A new academic term has begun, and the excitement of change is in the air. Students are being exposed to new ideas, faculty are trying out new syllabi and developing new research programs, and at CAUT we are delighted to welcome Sylvain Schetagne to the team as our new associate executive director. We look forward to experimentation, innovation and action in the coming year.
Yet there are also other, darker changes afoot in the world of higher education. Somewhere along the way — so gradually that many of us barely noticed amid the constant day-to-day struggles of working to become the best academic scholars we possibly could be — decisions were taken that would start to eat away at the very core of our profession. These decisions have generally been made outside the academy, by conservative politicians, media pundits and self-appointed “education experts.” They are part of a radical program to defund and privatize social programming across Canada, and we are now beginning to see the harsh realities stemming from such changes. Worse still, there is more to come.
Corporatization, commodification, neo-liberalism, managerialism run amuck, or simply “capitalism” — whatever you want to call this set of assaults — are undermining the ideal of the public university and hurting our colleagues, our students and ultimately our society as a whole. We see it in the hard bargaining, or rather the bullying and unilateral issuance of ultimatums, deployed against faculty at Windsor. We see it in managerial overreach so bad at Mount Allison and the University of New Brunswick that faculty have been driven to pass votes of non-confidence in their administrations. At Saskatchewan, presidents thought they could undermine the tenure system, while at Capilano, faculty artwork has been demolished by administrative fiat. Collegial governance, it seems, is being replaced with increasingly crass forms of Taylorism, with academic professionals transformed into assembly line workers (often employed on a precarious temporary or part-time basis) entirely subject to the dictates of managerial overseers.
And everywhere we hear of new initiatives to cut “inefficient” programs, to introduce “productivity” metrics, and to improve “customer satisfaction outcomes”… all intrusions of a commercial corporate sector into what once were — and still should be — uncompromising academic spaces dedicated to the selfless pursuit and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of all. It seems the gap between business-oriented boards of governors and academic faculty, despite the presumed common devotion to teaching and research, has developed into a near-impassable gulf.
It would be a serious error to believe anti-intellectual claims that such developments merely respond to the alleged wastefulness and irrelevance of universities in the modern world; quite the opposite. It is precisely because of their unparalleled value and their vast potential for social impact that universities are (and always have been) such a contested political battleground. Universities are essential sites of intellectual discovery, they are major economic contributors to local and national economies, and they help to nurture and direct the energies of society’s future innovators. They are also multi-million dollar enterprises with extensive real estate and other ancillary assets.
But above all, in this country especially, they have been carefully developed over several generations into a national treasury of publicly-funded, intellectual activity. They do not belong to corporate donors, well-connected board members, CEO-style administrators or exorbitantly-priced consultants — they are a public trust, and the public trusts us, expert members of the professoriate, to maintain that trust for the sake of generations to come.
The good news is that it is not too late to take a stand in defense of what has always been best in the university tradition. Thanks to faculty members acting at the national, provincial and local levels, Canadian universities remain among the strongest in the world in the preservation of essential workplace rights such as academic freedom and collegial governance. We should all be tremendously proud of the continued resilience and dedication of colleagues at Windsor, UNB, Mount Allison, Saskatchewan, Capilano, and all over this country, wherever resistance to corporatization is offered and wherever our commitment to university education as a social good is made manifest.
We all have the power to mount this resistance and to demonstrate this commitment. In the classroom, on campus, in the media and in our communities, we not only speak truth to power, but we also serve to model the very truths we believe in: that it is possible to live and act as professional scholars driven by a passion to share the best of our knowledge and research findings, for the benefit of society as a whole.