Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric and Technical Communication (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Humanities


Patricia J Sotirin


In this dissertation, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) serves as a nodal point through which to examine the power relations shaping the direction and practices of higher education in the twenty-first century. Theoretically, my analysis is informed by Foucault’s concept of governmentality, briefly defined as a technology of power that influences or shapes behavior from a distance. This form of governance operates through apparatuses of security, which include higher education. Foucault identified three essential characteristics of an apparatus—the market, the milieu, and the processes of normalization—through which administrative mechanisms and practices operate and govern populations. In this project, my primary focus is on the governance of faculty and administrators, as a population, at residential colleges and universities.

I argue that the existing milieu of accountability is one dominated by the neoliberal assumption that all activity—including higher education—works best when governed by market forces alone, reducing higher education to a market-mediated private good. Under these conditions, what many in the academy believe is an essential purpose of higher education—to educate students broadly, to contribute knowledge for the public good, and to serve as society’s critic and social conscience (Washburn 227)—is being eroded. Although NSSE emerged as a form of resistance to commercial college rankings, it did not challenge the forces that empowered the rankings in the first place. Indeed, NSSE data are now being used to make institutions even more responsive to market forces. Furthermore, NSSE’s use has a normalizing effect that tends to homogenize classroom practices and erode the autonomy of faculty in the educational process. It also positions students as part of the system of surveillance. In the end, if aspects of higher education that are essential to maintaining a civil society are left to be defined solely in market terms, the result may be a less vibrant and, ultimately, a less just society.