Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2010

Selling Out

Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market — Howard Woodhouse — Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009; 360 pp; ISBN: 978-0-77353-580-0, cloth $39.95 CA.
Defending the Values that Define Education


In his recent book, Howard Woodhouse is upfront about how his own interest in academic freedom arose. He lost his job in the mid-1980s when, as an untenured academic, he wrote a letter to the university newspaper criticizing a faculty member known for supporting apartheid in South Africa. Three years after Woodhouse sued for wrongful dismissal, the Ontario Human Rights Commission found in his favour.

One has to admire Woodhouse’s tenacity in pursuing the case and also in continuing to “pose questions otherwise considered unspeakable.” One assumes he takes as a motto the quote from Bertrand Russell reproduced on page one: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, because every opinion once eccentric is now accepted.”

Woodhouse’s eccentric opinion is that “The goal of university education and research, after all, is to advance and disseminate knowledge by sharing it with others,” whereas the goal of the corporate market “is based on the principle of self-maximization, of consistently seeking to gain as much for oneself as possible.” (p. 227) His view is that “unless these opposing value systems are recognized, the distinctive features of education are subjugated to the demands of the market.”1

The author obviously admires Michiel Horn’s book Academic Freedom in Canada: A History, and it’s true that some of the events of our history — as recent as the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — appear bizarre today, but were considered normal when they were taking place. The feeling then may also have been that “there is no alternative.”

Woodhouse and others see this determinist position contradicting both rational and critical debate and the idea of universities as seats of learning. (p. 4) Faculty are expected now to compete aggressively for research funding while adopting the requisite submissive and subservient attitude as they do so.

Woodhouse explores this difficulty in Chapter 6 by describing the value “program.” Market advocates tend “to expunge any counter-evidence that does not accord with their own presuppositions,” having “adopted a value program that allows no thought beyond its own assumptions.” A value system is made up of a set of related goods, which are affirmed, and bads, which are repudiated in both thought and action. Values may even be modified on the basis of experience, judgement, intuition, evidence and argument.

A value system becomes a program when its own assumptions about what is good rule out any thought that goes beyond it. (pp. 227–228) Any form of dissent and even some forms of study and investigation are not to be tolerated at a university operating under a value program. One sees what happens to students who take their university’s brand strategy (… we value tolerance and diversity. York University is open to the world; we explore global concerns) too seriously.

Woodhouse, professor of educational foundations and co-director of the Process Philosophy Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan, describes himself as having “30 years’
experience teaching and conducting research at various Canadian universities, as well as one in Nigeria, and another 10 years as a student in England, Canada and France.” His “experience has been strengthened by the study of philosophy and its relationship to culture, education, science and international relations.”2

This book complements and updates Horn’s book, yet is also different in style, the author having been inspired by Alfred North Whitehead. See for example page 261 where he invokes the Whiteheadian conception of life.

The author’s goal is to critically assess the influence of the corporate market on universities in Canada. Writing Selling Out was an opportunity to examine the details of the process transforming higher education and to make his scholarship more concrete.

Woodhouse’s book focuses on recent Canadian case studies of academic freedom violations and how they were caused by the fundamentally opposed goals of the academic world and corporate culture. The case is made also that academic freedom and institutional autonomy are inextricably linked — threats to either one affect the other. Universities have a duty to society “to limit corporate market demands by ensuring that knowledge remains a public good rather than a private good.” (p. 4) Accordingly, “faculty, students and the general public must remind governments of their res-ponsibility to fund the entire university system as the only place in society where the critical search for knowledge takes precedence.”3

The book begins with an outline of the author’s purpose and methods and a chapter discussing the general thesis. Four chapters cover the case studies: “A Marketing Professor Meets the Market,” “Taking on Big Pharma,” “Commercializing Research and Losing Autonomy,” and “Going Beyond the Market: Evaluating Teaching by Evaluating Learning.”

The book continues with a chapter describing “The Value Program in Theory and Practice,” containing additional descriptions of resistance by some former Canadian university presidents and by students and faculty at York University. This chapter also briefly mentions the rise of private for-profit universities and colleges in Canada. Finally, the book concludes with an alternative model, that of the People’s Free University of Saskatchewan.

