HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

December 09

Who Are the U-15, Exactly?

Over the last few years, two new players have been introduced into the Ottawa higher education lobbying ecosystem.  One is Polytechnics Canada – essentially, the country’s largest, most technologically sophisticated, and most research intensive colleges; the other is the U-15 – essentially the country’s largest, most technologically sophisticated, and most research intensive universities.  For a variety of reasons, both of these new players have had a pretty good run in Ottawa, lately. Certainly, in the the U-15’s case, it’s often seemed like the tail wagging the AUCC dog (see CF-REF stories, passim).  But for an organization with such clout, its membership criteria is fairly opaque.

The U-15 had its origins in a caucus of five research-intensive Ontario institutions (McMaster, Waterloo, Toronto, Queen’s, and Western) in the late 1980s.  In the early 1990s, the group expanded to include the big three Quebec universities (McGill, Montreal, and Laval), plus UBC and Alberta, and was renamed the Group of Ten, or G-10.  Then, in the mid-2000s, Ottawa, Dalhousie, and Calgary were added, and more recently the inclusion of Manitoba and Saskatchewan has added some geographical balance.  The “G” changed to a “U” and voila!  U-15.

That the U-15 is a coalition of research intensive universities is clear.  But the decisions about which institutions get to join, and which do not, seem remarkably arbitrary.  Are they the 15 biggest universities?  Obviously not, or York would be there.  Are they the 15 universities with the largest granting council incomes?  No; if it were, then Guelph would be in and Dal would be out.  How about the 15 universities with the largest research incomes per faculty?  Nope; you’d have to include INRS, ETS, and Victoria. Research impact?  Depends on the measure used, but you could make a pretty good case for Simon Fraser on some of these.

Put it this way: the original G-10, plus Calgary and Ottawa, have a pretty good case to be a U-12.  Dal, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are not manifestly different on most performance indicators from Simon Fraser, Guelph, Victoria, and York.  So why are the former members, and the latter not?  The answer, in a word, is politics.  Meteorological conditions in the underworld would need to be unseasonably frosty before UBC lets another BC institution into the club (Toronto and York have a similar issue).  Meanwhile, the Dal/Man/Sask trio give the organization a more pan-Canadian patina – without them, the club would be confined to the country’s four largest provinces.  This extra breadth goes a long way in Ottawa to convincing people you’re a truly “national” organization.

Now, of course the U-15 isn’t really alone in being a self-appointed elite, with fuzzy boundaries between itself and the rest of the pack.  Just last month, an article in the Oxford Review of Education came to the same conclusion regarding the UK’s “Russell Group”, saying that on most measures, only Oxford and Cambridge really stand apart from the rest of the country’s pre-92 universities (in the UK, a pre-92 university is a university that was purpose built as-such; a post-92 university is one that was originally a polytechnic – think of the dividing line between “research” and “regional” universities in BC, and you’ve more or less got it).

But it’s not always the case.  In Australia, the G-8 really are the top 8 in research almost any way you slice it.  And in the United States, the American Association of Universities (which, by a weird historic fluke, also includes McGill and U of T) actually has quite a detailed set of membership criteria: research expenditures normalized by number of faculty, number of National Academy members, National Research Council faculty quality indicators, faculty honors, and scholarly citations.  In fact, it’s strict enough that four years ago the organization actually kicked out Nebraska (Syracuse subsequently withdrew voluntarily so as not to suffer the same fate).

However, this is Canada: asking elites to meet some established criteria for proving eliteness isn’t really a thing here.  Because, you know, someone might fail.  Embarrassment would be caused.  And that wouldn’t do, not for someone already “in the club”.  So the likelihood of any U-15 members being asked to leave is pretty slight.  And while the U-15 would probably prefer that the top tier of non-members go and form their own club, as they have done in other Anglophone speaking countries (e.g. the Innovative Universities Group in Australia, or the [now-defunct] 1994 Group in the UK), the likelier outcome is a gradual process of letting on new members – eventually.  Guelph will come first, because it causes the least political friction with an existing member.  SFU and Vic would be the next obvious candidates.

Of course the problem is that if the group is insufficiently exclusive, the top tier may walk away themselves and form their own, even more exclusive group.  U-5, anyone?

