Failure is a pervasive yet rarely articulated reality of being an academic. From grant rejections to fieldwork mistakes, this editorial introduces a special issue that engages with the notion of ‘failure’ within the neoliberal university. Highlighting the uncomfortable impacts of ‘failure’ across contrasting spaces and career stages, the authors explore its politics, power, and emotional resonance, as well as raising crucial questions of resistance, hope, and refusal within geography and its allied disciplines. Three key themes emerged from these 16 papers: (i) failure is embedded in the structures of the academy; (ii) failure is an inherent part of academic knowledge production; and (iii) failure is an experience that is not equally felt, but is contingent upon uneven power relations and positionalities. We situate the special issue within the context of the coronavirus pandemic and suggest that the failure of the university sector to cope with this existential threat has exposed the very worst characteristics of market-driven education. Ultimately, this special issue aims to push back against the fear and loneliness that ‘failure’ can create, in order to confront the neoliberal university. In troubling conventional models of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in academia, we conclude that refusing to accept the unrealistic expectations, impositions, and demands of the University-Industrial Complex is not a failure at all.