Fall can be a magical time for many of us. A new academic year brings the potential for fresh starts, for making changes, for moving ahead. The whole campus is energized and primed for discoveries. Faculty, staff and students reconnect with familiar faces and make new acquaintances. Intellectual conversation swirls at its most animated around steaming cups of coffee. Meanwhile a hint of crispness in the air, a tinge of colour on the leaves, reminds us that time is moving on … that we have pressing, but exhilarating, work to do.
Last fall I wrote about dark changes afoot in the world of post-secondary education. And we have weathered a lot of storms since. The corporatization of the academy continues on its ploddingly toxic course, with all the consequences we have so universally come to know and loathe: the commodification of knowledge, students treated as infantilized and passive consumers (with an unlimited capacity for debt), the rise of a self-proliferating managerial class, the loss of collegial governance and curricular integrity, the casualization and disarticulation of academic work, the threats to academic freedom, the decline of basic research funding and the shift toward industry-driven research exclusively valued for its short-term profitability. All these and more have become such familiar aspects of the landscape that we sometimes forget that things have not always been this way. And more important, that we do not have to accept them.
In fact, we can do better. And all over Canada people are starting to demand better. Sometimes it feels like we have reached a tipping point.
We have had enough of seeing students going into debt and working multiple part-time jobs, for increasingly limited access to professors who are themselves too often denied fair compensation and basic, decent working conditions such as job security, office space and research support. We reject the notion that universities and colleges exist merely to sell potted knowledge and workplace credentials to paying customers, or to funnel public research dollars into projects that primarily benefit private corporations. Nor do we concede that publicly-funded institutions should be run as secretive oligarchies, by boards and administrators who value the austerity logic of outmoded business metrics over the broadly emancipatory social returns deriving from the unfettered pursuit of education and discovery.
There have been too many scandals involving over-paid university presidents who plead poverty as they mercilessly cut the ranks of tenured faculty; too many boards of governors that refuse to listen to faculty concerns, while privileging short-term fundraising and rankings over the core values of academic mission; and too many instances of academic muzzling, whether tacit or overt.
When we see avenues of meaningful consultation closed down, pressure to do more with less steadily on the rise, and a wholesale evaporation of transparency in governance, it is difficult to believe that those entrusted with the administration of our campuses truly regard either academic workers, their students, or the intellectual exercise of post-secondary education as a whole, with anything close to sympathy, understanding, or respect.
Perhaps this is not surprising, as university and college life is to some extent a microcosm of society at large. Public policy has been so dominated in recent years by the neo-liberal ideology of private profits for the few, and managerially-surveilled austerity for the rest, that a similar sort of logic was sure to extend to university and college life sooner or later. We should be proud that we have been able to band together, and hold on to so much that is good in the academic community, for as long as we have.
Indeed, not only do we retain a will to fight for better, but our strength and resolve have palpably grown in recent months. The positive response to CAUT’s ongoing Get Science Right initiative, not only from academic scientists but also from the media, and the public at large, has been beyond all expectations. Everyone, it seems, understands that muzzling and limiting researchers’ capacity to work in the interest of society as a whole is a terrible idea. And everyone knows that those who try to impose such violations of academic freedom must be held to account.
We understand better than ever now that our ability to effect positive change, to retake the levers of power from those who have been misusing them, stems from our willingness to organize and work together. Unionization of faculty members spiked last year in British Columbia; cooperation between academic workers and allies in the wider student, labour, and other progressive movements has never been greater; and our efforts are broadly supported by all manner of groups and individuals who see the connections between a healthy research and education sector, and the wellbeing of society itself.
We know what we want. And we know how to go about getting it. Let’s not be told any longer that we can’t have decent working conditions, or adequate, unfettered research funding, or collegial governance, or the overall social justice environment that make real intellectual advancement possible. Our work matters and we deserve better. It’s time to take back our country and take back our colleges and universities. It’s time to return the primacy of academic values to our campuses, in order to make higher education everything it can and should be.