December 08

Innovation Ecosystems: Promise and Opportunism

We sometimes think of innovation policy as being about generating better ideas through things like sponsored research.  And that’s certainly one part of it.  But if those ideas are generated in a vacuum, they go nowhere – making ideas spread faster is the second pillar of innovation policy (a third pillar – to the extent that innovation is about new product-generation – has to do with venture capital and regulatory environments, but we’ll leave those aside for now).

Yesterday, I discussed why the key to speeding up innovation was the density of the medium through which new ideas travel: basically, ideas about IT travel faster in Waterloo than in Tuktoyaktuk; ideas about marine biology travel faster in Halifax than in Prince Albert.  And the faster ideas travel and collide (or “have sex” in Matt Ridley’s phrase), the more innovation is produced, ceteris paribus.

Now, although they don’t quite use this terminology, the proponents of big universities and big cities alike find this logic pretty congenial.  You want density of knowledge industries?  Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver have that.  You want density of superstar researchers?  U of T, McGill, and UBC have that (especially if you throw in allied medical institutes).  That makes these places the natural spot to invest money for innovation, say the usual suspects.  All you need to do is invest in “urban innovation ecosystems” (whatever those are – I get the impression it’s largely a real estate play to bring scientists, entrepreneurs, and VCs into closer spatial proximity), and voila!  Innovation!

This is where sensible people need to get off the bus.

It’s absolutely true that innovation requires a certain ecosystem of researchers, and entrepreneurs, and money.  And on average productive ecosystems are likelier to occur in larger cities, and around more research-intensive universities.  But it’s not a slam dunk.  Silicon Valley was essentially an exurb of San Francisco when it started its journey to being a tech hub.  This is super-inconvenient to the “cool downtowns” argument by the Richard Floridas of this world; as Joel Kotkin has repeatedly pointed out, innovative companies and hubs are as likely (or likelier) to be located in the ‘burbs, as they are in funky urban spaces, mainly because it’s usually cheaper to live and rent space there.  Heck, Canada’s Silicon Valley was born in the heart of Ontario Mennonite country.

We actually don’t have a particularly good theory of how innovation clusters start or improve.  Richard Florida, for instance, waxes eloquent about trendy co-working spaces in Miami as a reason for its sudden emergence as a tech hub. American observers tend to attribute success to the state’s low tax rate, and presumably there are a host of other possible catalysts.  Who’s right?  Dunno.  But I’m willing to bet it’s not Florida.

We have plenty of examples of smaller communities hitting tech take-off without having a lot of creative amenities or “urban innovation strategies”. Somehow, despite the lack of population density, some small communities manage to get their ideas out in the world in ways that gets smart investors’ attention.  No one has a freaking clue how this happens: research on “why some cities grow faster than others” is methodologically no more evolved than research on “why some universities become more research intensive than others”, which is to say it’s all pretty suspect.  Equally, some big cities never get particularly good at innovation (Montreal, for instance, is living proof that cheap rent, lots of universities, and bountiful cultural amenities aren’t a guarantee of start-up/innovation success).

Moreover, the nature of the ecosystem is likely to differ somewhat in different fields of endeavor.  The kinds of relationships required to make IT projects work is quite different from the kinds that are required to make (for example) biotech work.  The former is quick and transactional, the latter requires considerably more patience, and hence is probably less apt to depend on chance meetings over triple espressos in a shared-work-environment incubator.  Raleigh-Durham and Geneva are both major biotech hubs that are neither large nor particularly hip (nor, in Raleigh’s case, particularly dense).

It’s good that governments are getting beyond the idea that one-dimensional policy instruments like “more money in granting councils” or “tax credits” are each unlikely on their own to kickstart innovation.  It’s good that we are starting to think in terms of complex inter-relations between actors (some, but not all of which involve spatial proximity), and using “ecosystem” metaphors.  Complexity is important. Complexity matters.

But to jump from “we need to think in terms of ecosystems” to “an innovation agenda is a cities agenda” is simply policy opportunism.   The real solutions are more complex. We can and should be smarter than this.

December 07

H > A > H

I am a big fan of the economist Paul Romer, who is most famous for putting knowledge and the generation thereof at the centre of  discussions on growth.  Recently, on (roughly) the 25th anniversary of the publication of his paper on Endogeneous Technological Change, he wrote a series of blog posts looking back on some of the issues related to this theory.  The most interesting of these was one called “Human Capital and Knowledge”.

