Destroying our Universities? (2 April 2014)

Neil H. Buchanan recently published a brilliant column in Verdict (31 March 2014) titled “Destroying our universities by turning us against ourselves” (here), which I wish to quote from and comment on. He writes:

Federal and state funding has been cut back severely, leaving universities far too reliant on tuition and appeals to wealthy donors.

We have an identical situation at Carleton and throughout most of Canadian post-secondary education. Our university president is primarily someone who is a wizard at getting funding from wealthy donors. Post-secondary education in Canada is quickly becoming commodified. Preston Manning’s pet project of the Clayton Riddell graduate program in political management is one naked example, as is IBM’s investment in so-called ‘big data’ at Carleton. NSERC during the Harper years has been rapidly taking monies away from the Discovery Grant program and transferring them to industrial partnerships. And we certainly are far too reliant on tuition. Carleton’s vice president finance simply passes along the maximum allowed tuition increases allowed by the province. But so do his cohorts at other universities. Tuition is becoming a quickly growing chunk of our revenues, while provincial grants are shrinking at an equally impressive rate, as our vice president finance always reminds us.

Buchanan writes:

In the 2012 Presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney argued that young people should simply get used to the new reality that they will have to go deeply into debt to attend college, and that they should not expect the government to forgive their loans. And another Republican candidate called President Obama a “snob” for expressing the idea that we should aspire to see all of our young people attend [university].

Call me a snob too. Post-secondary education should be a right, not simply a privilege for the privileged. The wealthy have disproportionate access to higher education and often do better at it because they don’t have to work 20 to 40 hours per week or even more to support themselves in university. Continuing with Buchanan’s words:

Early on, the hope coming out of the Great Recession was that we would be able to overcome years of conservative economic dogma and, among other things, start to reinvest in long-neglected national priorities, such as infrastructure and education at all levels. Unfortunately, what we have seen instead is an increasing effort by the opponents of American universities to use the crisis to force changes that will undermine higher education for decades to come, if not permanently.

Canada is no better. The recession of 2008/2009 is over, but where is the money? We are out of Afghanistan, but where is the money? Carleton clearly is saving for a rainy day, but whose rainy day? Why are we throwing money away at parking garages that nobody at Carleton needs, the latest of which would have provided enough to pay for a four-year tuition freeze?

Next, allow me to quote four consecutive paragraphs verbatim from Buchanan:

If the students can be told (as they have been, over and over again, no matter how false it is) that tuition is high and rising because of tenured professors’ supposedly cushy lives, and the faculty itself can be further divided against itself, no one will have any energy or attention left to look at the administrators who are fomenting discontent.

And it is important, if one wants to turn universities against their historic mission to enhance free inquiry and the advancement of knowledge, to attack and isolate tenured professors in particular. We are, I am more than willing to admit, a mouthy bunch, partly because we self-select into this career, but mostly because one of the key criteria for being a good university professor is to speak up—to politicians, to the media, to courts, to university administrators, and even to each other, among many others.

The whole point of the university, in other words, is to create an environment in which as many people as possible feel free to debate, to question, and to criticize – and especially to criticize our “bosses.” Bosses, naturally enough, hate that.

Moreover, as a relative matter, tenured professors are by design more expensive than other employees of universities. We do not earn as much money as many of us could make in non-academic jobs, by a long shot. Even so, if the comparison is between staffing a college with tenured faculty or adjuncts, the costs are not even close. If all we want is trade schools, then tenure is not the way to go.

I will comment on these in order. First, Carleton’s vice president finance takes every opportunity that he can get to blame the university’s financial difficulties on collective bargaining, especially of the university faculty. This scapegoating is disingenuous, predictable, and insulting. He is way too smart of a person for this lack of nuance.

Second, while universities are supposedly bastions of academic freedom and free expression, this can sometimes be illusory. Look at the silencing of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) a few years ago. Look at the most recent meeting of Carleton’s Board of Governors, in which the chair explicitly forbade any discussion of the OPSEU strike that was occurring. As a final example, just over a month ago, it was strongly suggested in writing that I not vote at university Senate because my views did not acquiesce to those of the Board of Governors, or at least the views of its executive committee. While overall I am impressed with the freedom of expression that is tolerated (not necessarily encouraged) at Carleton, we could do better.

Third, as I mentioned in a previous posting, we should have open and honest debate. This week, I was proud to be part of a discussion about whether self-exploitation is even possible (self-referential statements are well-known philosophical and mathematical conundrums) and the ever-changing milieu of public sex in a world dominated by electronic surveillance and social media. And I’m just a pedestrian biologist. I love being an academic and sharing the intellectual verve of my colleagues, including those colleagues who are students. But I grow weary of hypocritical politics.

Fourth, yes, tenured and tenure-track faculty are more expensive to hire than adjuncts and graduate students. We are even more expensive than on-line courses in the way they are usually run. But maybe we should be. Most tenured and tenure-track faculty members opted to forego not just other lucrative careers, but also opted to forego working during their years in graduate and post-doctoral training. Are the accountants looking at that?

While I agree with Neil Buchanan that there are forces trying to destroy universities, the good-old halcyon days may not be something to aspire to. Those were the days when universities were solely run by and for rich white men. There are also forces – no, I should say people, not forces – injecting an amazing diversity of ideas. Universities are becoming more inclusive and in so doing are questioning so much that there will be push-back, especially from neo-conservatives. Universities because of their ever-growing richness of people and ideas will always experience tension, especially from the Wall Street and Bay Street crowds. I applaud Neil Buchanan for starting the debate. I applaud the chair of Carleton’s Board of Governors for allowing debate on tuition increases, even if every single “community” member of the board voted in favour of the maximum increase. I applaud that Carleton is wise enough to sponsor the Visiting Elder program, from which I have learned an extraordinary amount. But I also encourage everyone in the academic community to remain vigilant and speak out about the encroachment of commodification of our community. Let me end with a quote from someone far wiser than Neil Buchanan or me, namely the renowned U.S. civil rights leader Septima Clark (as recorded by Cynthia Stokes Brown in 1986), “Whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking.” Let chaos reign!

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