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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1996

Accountability No Stranger to Academics

Joyce Lorimer
Accountability is the buzzword of the 1990s and, although a perfectly sensible concept, it has lost some of its credibility through overuse and abuse. In university and college circles governments have commonly adopted it as an excuse for irresponsible budget cuts and as a cover for failed job strategies. Civil servants have embraced it as rationale for creating new top-heavy centralized bureaucracies to interfere in university autonomy. For some university and college administrators it provides a perverse justification for attempts to exclude faculty, staff and students from transparent and accountable, collegial governance.

Even though its currency has become somewhat devalued, accountability is, nevertheless, central to achieving the mission of universities in this country. Canada's post-secondary institutions are and should remain, publicly funded institutions. They are intended to provide a high quality post-secondary education to all citizens who are able to benefit from it, and to foster the free pursuit of research in the public good. Those who are privileged to work in Canada's outstanding university system have a duty to preserve and enhance its quality and accessibility, as a public good, and to be openly accountable for its well-being to the public they serve.

Academics are trained to bring rigorous analysis, exhaustive criticism and vigorous debate to the examination of data, ideas and systems. These same tools can and must be used to determine appropriate accountability measures for Canadian universities þ to achieve true measures of what a university is about þ not meaningless statistics designed to serve the special interests of individual political parties or particular corporate sector lobby groups.

This issue of the Bulletin suggests that universities need to be accountable in a wide variety of ways to the general public. First of all they must be open and transparent to public scrutiny. They must also demand and expect high academic standards in teaching and research, which includes, as Ken Field notes, high quality libraries and electronic information services.

Like Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail, however, I am sceptical when the accountants and self-styled `efficiency experts' start to want to run education programs. There is little to be gained from turning our universities into degree mills with conveyor-belt production techniques which ultimately produce unimaginatively identical products.

An ad hoc committee of CAUT, chaired by Bill Bruneau, has spent the last two years studying the question of performance indicators. This issue of the Bulletin contains his discussion of the use and misuse of performance indicators as well as the first draft of a proposed CAUT policy statement on the subject. CAUT has also begun to examine two forms of accreditation þ that of institutions as opposed to specific programs, and the accreditation of university teachers.

As George De Benedetti notes, academic staff have already made great strides towards public accountability through the articles in their collective agreements. CAUT has consistently recommended that faculty associations negotiate provisions relating to professional rights and responsibilities, conflict of interest and fraud and misconduct in academic research.

As academics we must also make sure the general public receives an accounting of other important performance measures which are of less interest to elected politicians. University administrations must, as Roger Gannon argues, be accountable for their stewardship of academic freedom against those who would limit or devalue it. Similarly, as Jennifer Bankier writes, they must be accountable for the provision of an academic and working environment in which all faculty, staff and students can work to the best of their ability without fear of harassment or discrimination.

As a journalist on the CBC remarked in a recent commentary, federal and provincial politicians routinely call for public accountability in others but shroud the information about their own activities in layers of unnecessary secrecy.

The health of Canada's universities has been adversely affected for the last two decades by the funding policies of federal and provincial governments. Elected politicians must practice what they preach and create open, accountable, performance measures for their own educational policies. Were they to do so, I suspect they would find their practices do not measure up to their mission statements or, indeed, to any reasonable assessment of the public interest.