The Colonizing Condition of Neoliberalism in Higher Education: What It Is, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do

By: Dianey R. Leal, Michigan State University

Neoliberalism has led many colleges and universities to value profit and efficiency over social and ethical issues and has centered knowledge production as a form of monetary capital rather than as a means to transform minds, challenge systems of power and oppression, and mitigate social injustices. As such, I argue, as other scholars have too (see Apple, 2006; Giroux, 2010; Shahjahan, 2014), that neoliberalism has colonized our ways of being, knowing, and doing higher education, privileging instead practices and modes of knowing that fit market needs. Said differently, neoliberalism is just another form of colonization in academia that continues to ghost, erase, and silence subaltern voices through its market-like behaviors and values (Monzó, 2014). Thus, for this blog, I briefly show how Chicana feminism can disrupt and destabilize neoliberalism in academia. But first I provide a quick overview of what neoliberalism is and why we should care about it.  

What It Is  

Neoliberalism in higher education, better known as academic capitalism, includes not only market and market-like behaviors of postsecondary institutions and faculty, but also market ethos and ideologies such as privatization and individualism that govern organizational life (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). These neoliberal behaviors and adopted ideologies in turn reinforce and reproduce power asymmetries among academic agents (i.e., faculty, administrators, and academic professionals) and impact academic production (Cantwell, 2015; Slaughter & Leslie, 1997).  

Federal and state budget cuts, as well as increased (and increasing) competition among postsecondary institutions, has led colleges and universities to adopt neoliberal practices and policies such as the commodification of knowledge production (Olssen & Peters, 2005). This in turn has shifted knowledge production from a “public good knowledge regime” to an “academic capitalist knowledge regime” that seeks to profit from research, educational material, and other academic-related developments (Rhoades & Slaughter, 2004, p. 3). Under this new regime, students are reduced to passive consumers and “access” is redefined as a convenience rather than as a cultural and social investment (Ayers, 2005; Giroux, 2002, 2010). The pursuit of revenue through neoliberal practices prioritizes profit over educational quality and equity and jeopardizes access to minoritized students. Moreover, because education is perceived as an investment, it becomes valuable only to the extent that it yields profit, meaning that non-commodified areas of study such as history, philosophy, and Chicanx/Latinx become further marginalized areas of inquiry (Giroux, 2002).  

Why It Matters 

The invasion of market-driven policies and practices in academia endanger academic disciplines such as ethnic studies, marginalize social needs, and reproduce systemic inequalities at the expense of quality education and equity. Ties between universities and capital interests lead to knowledge capitalism, undermining the university’s role to advance democracy through academic freedom and critique (Marshall, 2016; Mendoza, 2007). 

Understanding and resisting the effects of neoliberalism within the academy is important not only because colleges and universities function as social institutions of knowledge production, but, also, because these spaces play an influential role in the socialization and identity construction of students who then enter the academic profession. Moreover, imparting faculty, students, staff, and administrators with tools for understanding and disrupting the ill-effects of neoliberalism is crucial in order to carve out spaces of resistance, critical dialogue, and change for future generations. One way to challenge the academy’s neoliberal agenda is to adopt marginalized knowledge systems. Monzó (2014) has argued that using marginalized epistemologies can uncover issues related to oppression, justice, and freedom in the academy.  

What We Can Do  

Resonating with ASHE 2018’s “Woke Research Methodologies” Series, Chicana feminism has the potential to disrupt neoliberalism within academia in a few key ways:  

  • challenges the misogyny of prevailing hegemonic epistemologies;  
  • relocates minoritized individuals to a central position in research;  
  • interrogates the social, structural, and political tensions embedded within education;  
  • calls attention to color-evasive approaches in education that claim to be neutral and apolitical; and  
  • embodies the goals of advocacy and social justice (Anzaldúa, 1987; Delgado-Bernal, 1998; Flores, 2000).  

Below, I provide a few examples on how Chicana feminism can incite transformative ruptures “incidents, interactions, experiences, and moments that expose and interrupt pervasive coloniality and structural inequities”—that liberate us from neoliberalism practices in teaching, research, and service (Delgado Bernal & Alemán, 2017, p. 5).  

