"Ph.inally D.one: Feminization, Resistance, and the Consequences of Neoliberal Erosion in Academe”

Marisa Allison

Advisor: Amy L Best, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Nancy Hanrahan, Johanna Bockman, Gary Rhoades

Online Location, Zoom
November 17, 2022, 05:30 PM to 07:30 AM


Higher education has been radically transformed in the last four decades by the logic and practices associated with neoliberalism with rippling consequences for public universities, those who learn and work in them, and for the broader public good. This neoliberal transformation paradoxically began as women gained broad access to higher education, soon thereafter becoming a majority of degree earners, most recently in the conferral of doctoral degrees. This institutional ethnography is centered around conversations with 22 female doctoral students at the end of their degree programs over a six-year timespan as they transitioned out of their degrees and into their subsequent careers. In the neoliberal university, women have been most welcomed in as students (as knowledge consumers) and overrepresented among precarious, “adjunct” teaching faculty (as knowledge disseminators). Women’s representation in the tenure line faculty ranks, where most knowledge production takes place, has not risen at the same pace. These trends are mirrored amongst the women in this research and, taken together, are suggestive of a process of feminization that is taking place in colleges and universities, which I argue has been a fundamental component of the neoliberalization of higher education.  

Though other public institutions bear evidence of change associated with neoliberalism (i.e., privatization, commodification, financialization, precaritizaton, etc.), the effect on higher education is paradoxical, requiring its own investigation, as it remains one of the only institutions that can flood its own labor market. Higher education institutions are spaces of consumption, credentialing, knowledge production, as well as spaces of employment, and in the case of many of the women interviewed in this research, all of these at the same time. These institutions are also spaces where the success and failure of individuals is highly visible and easily attributed to personal rather than system level failures, a feature that has intensified with neoliberal change. As a result, neoliberalism in the higher education institution has become not simply a set of logics by which modern institutions increasingly organize themselves, but also a set of internalized dispositions by which the modern academic self is fashioned, with deep consequence for self-concept, and self-worth. This dissertation wades into this messy terrain of a changing university landscape to understand how a feminized doctoral student body bears the weight of these institutional transformations, how successes and failures within this transforming system become internalized, and how that internalization is faced and resisted.