy a speech a Portland, OR politician made in response to Uber being allowed to come into Portland on their own terms. She captures well the hyperindividualism that is required for neoliberal economics to succeed.Cab drivers are often union members and find belonging and solidarity in that. They return to a garage at the end of shifts and interact with foremen, dispatchers, and other cab drivers of course. Where does the hyperindividual uber driver find community?

    And by the way, you are right about resiliance being a buzz word. It is all over the development literature and news these days. But like the anthropological concept of culture, everyone wants to use it but few have the deep understanding and appreciation for culture to enable them to use it in a analytical way that informs their development programming in any meaningful way.


  2. Rebecca Plante

    Thanks for this. We need to ensure communal connections, especially in these moments….


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