These are certainly interesting times in which to take on the presidency of CAUT.
Less than two weeks into my term, news broke that Robert Buckingham had been fired as dean and as a tenured full professor and forcibly removed from the University of Saskatchewan for having had the audacity to publicly voice his concerns about the future of the university’s school of public health, which was under threat from a controversial rationalizing exercise. Within hours, mainstream media across the country and then around the world began to seriously discuss hitherto rarified terms like “academic freedom,” “tenure,” “collegiality” and “transparency” as they apply to university and college life. More sinister euphemisms such as “program prioritization process,” and “TransformUS” also began to find their way into public discourse for the first time. These, my friends, are what we call teachable moments.
It is at times like this that CAUT’s core work as the leading defender of Canadian post-secondary education and academic life really comes to the fore. And I am proud to say the organization has performed that work brilliantly, with an administrative about-face and other positive outcomes achieved almost immediately. It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen if we didn’t have a national organization to speak out in a strong and principled fashion whenever such challenges arise. Such examples of creeping managerialism are all too familiar on university and college campuses around the world. The transformation of post-secondary education from a treasured public good to a private commodity run by and for corporate interests is an ever-present threat to us all. Academic life at Canadian universities and colleges is increasingly precarious these days, but we have the activism of CAUT and a myriad of determined local academic staff associations to thank for the fact we still have something left that is worth fighting for.
As many of you will know, there will be significant changes in the coming months at CAUT. I am delighted to welcome the appointment of incoming executive director David Robinson, a tireless advocate and true font of knowledge and wisdom on all matters concerning post-secondary education both in Canada and on a global level. Jim Turk’s remarkable achievements over the last 16 years have built a tremendously strong organizational structure, and I have no doubt David will wield it to great effect. There have been and will continue to be several other important staffing changes at the CAUT office this year, and while old friends will be missed I am confident an extraordinary team is being developed. The same goes for the entire group of CAUT executive officers elected with me at our council meeting last month. I feel deeply honoured and enthusiastic about working with such talented, energetic, and committed activists.
Events at Saskatchewan continue to unfold, and much remains to be done on campus before faculty can be assured they retain the academic rights and protections essential to collegial governance and on which the integrity of post-secondary education depends. Unfortunately, the University of Saskatchewan’s board and senior managers are not alone in their eagerness to experiment with short-sighted managerial ventures that have little or no regard for serious academic programming, and which are inevitably accompanied by expenditures on new administrative positions and expensive outside consultants, despite all the tired rhetoric of deficit and restraint. But at least the firing and attempted silencing of Robert Buckingham has opened a window into that still murky world, and the Canadian public has been clear that it does not like what it sees. We at CAUT will do our best to keep shining more light, throwing open more windows, and, where need be, kicking down some doors if that’s what it takes to stop these sorts of toxic, unwarranted shifts toward the corporate nightmare that is Micro-Managed U.
These are exciting times to be involved with CAUT and I am confident the coming year will see us going from strength to strength as we mobilize our colleagues and the public to take post-secondary education seriously and to engage fully in the debate about why academic freedom and collegial governance are so crucial to maintain it. We have our work cut out for us, but we also have the capacity and the will to defend our universities and colleges and push back against those who would degrade them. The academic world remains a vital site where one can still be proud to serve the public good through research, teaching and service in their broadest sense. We who work in it must never forget the power, the privilege, and the responsibility that we all share to speak out and mobilize for positive change whenever and wherever we can.