When is excellence not excellent?

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Back in my grad school days, I was in a seminar called ‘Public Intellectuals, Institutional Critique’ where, among many other things, we grappled with the embrace of all things “excellence” in the academy. As I delve deeper into my work in British Columbia’s community social service sector, the surprisingly frequent occurrence of the same rhetoric of excellence has led my wandering mind back to those days in the concrete layer-cake that is the University of Alberta’s Humanities Building.

The late Bill Readings and his book The University in Ruins largely spearheaded our discussions as, at the time of his writing, the word was rapidly becoming the watchword of the university - increasingly prevalent in, and important to, university documents and discourse. This phenomenon, it seems, has recently spread from academia to the nonprofit sector. But why? And what does it (or doesn’t it) mean?

Let’s start with a sampling of examples which I have encountered in my work for a community social service agency in BC: Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence; BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS; British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health; Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility; Centre for Youth Excellence; Seniors' Centre for Excellence; Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada.

A simple Google search directs you to many more pages devoted to teaching excellence, mining innovation excellence, hair and esthetic/spa excellence, waste management excellence (classy, Edmonton) and automotive excellence. Perplexed? Amused? A tingly combination of both? Me too. For due diligence (not really) I ran some of these names by the 11-year-old son of a good friend: “That sounds weird,” he said. “What does that even mean?” Good question. If a word becomes, like, used, like, everywhere, then it can, like, become, like, empty. While excellence is not simply a lazy filler word in the way like has become for many of us, the misplaced overuse of excellence is, similarly, starting to hollow it out and displace its meaning.

Whatever it’s like, excellence has become our new common denominator because it skips over the problem of finding and understanding a common criteria for ascribing value to the vast range of divergent work done across a broad, competitive, overburdened and poorly funded sector. In the words of Mr. Reading, that one little piece of techno-burecratic jargon masquerades atop the “assumption that there could be a single standard measure of excellence” by which we could all be judged. In fact, it is likely because it says nothing at all that it is said so often; in the words of Donald Gillies, it “deflects attention away from any questions of what quality and pertinence might be.”

How you ask? By undermining linguistic reference. I can like apples, and apples can be like lemons (in that they grow on trees). But in both cases the word is relational. Similarly, excellence is not a fixed standard of judgment. It is a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else - “an excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane.” In the case of the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health or the Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility, excellence becomes empty because it is not attached to anything; excellence only serves itself.

Ah, but then why do we see it everywhere? Glad you asked. This is not a conscious attempt to mislead the public or anything sinister like that. I have no doubts about the great and necessary work being done by the organizations mentioned above. Quite simply, jargon is easy. It is catchy and flashy and it sounds good. (Not only is this article innovative but it also fosters synergy and maximizes value potential. Wait, what?!?) But more importantly, I would argue that this is happening because nonprofits across the country are currently in a period of turmoil, a period of crisis. We are retreating from a barrage of external scrutiny, encroachment by other sectors, and ongoing cuts towards this rhetoric of excellence as a sort of subconscious defense mechanism.

This has happened elsewhere. According to Gillies, the rhetoric of excellence first emerged amongst the crisis and competition that was the cold war. Around 1960, a series of publications emerged focusing on the need for a renewed emphasis on excellence in American education; they presented the United States as being in danger, but in the sense that the education system was not providing anything near to what is deemed to be required to survive and compete. The drive for excellence emerged again during the recession in the early 1980s in both the struggling education and business sectors and then once again in post-secondary discourse in the 1990s in response to a fierce debate about the role of the university in modern society and the restructuring of many post-secondary institutions – turning them into degree-mills rather than places of research and higher learning.

Such a history suggests that the rhetoric of excellence can be used as a kind of litmus test for trouble. It’s a crisis narrative and a defensive tactic; it arbitrarily creates an atmosphere of market-style competition within closed, non-market systems. In the words of Gillies, “excellence in this usage is designed as a guiding principle for organizations, a way by which competitive survival and success can be achieved. An organization which can make a claim to excellence is seeking to gain a competitive edge over its rivals.”

This explanation makes just as much sense here today. After a decade of cuts to social services, things are only getting worse under the current federal government. And there is not only a sense of competition within the sector (for decreased funding, for relevance in a changing world, etc.) but also externally since increasingly popular new models and practices such as social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, though promising and full of potential, are drastically speeding up the encroachment of market-based values and vocabulary into a sector that has, for so long, tried to solve the problems created largely by market failure. (Can I offer anyone some irony?)

Spoiler alert: Excellence is not the solution to these crises.

Though the embrace of an excellent rhetoric is aspirational and, I’m sure, well-intentioned, this issue is more than simply a matter of harmless semantics. The rhetoric of excellence devalues what we do in this sector by instead placing emphasis on how well we do it. (‘What does your agency do?’ ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter as long as we do it excellently.’)

In the same way government spin places meaning not on what is said, but rather how it’s said, the longer we propagate this rhetoric of excellence, the more it will displace the importance of what we do with how well we claim to do whatever that is. Using a word devoid of value as a criterion for our work devalues our work to the same extent that the word we use lacks meaning. Furthermore, actively using jargon founded upon market-based principles of scarcity and competition only facilitates the encroachment we feel so threatened by. (Seriously, does anybody want any irony?)

We can work ourselves to the bone to make sure that seniors can be excellent but if, as Readings argues, “seeking a competitive edge by claiming to be, or by being judged to be, excellent is only fully rational within a market,” then we are being very irrational. We are also being unfair, to ourselves and to the valuable work we do. Relying on economic jargon like excellence or innovation risks overestimating what the market can do while underestimating what the social sector as a whole can do (or academia for that matter).

And of course, given what is known about current business and government rhetoric, excellence is a highly convenient piece of discourse. It appeals to right-wing elitism at the same time as it harkens left-wing dreams of equality and excellence for all. And it is here that the positive connotations of excellence become so hard to counteract. It is not that no one knows what excellence means but that, since it has been so hollowed out, everyone has his or her own idea of what it means; everyone can place their own idea of what it should or could mean into it. Thus, according to Gillies, critics of excellence can easily be portrayed as negative, unambitious, harboring low expectations of the disadvantaged, or, on the other hand, as content with mediocrity, uninterested in tending to the needs of the gifted and able. Such double coding is the appeal of any such empty and ambiguous discursive vessel. My closing question then, to borrow again from Gillies, is “Why do we feel impelled to borrow the disfiguring, deeply dull language of performativity which has neither the capacity nor the inclination to articulate what matters most to us in our daily work and our enduring intentions?”

We try to solve social problems, to make our communities better places to live, and our work has real value and real relevance. We, the people we help, and the people who help us, deserve better than this excellence. It’s time to think consciously about how we describe what we do, the words we use to tell our stories, and what this turn to excellence might (or might not) actually mean. So if you’re up for it, go read Donald Gillies’ article Excellence in Education and Bill Readings’ book The University in Ruins (or at least chapter two) and then decide whether you really want the work you do to be excellent or not.


Marshall Watson was born in Edmonton, Alberta, proud home of the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence. He is the research and communications manager at The Federation of Community Social Services of BC, a provincial umbrella organization representing over 140 community-serving agencies across BC.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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