Netflix’s ‘The Chair’: The Impact of Neoliberal Economy on Universities

Netflix’s The Chair, a TV series starring Sandra Oh, Jay Duplass and Holland Taylor, among others, belongs to the genre of campus fiction, focussing on academic matters and chronicling the lives of university denizens. As opposed to shows and movies like Scream Queen or Pitch Perfect which are set at a university but don’t qualify as campus fiction, The Chair gives us insights into the inner workings of the neoliberal university.

The effects of neoliberalisation are evident in the market-oriented approach of Pembroke College that works on the principle of supply and demand. The English department of the college is forced to hire celebrity professors like David Duchovny to attract students while those who offer courses on Melville and Chaucer face the prospect of being forced into retirement.

Thus, besides providing a portrait of a fictional American college, the show faithfully reflects the paradigmatic shifts in American higher education as it transitioned from producing citizens to ‘skilled consumers.’ It brilliantly captures the story of how academia and universities have been fundamentally reshaped by a neoliberal economy and market pressures. This dilemma lies at the heart of the show. The English department is being compelled to adopt cost-cutting measures by Dean Larson (David Morse), who represents the voice of the market. He gives Dr Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) a list of three senior professors with the lowest enrollments. Even though she is the first woman of colour to head an English department in the college, nose-diving enrolments and a funding crunch make Ji-Yoon feel as if she is the captain of a sinking ship.

The neoliberal onslaught and the consequent crisis of humanities education is best articulated by Ji-Yoon. Talking about the existential challenges faced by the English department she points out how unlike STEM or vocational courses, the English department does not provide marketable skills to the students such as “coding or engineering.” In fact, a humanities education cannot be easily quantified. The protagonist thus provides a critique of the vocationalisation of higher education wherein education is a means to employment and not an end in itself. Yet this idea is not expanded, explored, or contested as the show progresses. The show normalises the neoliberalisation of the university and the entire season is devoted to the task of raising funds for the department.

The impact of marketisation on the university is also reflected in the gulf between teachers and the student community. This trust deficit comes to the fore in a controversy involving Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), one of the most popular professors in the department who is struggling to put his life together after his wife’s death. Dobson is recorded by his students giving a Nazi salute while explaining the difference between Absurdism and fascism in his class on ‘Death and Modernism.’ As the video is circulated widely, students call for the ‘Nazi Professor’ to step down. A town hall held by Dobson does little to assuage the concerns of the students. The entire episode highlights the pervasiveness of cancel culture as well as the perniciousness of a digital age where words and actions can be recorded and abstracted out of context.

The series also confronts issues of race, gender, and wokeness in academia. Ji- Yoon lobbies hard to ensure that Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a talented young black colleague, gets tenure. But in order to do this, she also has to placate the gerontocracy of the department, best represented by Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) a white professor who is a Melville expert and has dominated the profession for three decades but has few students turning up for his class.

Elliot also symbolises an older era when white men dominated the university system. However, it is possible to see him in a more sympathetic light. His refusal to give in to the modish demands of the public or the market, make him a tragic figure. His inflexibility can also be seen as a principled stand of not ‘pandering to his students’. He stands his ground and refuses to treat his students like customers who need to be pleased, thus ensuring that his academic labour and pursuits are impervious to external demands.

McKay on the other hand is a popular young professor who runs a course titled ‘Sex and the Novel.’ When Ji-Yoon decides to merge McKay and Elliot’s classes in order to offset Elliot’s low enrolment figures, Elliot ends up treating McKay like his subordinate, highlighting the bias in favour of white hair, white skin and white men.

The nuances of the gender dimension are explored through the Chaucer expert Joan’s (Holland Taylor) character. She is assigned an office in the basement and decides to report it as a Title IX violation. Joan is amused by the young lady who listens to her complaint going as far as telling her that she is wearing short clothes and ‘should cover her fanny.’ The irony of the exchange in the context of reporting a Title IX violation is not lost on the viewer. Perhaps The Chair has a subtle way of indicating that while university and academia might not be headed in the right direction; nostalgia for the ‘old system’ with its lack of diversity and misogyny is certainly misplaced.

Madhav Nayar has completed his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS, University of London and is a freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Nidhi Angurala teaches English at the College of Vocational Studies (Delhi University). She recently submitted her MPhil dissertation on the study of student politics in Indian campus novels in the Department of English at Delhi University. She can be reached at [email protected]