The post is long-ish, and I recommend you read it all, but the upshot is this: human capital (H) is something stored within our neurons, which is perfectly excludable.  Knowledge (A) – that is, human capital codifed in some way, such as writing – is nonexcludable.  And people can use knowledge to generate more human capital (once I read a book or watch a video about how to use SQL, I too can use SQL).  In Romer’s words:

Speech. Printing. Digital communications. There is a lot of human history tied up in our successful efforts at scaling up the H -> A -> H round trip.

And this is absolutely right.  The way we turn a patterns of thought in one person’s head into thoughts in many people’s heads is the single most important question in growth and innovation, which in turn is the single most important question in human development.  It’s the whole ballgame.

It also happens to be what higher education is about.  The teaching function of universities is partially about getting certain facts to go H > A > H (that is, subject matter mastery), and partially about getting certain modes of thought to go H > A > H (that is, ways of pattern-seeking, sense-making, meta-cognition, call it what you will). The entire fight about MOOCs, for instance, is a question of whether they are a more efficient method of making H > A > H happen than traditional lectures (to which I think the emerging answer is they are competitive if the H you are talking about is “fact-based”, and not so much if you are looking at the meta-cognitive stuff.  But generally, “getting better” at H > A > H in this way is about getting more efficient at the transfer of knowledge and skills, which means we can do more of it for the same price, which means that economy-wide we will have a more educated and productive society.

But with a slight amendment it’s also about the research function of universities.  Imagine now that we are not talking H > A > H, but rather H > A > H1.  That is, I have a certain thought pattern, I put it into symbols of some sort (words, equations, musical notation, whatever) and when it is absorbed by others, it generates new ideas (H1). This is a little bit different than what we were talking about before.  The first is about whether we can pass information or modes of thought quickly and efficiently; this one is about whether we can generate new ideas faster.

I find it helpful to think of new ideas as waves: they emanate outwards from the source and lose in intensity as they move further from the source.  But the speed of a wave is not constant: it depends on the density of the medium through which the ideas move (sound travels faster through solids than water, and faster through water than air, for instance).

And this is the central truth of innovation policy: for H > A > H1 to work, there has to be a certain density of receptor capacity for the initial “A”.  A welder who makes a big leap forward in marine welding will see his or her ideas spread more quickly if she is in Saint John or Esquimault than if she is in Regina.  To borrow Matt Ridley’s metaphor of innovation being about “ideas having sex”, ideas will multiply more if they have more potential mates.

This is how tech clusters work: they create denser mediums through which idea-waves can pass; hence, they speed up the propagation of new ideas, and hence, under the right circumstances, they speed up the propagation of new products as well.

This has major consequences for innovation policy and the funding of research in universities.  I’ll explain that tomorrow.

December 04

Defending Liberal Arts: Try Using Data

A few weeks back, I wrote about the Liberals Arts/humanities, and some really bad arguments both for and against them.  As usual when I write these, I got a lot of feedback to the effect of: “well, how would you defend the Liberal Arts, smart guy”?  Which, you know, fair enough.  So, here’s my answer.

The humanities, at root, are about pattern recognition in the same way that the sciences and the social sciences are: they just seek patterns in different areas of human affairs – in music, in literature, and in the narrative of history.  And though humanities cannot test hypotheses about patterns using the same kinds of experimental methods as elsewhere, they can nevertheless promote greater understanding of thorough synthesis.  Or, to paraphrase William Cronon’s famous essay, the humanities are about making connections, only connections.  In a networked world, that’s a valuable skill.

None of this, to me, is in doubt.  What is in doubt is whether this promise made by the humanities and Liberal Arts is actually delivered upon.  Other disciplines synthesize and make connections, too.  They promote critical thinking (the idea that other disciplines, disciplines founded on the scientific method, don’t promote critical thinking is the most arrogant and stupid canard promoted by people in the humanities).  What the humanities desperately need is some proof that what they claim is true is, in fact, true.  They need some data.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at the Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts education.  This was an elaborate, longitudinal, multi-institutional study to look at how students in liberal arts programs develop over time.  Students took a battery of tests – on critical reasoning, intercultural effectiveness, moral character, leadership, etc. – at various points in their academic career to see the effects of Liberal Arts teaching, holding constant the effects of things like gender, age, race, prior GPA, etc.  You can read about the results here – and do read them, because it is an interesting study.

