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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2003

How Public Are Our Public Universities?

David Noble
Now that the Romanow Report has underscored the resolve of most Canadians to keep our public health care system public, this might be the moment to do the same for that other venerable Canadian institution, our public universities.

Two months ago, I sat on a panel on the privatization of post-secondary education at York University. Before delivering my remarks, I asked the assembled students whether or not they thought that York, the third largest university in the country, was a public institution. I was anticipating a resounding affirmative response but my question elicited only puzzled looks.

Later that week, I repeated the question in several of my undergraduate classes and got the same confused response. It appears that many students no longer know the difference between public and private. Several of them said that they thought the university must be private, considering how much money they personally had to pay to go there. In a similar vein, others pointed to the pervasive presence of private corporations on the campus, from ubiquitous logos and advertising, retail franchises, and research partnerships to majority membership on the university's board of governors, as clear evidence of the institution's private status.

Another likely source of student confusion on this matter, I would like to suggest, might be the behavior of university administrators themselves, who increasingly act as if they were executives running private firms rather than stewards overseeing public institutions in the public trust.

Isn't it a bit odd that we never hear the leaders of our presumably public post-secondary institutions defending them against commercial influence or otherwise extolling the virtues of public higher education?

In recent years the leadership of faculty and student unions have been vigilantly warning against the threats to public education posed by the myriad forces of privatization, such as government-fostered public-private partnerships, the deregulation of tuition, government sanctioning of private institutions and the impending inclusion of education under the free trade regime of the General Agreement on Trade in Services of the World Trade Organization.

Yet, as Neil Tudiver of CAUT has noted, "university boards and presidents seem unable or unwilling to defend the independence of their institutions" from market forces. Indeed, while education activists have been tireless in their stalwart defense of our public higher education institutions, behind their protective backs, and behind closed doors, the leaders of those very same institutions have already gone private.

York offers a prime example.

The provincial legislation of 1959 and 1965 which established York University stated the singularly public-spirited "object and purpose" of the new university: "the advancement of learning and dissemination of knowledge" in the interest of the "intellectual, spiritual, social, moral and physical development" of faculty and students as well as "the betterment of society." York was to be publicly funded and tax-exempt, in support of this public mission.

Although the board of governors, president, and academic senate of the institution were afforded a significant degree of autonomy in the regulation and administration of university affairs, it was clearly assumed in the legislation that their actions would conform to the stated object and purpose of the institution.

To say the administration of York University has strayed from this original mandate would be an understatement.

Over the last few decades, universities throughout North America have blanketed their campuses with commercial advertising, but this was only a surface symptom of a more systemic transformation below: the wholesale commoditization of both research and instructional functions in the interest of commercial enterprise.

Through an intensified web of interlocking directorates between the boards of universities and private corporations, a plethora of largely secret contracts with private companies, and the establishment of an intellectual property regime throughout the institutions, which included unprecedented emphasis on confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, they have compromised the disinterestedness of their expertise and short-circuited the public dissemination of knowledge in favor of proprietary control.

York University has been no exception.

Likewise, following the long-standing example of public institutions in the U.S., York has recently set up a private counterpart, the York Foundation, headed by York governor and Branscan CEO Timothy Price, to raise and administer funds without worries about public scrutiny or oversight - not that this was really necessary in Ontario, which already exempts universities from freedom of information legislation. (A unique status won for the universities in the 1980s through vigorous lobbying by the Council of Ontario Universities and a commitment by the universities to set up their own parallel freedom of information policies, which they have never done).

The commercial transformation of the universities has affected not only their institutional practices but also, as York sociologist Janice Newson has pointed out, their "self-representations," their self-image, which has become nearly indistinguishable from that of a private firm. In recent months this has become dramatically evident in the bold pronouncements and behavior of top York administrators.

In the same month the York Foundation was launched, Harriet Lewis, York's general counsel and secretary, stated in an interview published by York's official organ that "the most correct way to describe our university is that it is a private, charitable corporation, which is 'publically assisted.'"

Interestingly, this is precisely the same language which is used in the U.S. to define private universities.

While Lewis noted that York enjoyed charitable (tax-exempt) status and government funding, she emphasized that it was "governed autonomously." She made no mention of the legislated "object and purpose" of the university or "the betterment of society."

At the same moment, behind the scenes, York president Lorna Marsden was vigorously defending this private conception of the university she heads.

Two years earlier York had become one of the province's major beneficiaries of the SuperBuild program initiated by former premier Mike Harris and administered by Premier Ernie Eves, having received two large grants for the construction of new buildings.

The larger grant, for $47 million, the largest SuperBuild grant for education, was for the Technology Enhanced Learning Building. While construction proceeded, it became increasingly apparent that this project represented a significant step toward the transformation of York into an employee training center and research job shop for private industry, even soliciting private firms to "shape" curricula to suit their business needs in return for partnership patronage.

Alarmed by this appearance, I phoned York's development office to request a copy of the university's successful proposal to the province for which it was granted $47 million of taxpayer funds.

The development officer referred me to the vice-president, finance, who informed me that the proposal was "confidential."

I then wrote to President Marsden for a copy of the proposal. She invited me to tea but ignored my request.

Finally, I wrote to the vice-president, research, one of the presumed authors of the proposal, for a copy; he referred me to the president.

In frustration, I wrote to the Ontario Ministry of Finance, which referred me to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. And there the real saga began. Since the universities are exempt from provincial freedom of information legislation, I filed my request with the Ministry.

After some months, my request was denied. The Ministry explained that, since the matter involved a "third party" - York University - they could not accede to my request without that party's cooperation, and York had objected to disclosure of the document.

Having failed at the Ministry, I filed an appeal of the decision to the Information and Privacy Commission, insisting the document should be made public since it constituted a contract between the government and a public institution and entailed the disbursement of a significant sum of public monies. The commission initiated mediation on the matter and the mediator was able to convince York to agree to partial disclosure.

That was not good enough, as far as I was concerned, and I decided to move the matter to adjudication. The next day, York instructed the commission to release the document in full, apparently not wanting to have to go public with its objection.

Having, after eight months, finally obtained the proposal for the technology enhanced learning project, which confirmed my suspicions, I filed a new request with the Ministry to obtain a copy of York's third-party objection to disclosure, which the Ministry agreed to release. In this document, signed by Lorna Marsden, the private, commercial self-image of the university is abundantly apparent.

"York objects to the release of the documents," Marsden wrote, because "all documents contain commercial information" such as "enrollment plans in connection with the new SuperBuild buildings" and "details that relate to the delivery of specific technology and business courses.

"We object to this information being disclosed as it could thereby well become available to (other universities and businesses) and do considerable damage to our competitive position."

According to York's third-party objection, any information regarding student enrollment, which is the chief criterion for government funding, and course offerings, the educational grounds for charitable status, have now been deemed "commercial" and hence, confidential, in the interest of competitive advantage.

My dictionary defines "commercial" as "having profit as the main aim," a strange preoccupation for a nonprofit institution.

In her submission to the Ministry, Marsden makes no mention of "the dissemination of knowledge" for "the betterment of society." No wonder York students are puzzled about the status of their institution.

A busy director also of several large private corporations, Marsden might perhaps be forgiven for her own confusion of public and private institutions, but it is a confusion that Canadians can ill afford if they want to continue to depend upon their universities for a genuine education and a glimpse of the truth. As these examples indicate, the threats to the integrity and survival of Canada's venerable public institutions lie within as well as outside them.

While on the watch for a corporate "takeover" of our universities by private entities and their government collaborators, we have missed a disturbing administrative metamorphosis already well underway. As we renew our commitment to the public in healthcare, therefore, we should do likewise with higher education, starting in the president's office.

Historian David Noble, author of Digital Diploma Mills, teaches at York University.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.