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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2016

President’s message / Reasserting the university tradition

by James Compton

JamesCompton“Why do you need to buy these books?” A professor of English at the University of Manitoba was recently asked this simple question. One might be forgiven for thinking it was posed by a curious young child. But you’d be wrong. It was the product of an algorithm attached to a proprietary, online expense management tool called Concur used by the university.           

You read that correctly. A professor whose job it is to read, and to instruct students in the critical study of writing, was asked to justify why she needed a book. If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. And no, I don’t think whoever wrote the program was trying to be ironic.  

I learned of this absurd situation while joining striking faculty at the University of Manitoba on Nov. 4. Hundreds of students and faculty members, including dozens of professors from across the country, had assembled on the front steps of the U of M’s iconic administration building to demonstrate their resolve against demands at the bargaining table that would increase workload, weaken job security, and im­plement a system of deeply reductionist quantitative performance indicators. They refused to concur.  

On this unseasonably warm and sunny November day, the crowd assembled on the administration’s steps to assert a different kind of value. Against, what Roger Burrows calls the market-driven “quantified control” and “autonomization of metric assemblages,” students and faculty declared their defense of collegial governance and the academy’s shared values. Against a mathematical abstraction, students and faculty were performing a commitment to each other as teachers, researchers and students. This is what a university looks like.          

While utilitarian managerialism is the dominant ethos of most Canadian university administrations today, the administrative impulse to control is not new, nor is the principled opposition to it. Canadian economist and historian Harold Innis made a similar case in 1944 in his essay A Plea for the University Tradition. First delivered as a speech at the University of New Brunswick, Innis was writing in the context of a war economy and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union, but his concern was familiar to us. He wanted to preserve the university’s autonomy from the instrumental and mechanical goals of the state and industry — the purveyors of what he called “monopolies of knowledge.”          

In 1978, American journalism and cultural studies scholar, James Carey, borrowed the title from Innis’s essay to reassert the plea. In his own Plea for the University Tradition, Carey spoke against a misplaced professionalism taking hold of universities. In its place, he argued for a shared common core value he called “the general ethical and intellectual point of view.” Writing 34 years after Innis, Carey argued universities had “shown a preference, for economic reasons, for mechanical communication, for the transmission of information to consumers who are silently tended by professionals.”           The students and professors at the U of M, may not have read these two identically-titled essays, but they were enacting the values both scholars defended. They were fighting for those values so professors would not be required to defend their purchase of a book.          

On campus that November day, a spirit of optimism was in the air. Through their speeches, conversations and banners, professors and students were performing what Carey called a ritual view of communication. Instead of transmitting facts, figures and commands in space to atomized individuals, they were using language and symbols to create and reproduce their scholarly community in time. Another reality was possible and their presence demonstrated it.          

Standing outside the main gate on University Crescent after the rally, I spotted a student sporting a “Support UMFA” button pinned to his bright green Saskatchewan Roughriders jacket. I stopped him and asked whether he ever got heckled on campus. He was, I reminded him, at that moment walking past the corporately-branded Investors Group Field, home turf of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He smiled and shrugged. “Not really. I just really love the Riders.”          

I guess a new world is possible after all.