At one level, the results are pretty much what we always thought: students do better if they are in classes where the teaching is clear and well-organized, and they learn more where they are challenged to do things, like applying theories to practical problems in new contexts, or integrating ideas from different courses in a project, or engaging in reflective learning.  And as can be seen here in the summary of results, the biggest positive effects of liberal arts education are on moral reasoning, critical thinking, and leadership skills (academic motivation, unfortunately, actually seems to go down over time).

So: mostly good for Liberal Arts/humanities, right?  Not quite.  Let me quote the most interesting bit: the research found that “even with controls for student pre-college characteristics and academic major, students attending liberal arts colleges (as compared to their peers at research universities and regional institutions) reported significantly higher levels of clarity and organization in the instruction they received, as well as a significantly higher frequency of experiences on all three of the deep-learning scales.”  In other words, the effects of Liberal Arts on students in Liberal Arts colleges are significantly greater than the effects on students studying similar programs in other, larger institutions.  That is to say, it’s the teaching environment and teaching practices, not the subject matter itself, which seems to make more of a difference.

Now, this does not suggest that Liberal Arts/humanities can’t deliver those kinds of benefits at larger universities; it’s just to say that for it to deliver those benefits, the focus needs to be on providing the subject matter using quite specific teaching practices and – not to beat around the bush – keeping class sizes down (which may in turn have implications for teaching loads and research activity, but that’s another story).

There are some good stories for the Liberal Arts in the Wabash data, and some not so good stories.  But the point is, there is data.  There are some actual facts and insights that can be used to improve programs, to make them better at producing well-rounded critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, the inquiry itself is what’s important.  Humanities’ biggest problem isn’t that it’s got nothing to sell; it’s that too frequently they act like they have nothing to learn.  If more institutions adopted Wabash-like approaches, and acted upon them, my guess is the Liberal Arts would get a lot more respect than they currently do.

December 03

Every University and College Needs a Fool

OK, yes, lots of ways to complete that sentence (e.g. “Every university and college needs a fool… and mine already has several”, etc.).  But I mean this in a very literal sense.  Institutions need the equivalent of Medieval Fools, or Court Jesters, to help them combat bad institutional culture.

In addition to being a barrel of laughs, Fools had a specific function in medieval and early renaissance courts; namely, they were able to speak truth to power, albeit obliquely (think Robin Williams rather than Jon Stewart). Because they were dressed as figures of fun, they had some license to tweak the noses of the powerful, because their words could be shrugged off as the ravings of a simpleton.  Yet, frequently, those ravings were useful because they presented truths that could not otherwise be said aloud.  Those Fools were no fools; as Shakespeare said, playing the Fool took considerable wisdom.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting that universities and colleges need to dress someone up in an ass’ costume and run around making fun of people in an academic council meeting (inspiring a thought as that may be).  Nor am I suggesting that there needs to be someone who is specifically charged with poking fun at executive power at a university – most institutions already have enough self-appointed critics filling that job.

No, what I have in mind is something different: someone who has license to speak truth across the institution.  Not constantly, as a gadfly role (that would just get annoying).  But occasionally, maybe once every year, it would be useful for a Fool to give each institution a once-over.  And where I think this could be most useful is not on issues of specific policy – again, each institution has lots of self-appointed critics of management to do that – but rather on issues of institutional culture.

As a friend was observing to me yesterday, bad institutional culture never looks bad from the inside.  There’s always good reasons for this little bit of secrecy, or flippant refusal to make data public; there’s always a good reason for sanctioning financial or business entanglements, which are at best borderline, or good reasons to not make tough decisions, thus allowing problems to fester.

No one sets out to be part of a bad institutional culture.  Bad cultures are created gradually, inch-by-inch, so slowly that no one on the inside notices.  The function of a university/college Fool would be to come in from the outside and say, maybe once a year, forcefully and publicly: What the heck are you people doing?  How did you all get this inappropriately cozy with industry?  How did your principles of governance get so undermined that the faculty union thought it appropriate to grieve Senate decisions? (Don’t scoff – this has happened.) Why are you even thinking about evicting a student union from its building? 