  • Use trenzas (braids) to problematize Western thought in research and teaching. Trenzas is a metaphorical-analytical tool in qualitative research that weaves together different ways of knowing, being, and existing (Gonzalez, 1998; Montoya, 1994). In other words, trenzas weaves together multiple theoretical frames to re-center marginalized ways of knowing and can serve as a way to unmask neoliberal practices that silence other ways of knowing and understanding. 
  • Use trenzas to weave scholarship with activism. The academy, which often creates and inhabits knowledge in spaces far removed from the public, needs to “embrace a more expansive view of scholarship”—one that encourages scholars to channel their knowledge and research into more publicly accessible platforms (e.g., blogs, city halls, social media, editorials) (Stamato, 2017). In short, scholars can weave their scholarship and teaching with public activism to engage the public, mobilize social change, and resist neoliberal practices.  
  • Embed border pedagogy in classroom teachings to challenge oppressive curricula created by “academic managers.”  Understanding the intersection of multiple oppressions (e.g., race, class, gender, and culture), Anzaldúa (1987) proposed that the only way to create social change is if there is a “massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness” (p. 102). Border pedagogy is a “multicultural educational approach utilized in multicultural settings to help students understand their histories and experiences and how it affects their identities and cultures” (Kazanjian, 2011, p. 371). Border pedagogy undos dualistic thinking and helps students deal with differences in a transformative way (Elenes, 2001). This approach allows students to develop critical cultural literacy by analyzing how physical and metaphysical borders have historically perpetuated power relations (Ramirez, Ross, & Jimenez-Silva, 2016). Students and educators are then able to deconstruct dominant notions of the Other and redefine history, knowledges, and languages through socio-cultural negotiation (Giroux, 2005). Through this process students are then able to understand other identities, cultures, and histories and become “social critics of their realities” allowing them to challenge neoliberal values embedded in policies and structures (Ramirez et al., 2016, p. 303).  
  • Embrace nepantla as a space for transformation and possibility. Nepantla is a Nahuatl word referring to an in-between space of contradiction, but also possibility. Anzaldúa describes nepantla as a “chaotic” stage in life in which an individual tries to put fragmented pieces together to make sense of life (Anzaldua & Keating, 2009). It is in this intellectual and epistemological third space where self-reflection and transformation can take place (Delgado Bernal & Alemán, 2017). As such, we can use this liminal middle ground to grow and empower ourselves and each other as scholars and professionals and to challenge neoliberal logics that often determine what counts as “good” research. Ultimately, it is in this space that we should constantly ask ourselves: to whom do we write for and for what purpose? 

Giroux (2002) has described neoliberalism as the “most dangerous ideology of the current historical moment” (p. 428). Through this blog, I’ve demonstrated how Chicana feminism has the potential to plant seeds of alternative norms to challenge neoliberal practices in academia. As Shahjahan (2014) argues:  

“…neoliberal policies/practices depend on us for re-enactment; by re-conceiving our personhood we can reproduce other kinds of social relationships and social structures” (p. 230).  

Shahjahan’s (2014) reflection on neoliberalism in higher education points to our ability as academics to work within, against, and beyond corporate-based practices and ideologies. Using Chicana feminism or other minoritized epistemologies such as postcolonial perspectives can prioritize the needs of marginalized communities, reclaim knowledge production as a public good, and chip away at the structural inequities rooted in neoliberalism.  

Dianey R. Leal is a second-year doctoral student at Michigan State University where she is currently earning two doctoral degrees in Chicano/Latino Studies and Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education. Dianey currently holds a Graduate Assistantship with the Department of Educational Administration and conducts research on student college access. Her research interests include student enrollment and persistence in higher education and the role of epistemological and institutional injustices on the access, success, and advancement of students. Dianey received her B.A. in political science and English writing from Saint Edward’s University and holds an M.A. in Public Administration from Texas A&M University. 


I would like to thank Robert L. Hill and Stephanie Aguilar-Smith for their feedback on earlier versions of this piece. Specifically, I like to thank Robert for they’s encouragement and affirmation as I navigate this Ph.D. journey, and Stephanie for always pushing me to think critically about my work. 


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