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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2010

A Rant on Excellence

'Excellence’ has become a supersaturated term, a word that means both everything & nothing, says Elizabeth Hodgson.
'Excellence’ has become a supersaturated term, a word that means both everything & nothing, says Elizabeth Hodgson.
A well-known academic at the University of British Columbia once asked me whether the faculty association was “opposed to excellence” and therefore “in favour of mediocrity” because I expressed concern about ever-accelerating demands on faculty.

More disturbingly, a senior human resources manager attributed various species of problems at UBC to the fact that “faculty are not all stars.”

This past year, a member of the board of governors was heard to mutter, “If I hear the words ‘world-class’ again, I think I’ll throw up.”

And the vice-president of research couldn’t answer the question: “Why do we value excellence?”

These incidents suggest to me, as a literary critic, that “excellence” (with its cognate “world-class”) has become a supersaturated term like “patriot” or “family values,” a word that means both everything and nothing. This word “excellence” seems to have acquired both an indefinable and yet profound value to senior administrators, as if they know what it means, and what it looks like, as if its value is immeasurable and its attainment all-important — and therefore as if anything or anyone not excel­lent is therefore worthless.

Aside from the obvious either-or fallacy implicit in this last judgement, this desperate use of “excellence” is a patently absurd refusal to recognize that any group of people will include a normal and healthy range of abilities, levels of commitment, and measurable success rates. (An econometrics professor once whispered to me: Do you think they know that someone has to be in the bottom decile?). Most academics enjoy their teaching, have flashes of brilliance in their research careers and perform responsible professional service. This is not “a problem.” This is not worthless.

We have heard “excellence” used more perniciously to justify excluding Canadian academics from short-lists; to privilege graduate over undergraduate teaching; to degrade faculty in certain disciplines; to berate or penalize individual faculty who are learning, who are new, who are struggling, or who are simply pouring at least some of their energies into something besides the particular measurable aspects of their academic work. In such cases “excellence” becomes the means by which those in positions of authority attempt to enforce their personal preferences and biases by reference to a putatively objective assessment measure.

If, when we critique the term “excellence,” we are accused of being medio­cre ourselves or in favour of lacklustre performance, it is clear this word has become not a compliment but rather what Foucault might call an instrument of social control, more useful because it is so vague, so impossible to define.

This bullying use of “excellence” also makes me wonder: Is it the administration’s job to urge faculty to perform according to some vaguely excellent level? What image of the scholar does this narrative suggest? That we will all be above-average? That nobody will be acceptable unless they are? That faculty require urging, coaxing, bribery or threats to do well at their jobs?

The reason excellence as a category has such traction in a university setting is that academics are already high achievers, competitive, accustomed to praise, self-driven and jealous of reputations. This is precisely the reason this attempt at social control isn’t needed — we are already our own self-motivators.

We are far more likely to need, in fact, a productive balance of work and life. Many of my colleagues work every evening and all weekend long — frequently work themselves sick, in fact. Many feel they must surrender time with their families, time to pursue other interests, time to invest in their communities, and time to simply enjoy life in order to answer work demands.

How much better would it be if we had a collective approach to achievement and skills, so that within a given department, we would expect and encourage a range of expertise in the different elements of our work? How much better would it be if we helped people pursue their ambitions, in whatever they choose to do? What if senior administrators saw it as their role not to chide and discipline but to nurture, support and provide resources for our ideas to improve our universities?

How much better would it be to maintain a healthy and encouraging workplace environment, where our ordinary, day-to-day work was appreciated, where new programs or new demands would be balanced by easing of other requirements and where our superiors would actually be concerned about overload and building in some down time?

As it is, we spend more and more of our work energies having to prove repeatedly that we deserve the resources we need to do our jobs. We spend more and more time attempting to demonstrate, in order to keep our jobs, that we are even more excellent than we were the year before, more excellent than our colleagues and more excellent than the university across town.

The net effect, ironically, is that we are far more likely to do less of what we were trained to do, what we are genuinely gifted at. You don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it; you feed it. “Excellence,” I assure you, despite its fine sound, has no nutritional value.

Elizabeth Hodgson is associate professor of English and president of the faculty association at the University of Bri­tish Columbia.

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

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime (