Cripping the Neoliberal University – We need a Politics of Care

By Anya Heise-von der Lippe

Johann Hedva, “Sick Woman Theory”. Photo by Pamila Payne.

In the summer and fall of 2021, academics across the German university system took to social media in unprecedented numbers to expose the precariousness of their employment situations and the struggles of working within a system that relies on a great amount of personal commitment and flexibility. This debate, manifesting first under the Twitter hashtag #IchBinHanna, focuses on the unfairness of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and the fact that even impressive academic achievements have very little impact on the job security of anyone under the rank of full professor. While the sheer number of posts underscored the pervasiveness of the problem, their emphasis on individual excellence also served to obfuscate the underlying problems of the highly competitive neoliberal university system (see Mittermaier 2021). Where the excellence of academic work is measured by the sheer number of publications and amounts of third-party funding acquired, academics whose various, intersecting time restrictions (e.g. the necessity to reconcile job and care responsibilities) limit their output, are necessarily at a disadvantage. But the few voices that attempted to address these inequalities were quickly drowned out by academically established gatekeepers. The latter entered the debate with reiterations of the arguments that the only way to ensure constant innovation is to uphold “flexibility” (albeit only below the grade of full professor) and that job security for a larger number of academics would simply be too expensive.

To be clear, my goal here is not to diminish the hard work and incessant public engagement of those who are trying to change the system and advocate for better working conditions for academics (for instance the organizers behind “95 Theses against the WissZeitVG”). Nor do I wish to draw attention away from marginalized scholars who have pointed out that the way the system is set up to promote excellence under precarious conditions specifically excludes academics who do not hold a German or European passport – for instance through short-term contracts that are not compatible with the German visa system (see Mittermaier 2021).

Instead, I would like to focus on another systemic inequality that has, so far, remained marginal to the debate. As I will argue in the following, the neoliberal system, by enforcing meritocratic standards based on productivity under precarious conditions and time constraints, can be a cause of or at least an aggravating factor in chronic illness and disability. At the same time, it posits care work and self-care as individual responsibilities that hamper access to and the possibility of success within the system. I will argue that disability studies and disability activism allow us to make this connection, by drawing on Robert McRuer’s conceptualization of “crip time” as a mode of resistance in neoliberal times of austerity and on Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory”. The latter asks us to reconsider the connection between systemic causes of trauma and cultural constructions of sickness and health, as well as the necessity for a “politics of care.” My aim in this goes beyond a disability-focused contribution to the current discussion of academic working conditions in Germany. Rather, I hope to broaden the discussion from improving individual working conditions towards the question of what would be needed to achieve meaningful systemic change.

Statistics on people in German academia with disabilities are hard to come by, not least because many people with invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses choose to not disclose their status for fear of stigmatization. Personal accounts frequently highlight the exclusive climate of German academia, as disability accommodations are often seen as an imposition and disabilities and chronic illnesses are perceived as impediments to doing excellent academic work. While many German universities have begun to establish representatives for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses over the last decades, there is still a lot to be done to achieve equitable access to a university education for the eleven per cent of students who have a disability or chronic illness (see Middendorf 2021 36). One of the most common forms of accommodation in the German university system (at the undergraduate level, but also for PhD students and postdocs) is to grant more time; yet, paradoxically, those who avail themselves of this offer still often need to prove their ability to succeed in a system that measures excellence in productivity over time.

In the neoliberal university system, time is an extremely rare commodity at all levels. For example, for lecturers, the time for pastoral care (providing guidance and counseling centered on students’ mental and emotional wellbeing) is often carved out of one’s “private” (i.e. unpaid) time budget or invested at the cost of falling behind in grant writing or publication projects upon whose completion university careers are built. This “temporal austerity” is not accidental, but systemic, upheld by short-term contracts as well as heavy teaching loads and the pressure to constantly publish and apply for jobs or grants – a system in which those whose disability or chronic illness demands time-consuming medical care are set up for failure. Of course, this argument could also be made for people performing care work. But there is an immediacy to the personal time constraints imposed by disability and chronic illness that highlights the difficulties of externalizing care work as an institutional strategy. For example: in theory, providing more extensive daycare facilities looks like a useful strategy to allow academic parents more time to work. But failure is built into the system when daycare is hard to find, or only provided at certain times, or only when the children aren’t sick. Disability draws attention to the failure of such systemic strategies of externalizing care work, as it is physically impossible for a person with a disability or chronic illness to delegate their own doctor’s visits or sick times, and people who need personal assistance also need time to organize it. The last two years of failed public responses to the ongoing pandemic have, moreover, highlighted the dangers of externalizing care work to often underpaid and chronically overworked care workers in the medical system, whose contributions to keeping people alive remain systematically undervalued by neoliberal societies. In a recent article, Mia Mingus argues that the pandemic has further highlighted how individualized strategies to address global problems are doomed to fail, because everyone’s personal health depends on the cooperation of others: “Interdependence is the only way out of most of the most pressing issues we face today. If we do not understand that we are interdependent with the planet we as a species will not survive.” (Mingus 2022)

To take this back to academia: countering systemic expectations of individual excellence and productiveness under varying time constraints, thus, demands a systemic rather than a personal approach. In Crip Time, Robert McRuer theorizes “the centrality of disability to a now-global politics of austerity” (McRuer 4), suggesting, “disability might serve as a site from which to understand and resist that politics.” (McRuer 13) Crip time, in McRuer’s sense, does not simply imply that the necessities of care work demand that disabled bodies operate in a different time framework – one that is, as I have argued above, often incompatible with the productive demands of the academic system. Instead, McRuer identifies life under globalized austerity systems as “crip times” against which working towards disability justice presents a powerful mode of resistance.