Woodhouse writes about what he knows in an account in Chapter 4 of the growing commercialization at the University of Saskatchewan where the presence of the Canadian Light Source synchrotron as the country’s largest science project in a generation requires governments and the university to fund its capital and operating costs. Woodhouse provides a detailed analysis of whether the cost of the facility has actually delivered the expected benefits.

This all seems reminiscent of Chapter 2 on the University of Manitoba where faculty members were denied access to relevant financial information. The dean of management refused to “provide an annual report about the Associates Program … (especially its) membership and funds to the Faculty.” (p. 83) Proponents of the value “program” do not usually support close attention or study of the results of their initiatives.

One can easily guess from the title of Chapter 3, “Taking on Big Pharma,” that this case study is about Dr. Nancy Olivieri. The case is beautifully summarized and analyzed by the author, who carefully describes the fiduciary relationship between doctor and patient as one based on trust or confidence: “the relation existing when one person jus­tifiably reposes confidence, faith and reliance in another whose aid, advice or protection is sought in some matter.” (p. 111)

There are many forms of fiduciary relationships and many in play at universities. Certainly, the tenure process is one, involving tenure candidates, their peers and administrators. Perhaps this is why academic freedom cases often have issues of trust and respect at their heart and why the goal of monetary profit and the concomitant secrecy and control of workplace speech, marketing and branding prevalent in corporations do not always sit well in a university environment. For instance, why must innovation be defined in exclusively economic terms as the overriding need for universities “to bring new goods and services to market”?4

Olivieri’s case reminds one of the relationship between personality and academic freedom violations. In their book, Finkin and Post retell the story of Giordano Bruno, burned to death in 1600 with his jaws sealed by iron spikes “lest he give public voice to yet more heresy.” They suggest that Bruno’s “maddeningly vexatious” personality led him to obstinately and vehemently defend the right to think, write and teach.

The authors quote Bruno’s writings where he says that in order to be free to teach, the teacher must keep at arm’s length not only the habit of belief instilled through the teachings of tutors and parents, but also that “common sense” which in many cases “seems to engender deceit and distortion.” Bruno goes further: “It is harmful to define something without first weighing well its meaning; it is wicked to nod agreement out of exaggerated respect for others; it is mercenary, servile and contrary to the dignity of the freedom of Man to bend the knee to another in unquestioning devotion; it is rank stupidity to believe out of habit …”5

Woodhouse’s case study in Chapter 2 about events surrounding the Vedanand case at Manitoba should be required reading for all who strive to understand what academic freedom means. While it may be tempting to dismiss the initial violation (a “confidential” memo from the dean of management to Dr. Vedanand) as centring on one simple miscommunication, the event triggered others and uncovered a rat’s nest of problems that took six years of hard work to resolve.

The author amusingly illustrates the tendency to rewrite history in such cases, as a corporate seminar is transformed from a formal presentation to a “cocktail party,” where an alleged unpleasant tone towards sales representatives mutates into “boorish” inappropriate behaviour that requires a reprimand. The reprimand’s affect was compounded by an earlier letter written by the dean to his predecessor, claiming “… if we don’t do something soon, we will all retire together and leave the place to Third World mathematicians.” (p. 79)

Woodhouse shows how universities must be careful to push for logical adjustments capable of actually achieving desired goals. Academic staff “rooted in the tradition of knowledge as integral to the public good and of academic freedom as necessary for its advancement” and aided by “students, former students and would-be students” are among the few who can stem any program of market reforms proposed by governments. (p. 231)

Universities have a responsibility to objectively hold a mirror to society so that whether we decide to “move forward” or “stay the course,” we at least do so in an informed manner.

Karen Jensen is an associate librarian at McGill University and the librarians’ section chair-elect of the McGill Association of University Teachers.

1. Howard Woodhouse, “Corporatized Universities Devalue Education,” Toronto Star, Nov. 15, 2009.

2. Howard Woodhouse, “Privatization Plagues University Autonomy,” CAUT Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 9, Nov. 2004.

3. Woodhouse, “Corporatized Universities.”

4. Ibid.

5. Robert C. Post & Matthew W. Finkin, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 13–15.