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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2005

Unsettling Influence of Corporate Power in our Universities

Loretta Czernis
University governance requires more than academic staff input. It requires academic guidance. Imagine a senate devoid of faculty members and librarians. It could not function responsibly. It could not make academic decisions. We are the constituency competent to make judgments about the shape of our universities.

Our board members from the business world do not necessarily understand the significance of an academic argument. These are people who think predominantly in terms of economic gain. And these are the people who are stripping academic staff of our power to use our academic judgment to steer our institutions toward the future.

As corporate interests contaminate our universities to a greater and greater degree, sound academic arguments are drowned out by the noisy rattle of money being thrown at unnamed campus properties, and even unnamed faculties. Our ability to make sound academic decisions in bodies like the senate is slipping away. Our senates are becoming dollar-driven, not scholar-driven.

A member of CAUT's Women's Committee wrote to me recently stating "how very important it is for universities to retain their autonomy and independence in decision making, even when decisions might be regarded as controversial."

Katherine Side was referring to the specific problem of giving honorary degrees to controversial figures. We can see the distorting impact of the corporate influence in academic affairs when we look at who is awarded honorary degrees.

Honorary degrees that have little academic merit are just one symptom of the increasing corporate mentality starting to dominate our universities.

Sometimes our institutions are put at risk because of the lobbying and pressure brought to bear by corporate bodies eager for status and influence. In some cases they also wish to control various forms of research. It is important to remember that whatever power and civic status these business leaders may have gained, it is often based on the exploitation of others for monetary profit.

Even more insidious is the manner in which many of our university presidents and senior administrators are embracing a corporate perspective. They willingly cast aside our unique academic traditions to impose a business model on all aspects of the university.

Not only are they quick to embrace "good ideas" put forward by corporate members of boards, they show their "grasp" of the corporate way by introducing corporate type administrative practices without prodding by the business world. It is as if they want to prove to the corporate sector that university administrators share their values. Ironically, many of their "corporate" ideas are already outdated in the real corporate world.

Academic staff need not only be vigilant but also to reject schemes that exploit our universities. It is also important to remember how corporate executives act when things go wrong - they usually foist the blame on others. We are the ones who will be held accountable by our students and communities if our universities stumble.

Do you think I am exaggerating? Here are a few governance crises that I am currently monitoring:

  • At York University, students and staff were assaulted by police (who had been invited in by the York administration) during the exercise of their democratic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly on York property;
  • At one of our member universities, a vote of no confidence has been held by faculty against a new rector for acting in a heavy-handed corporate manner; and
  • In March, the chancellor of the Université de Montréal, André Caillé, who also heads Hydro-Québec, announced the board of the university had chosen Luc Vinet as the new rector.

What is alarming about the Vinet appointment is that a search committee, with strong faculty representation, had been working for over a year and had finally unanimously recommended another candidate, Suzanne Fortier.

Immediately following Caillé's announcement, the faculty association called for the removal of Vinet. A week later five unions banded together to protest the manner in which Vinet was chosen. Caillé says the board will never reverse its decision. I would suggest it is better never to say never when it comes to the realities of university life.

The answer is to put strong language in our agreements that protects our numbers and our rights on important institutional decision-making bodies, and to defend those rights vigorously when necessary.