What are the prerequisites necessary for universities to effectively fulfill their societal obligations and to preserve the public trust? First and foremost, institutional autonomy and academic freedom must be the foundations of our public post-secondary institutions. The integrity of our institutions hinges on these long-standing, fundamental tenets of the academy.
A quick review of university mission statements, which are not always easy to find on their websites, confirms the primacy of their role to serve society. Phrases like “enhancing the societal good” or “dedicated to the service of the people” and “to enhance the quality of life through scholarship” frequently appear.
As dynamic forces for social good, universities advance our socio-economic, cultural and political interests through the creation and transmission of knowledge and by fostering a well-educated and independent-thinking citizenry. In so doing, universities play a critical role in both the creation and the maintenance of robust democratic societies.
Institutions must be free from external influences — be they political, religious, corporate or other special-interest — to set their academic directions. They must do this through collegial governance structures that give academic staff a central, decision-making voice in all such matters. There must be freedom for academic staff to determine the course of their own teaching, research and scholarship.
Additionally, a university’s commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas and discoveries must be protected at all costs. Academic integrity must not be compromised by real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest. And, at all times, transparency in procedures and decision-making must be maintained at all levels.
Over the last several years there has been a dangerous erosion of these principles. While there are many reasons for and manifestations of this, the single most powerful driver has been the steep decline in volume of public funds for our higher education system.
The trend has meant that universities receive fewer dollars for direct support of their core expenditures. The more measurable outcomes of declining public funding toward higher education budgets have been skyrocketing tuition fees, substantial increases in the casualization of the academic workforce, larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, diminished library holdings and a deteriorating infrastructure.
There has been less and less support for undirected, basic peer-reviewed research and scholarship by individual academics. In its place now is more funding for research in targeted areas that is not chosen by researchers through peer-review and merit evaluations to serve scientific and public interests but rather chosen politically to serve commercial and private interests. This is coupled with an increasing amount of research funding being funneled through the private sector to ensure university collaboration with industry and business, all under the guise of much-needed innovation on the industry and business fronts.
While our university presidents ought to be calling for government support of a renewed, public funding model, they are sadly just supporting and facilitating these shifts. In the process they wait with open arms for the private sector to walk through the doors of our institutions, in hopes of alleviating the fiscal crisis caused by the public shortfall. Inevitably, the effect — if not the objective — of governments shirking their fiscal responsibilities is that we find ourselves with a post-secondary system that serves private goals, is funded by private money, and is run according to private-market models.
And therein lies the rub. How do universities stay true to the social good mission while courting the attractive private-sector dollar?
There is, of course, a fundamental and inescapable dichotomy between the objectives of the public university and those of the private corporation. In accord with their mission statements, universities advance societal benefits subject to financial limits, whereas corporations seek to maximize financial benefits within societal limits. Not surprisingly, there’s no choice but to compromise when these opposing agendas meet.
The trouble is that universities are already in a vulnerable position, forced by delinquent governments to reach out to the private sector as a much-needed source of funding. Consequently, compromises are often detrimental to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, the very principles that underpin institutional integrity and the public trust in our commitment to the social good.
The most egregious example yet of a university-corporate amalgamation is the partnership recently proposed between York University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a private think tank chaired by former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie. The York-CIGI collaboration intended the launch of a “world-class” international law program at the university built around 10 new research chairs.
Under the partnership terms, CIGI appointed two of the four voting members of the program’s five-person steering committee. Among other powers, the steering committee was to set the research areas, plans, expectations and funding support for each chair. The arrangement stipulated that committee decisions in these areas required unanimous approval. This effectively gave CIGI — a private, incorporated entity — a veto over academic research carried out in this new program.
Such an abandonment of the collective university mission to serve the social good can only lead, in the long term, to irreparable harm to institutional integrity and to the public trust on which the academy depends so greatly. Is this a reasonable tradeoff in return for funding the academy? I think not. By serving governments or corporations in these manners, universities will sadly become less vital and relevant to society and will fail in their missions to advance the social good. Immediate and strong action will be necessary to ensure that integrity and public trust prevail.