In my September editorial I argued that Canadian university teachers must offer a persuasive new outlook on the value of public post-secondary education. Not only that, we must attract broad support for that outlook.
It's easy to see the urgency. We are faced in Manitoba with a direct attack on university autonomy. In Ontario, the idea of a "public" university system is in doubt. In both provinces legislators and inquirers ask what we have to offer as an alternative to a client-driven, privatized university system in Canada.
I always give CAUT's longstanding answers to these questions, but they do not always persuade neo-conservative proponents of small government. Here, then, are some notes about features of a "new university," some drawn from past practices, some not.
A new university must preserve the historic and democratic commitment to students and their families. Particularly since 1945, Canadian universities have welcomed more people than ever, and our graduates are well prepared to work in politics, culture, research and development, and business. The poor, the working classes, and members of equity-seeking groups still find it hard to get into post-secondary education. Although our universities are more open and diverse places than they were, we have far to go.
Universities should continue to be "intentional communities." Canadian universities have senates, boards of governors, faculty unions and associations, organizations of non-teaching staff, and student associations -- and the list goes on. At their best, these are self-governing agencies, open and fair in their procedures and practices. In this sense Canadian universities are intentional communities. At their best, they show a visceral commitment to learning and to a democratic way of life.
Universities offer a stark contrast to consumerism -- the idea that economic facts/factors are all that matter in life. The market cannot answer the great social questions, nor satisfy our craving to make art or to understand fundamental forces at large in society and the natural world.
If the market reigned, universities would be private domains, some attracting huge bodies of students (but doing little research), others with fewer students and more research money, and all under greater management control than now. A new university will recover and will intensify its commitment to all that is public, transparent, and democratic in its make-up and governance.
The new university must keep faith with the principle of authority of knowledge. A life guided by knowledge and understanding is better than one that is not. And more knowledge and understanding are better than less. To put this in practical terms, most of us would rather be operated on by a doctor who knows plenty of anatomy, rather than someone who skipped that part of her or his medical education. We would rather live in a community with a democratic and knowledgeable view of politics and community than in a community utterly unable to cope with rapid change. We would prefer to live in a world where education and understanding, always scarce, are accessible to all.
In brief, Canadians prefer a democratic civic culture, achieved in part through universal public education, than to give in to the forces of simple managerialism and social indifference.
We must not lose sight of the importance of research and the renewal of teaching. A university values research as much as it does teaching. Stagnant fields of knowledge die. But research is incomplete unless it is communicated. In some cases that communication will occur in the classroom, and in others, in publication and in public meetings. In still other cases it will quickly find its way into both arenas.
In every case, quality is maintained through open and public access, and through peer review both of research and its results. The balance of research and teaching in Canadian universities helps explain the interest of our students in an immense range of fields and subjects, from Egyptology to astronomy by way of business administration.
Professionalism must continue to serve as a guarantee of quality. Especially in the past century, practitioners in many fields of knowledge have organized into communities of practice, often forming "professional" associations or societies. These associations offer important guarantees of the quality of research and practice in those fields. It is a crucial feature of these professions that practitioners govern themselves, and that their work is done openly. Without these two features we are open to the charge of being an exclusive club, speaking a language known only to ourselves.
All of this is just an opening to debate. CAUT has a big job to do in this -- one we began in 1951. Now we take it a step further.