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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2009

‘Obscene’ compensation an omen

An article in the October 2009 issue of the CAUT Bulletin refers to the “obscene” compensation deal for the University of Calgary’s outgoing president who will retire in January 2010. While such compensation strikes many as surprising, excessive, or even outrageous, I doubt that it’s unique in Canada.

In a letter to the university’s board of governors the University of Calgary Faculty Association asked some pointed questions about the deal. But the article in the Bulletin avoids the real issue, which is the increasing trend in Canadian universities — Alberta because of its parti­cular culture being at the forefront of the movement — to adopt corporate models of governance where taking risks, vast capital raising, and having something tangible to show for one’s actions is seen as signs of good leadership. Such logic commends commensurate compensation packages.

What ought to be in question is the slippery slope of what Jean-François Lyotard has called “performativity” — the cycle in which universities find themselves increasingly caught whereby knowledge (education, research, etc.) has to show it has impact, or “relevance.” This “market” perspective has led in short order from accountability to accounting. In other words, to the overwhelming need on the part of institutions of higher learning to provide proofs of performance through an array of indicators.

However, these indicators can only measure what is measurable or quanti-fiable while the intangible, the human factor, remains as elusive as ever.

As universities compete ever more intensely for scarce resources in a context in which values such as learning, the pursuit of knowledge, the forming of minds, and the education of citizens have been supplanted by the need to secure “customers” and to build a financial base in order to ensure their own survival, it is no wonder they find themselves at a “value-fork” between glitz and the virtue of a teaching role where the impact is more often than not delayed and diffused.

It is not surprising that it is easier to measure the value of a president according to how much money has been raised under his/her watch and how many cranes tower over campuses than the value of professors who spend considerable time fervently and patiently nurturing students.

If it is difficult to show the transformation taking place in students as their minds expand and their eyes open to the world, it is seemingly easy to show success when shiny new buildings are erected. Sadly, we are all caught in this perverse logic which turns universities into “big business.”

The University of Calgary is searching for a new president. It will be a rare individual indeed who will be able to simultaneously satisfy the wishes of a governing board and raise the spirit of a campus community which is increasingly becoming cynical and discouraged.

Most of us remain committed to reaching out for excellence, but the prevalent culture of performativity with its associated requirements to constantly provide proofs of effectiveness has infiltrated all levels of universities. And whether we recognize it or not, we are all part of this culture.

Pierre-Yves Mocquais
French, Italian & Spanish
University of Calgary

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