While the neoliberal academic system hinges on the notion that equality is best achieved by the privatization of bodily matters, “personal responsibility” for and thus control over one’s health is a convenient fiction. In reality, bodies do get sick, or give birth, or perform care work all the time, because we exist in interdependent networks with other bodies, which do not operate according to the standards of “normality” demanded by the job market. The common demand by many university administrators that we all return to pre-pandemic conditions as soon as possible highlights just how much the neoliberal academic system is built on the assumption of a “normal” body (see Hedva). By doing this, it insists that any corporeal and mental health needs can and must be taken care of outside of work time, as they lie within one’s own responsibility – an assumption that is further challenged by the large (and likely still rising) number of Long COVID cases

The scarcity of jobs and the necessity to compete against others create an environment in which there are few limits to “work time” for those who wish to succeed in the system. While overwork is common among academics, disabled and chronically ill colleagues often feel the need to work beyond their limits to prove their “worth” to a system (see Marx) that chronically underestimates them. Paradoxically, the thought that constant overwork and a lack of care for one’s own body may aggravate or even cause mental and physical illnesses and disabilities seldom arises. In a neoliberal system of austerity, the academic workforce largely replicates itself, and those who can no longer serve the system are easily removed and replaced with the next generation of the precariously employed. Moreover, falling out of the system is often framed as a personal and not a systemic failure. As Johanna Hedva points out:

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way (Hedva 12).

Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory shows how the system not only sets a large number of its participants up for failure, but also posits their failure as largely within their personal responsibility. As Hedva argues instead, drawing on Judith Butler’s work on precariousness and resistance,

Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick (Hedva 9).

Hedva’s argument not only highlights what processes of exclusion neoliberal (academic) systems rely on, it also speaks to the conditions under which the system can constantly reproduce and maintain itself through precariousness and the exclusion of those who do not, or no longer, serve a purpose within its rules of “normality.” Disability activists like Mingus have drawn attention to the pandemic’s severe death toll among people with disabilities and chronic illnesses and the irony of accessibility accommodations like remote work and video conferencing (that people with disabilities had been fighting to obtain for decades) being implemented in a manner of weeks once they became necessary working conditions for everybody and benefited the economy (see Schäfer). These exclusions are not accidental, and they cannot be countered by seeing them as individual.

Only if we normalize and acknowledge interdependence and the necessity of care work in the academic context will there be a change that makes it possible to equitably include people with disabilities. Meaningful change must, however, not be based on some misunderstood sense of pity for the disabled “Other,” but on the willingness to create better working conditions for everyone working within the system. One possible step in this direction could be the implementation of a better ways of evaluating academic achievements that values cooperation and research quality over quantifiability and competition. To make such a system equitable, it would need to be based on the acknowledgement and, indeed, the willingness to pay for pastoral work and care work at all levels. To achieve meaningful change in academia, we desperately need “a politics of care” (Hedva 13).

Works Cited

Hedva, Johanna. “Sick Woman Theory”.

Marx, Dorothee. “Mit CF in der Wissenschaft? Mit Mukoviszidose an der Uni lernen und lehren”. 20 July 2021.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Times. New York University Press, 2018.

Middendorf, Elke, et. al. Die wirtschaftliche und soziale Lage der Studierenden in Deutschland 2016. Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, 2016.

Mingus, Mia, “You Are Not Entitled To Our Deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence”.

Mittermaier, Sabrina. “#IchBinHanna – What Next?”. German Historical Institute London Blog 14 September 2021.

Schäfer, Sam. “And Now Here We Are”. Disability Visibility Project 8 March 2021.

Anya Heise-von der Lippe teaches English Literature and Culture at the University of Tübingen. She holds an MA from the Technische Universität in Berlin and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Tübingen. Her publications include the edited collection Posthuman Gothic (2018) and the monograph Monstrous Textualities (2021), both published by the University of Wales Press. Her current research project focuses on Romanticism and climate change. She is co-editor of the “Challenges for the Humanities” series with Narr academic publishers.

Further articles in the Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes series on TRAFO:

Tanja Wälty, Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University, 25 January 2022

Alena Sander, Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University, 11 January 2022

“Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes”: Call for Contributions to the Series, 18 October 2021

Citation: Anya Heise-von der Lippe, Cripping the Neoliberal University – We need a Politics of Care, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.02.2022,

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  1. 13. März 2022

    […] Cripping the Neoliberal University – We need a Politics of Care. […]

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