Everybody wants to be part of a good academic culture.  Fools might be able to play a role in keeping everyone on the straight and narrow.  It’s got to be at least as good an idea as having organizational behavior consultants crawling all over the place.

December 02

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Universities and Colleges

One of the problems in higher education is that there’s a whole lot of effort expended on “who’s the best” (which, as measured by most rankings, is some function of money, age, and size), and not a lot of serious effort put into answering the question: “how can institutions get better”?  (Or at least, in finding answers that don’t boil down to: publish more/get more international students.)

I get to see a fair number of universities around the world.  And so while I don’t claim the following list is based on anything like empirical data, I can say that nearly all good universities follow these same seven habits.

1)     They are outwardly focussed. Highly effective universities understand that little can be accomplished inside a single institution.  Effective universities need partners – other universities, businesses, governments, whatever.  But building effective partnerships requires three things: having a very good understanding of what those potential partners want, having an understanding of what they think of you as a partner, and having a willingness to change in order to improve their chances of making better partnerships.  Some of this depends on having the other qualities listed below; but at root, it depends on being focussed on possibilities that exist outside the university, and doing whatever it takes to exploit them.

2)     They focus on what they can control, not what they can’t.  The surest sign a university isn’t effective is that it spends a lot of time moaning about what government is or isn’t doing.  Sure, government can have positive or deleterious effects.  And it’s important for universities to make their voices heard in order to promote good policies over bad ones.  But it’s even more important not to dwell on this subject.  In most developed counties – and certainly here in Canada – institutions have sufficient control over finance and policy to make an enormous amount of difference over their own situation.  Effective institutions maintain focus on this fact.

3)     They Pay Attention to Hiring.  At the end of the day, an institution’s nature and culture is a product of the hiring process.  Make a mistake – bring in a prof who is a whinger, or who is inclined to slack off gradually after gaining tenure – and you infect a department for a generation.  Every academic hire shapes the institution’s academic profile; every academic hire is implicitly a multi-million dollar decision.  There is literally no job more important at a post-secondary institutions than hiring.

4)     They Set High Standards.  There cannot be high performance without standards.  These need not always be written down; in fact, arguably, at the very highest-performing institutions there is no need for codified standards.  But one way or another, institutions need to ensure that units are performing at their best; they also need to have ways to be seen to be holding people accountable for working at the best.

5)    They Tell Stories.  Strong institutional cultures require a common belief in a narrative about what makes the institution great.  Great university and college leaders spend a lot of time finding ways to create and reinforce those narratives.  The sign of a great institution?  People all tell the same anecdotes to explain how and why their institution came to greatness.

6)     They Know How to Decide and Move On.  Whether they have strong Presidencies, or whether they have remarkably effective governance processes, effective universities don’t faff around.  They take strategy seriously and they take important decisions with due consideration, but not undue delay.

7)     Respect.  The best institutions treat everyone with respect.  Students.  Staff.  Stakeholders (particularly government and taxpayers).  That doesn’t mean they bend over to accommodate every whim from these groups; it just means they treat them with due regard.  Students and staff aren’t patronized; discussions with government and the public are honest and evidence-based.

This isn’t to say money, age, and size don’t help.  But in their absence, these seven traits make it easy to distinguish between the top performers and the rest.

December 01

The Higher Education of Heads of Government

To follow up on yesterday’s musings about the educational history of Canadian Prime Ministers: I think you can tell something about a country’s social structure just by looking at the clustering of leaders’ educational backgrounds.

In this exercise, I look at the records for Canadian, British, Australian, Japanese, and New Zealand Prime Ministers, German Chancellors, and French and American Presidents.  I would have included Italy but politicians’ Wikipedia bios are weirdly silent on education (even in the Italian versions).  I take all leaders back to 1900, except in New Zealand where Dominion Status was not granted until 1907, and Japan where I stop at 1945 because holy moley there are a lot of them.

The most interesting thing to me is the degree of concentration we see in each country.  In the UK, it is absolutely absurd, with nine of the last thirteen prime ministers (dating back to 1940) having studied at Oxford (Callaghan and Major did not attend university, Churchill went to Sandhurst, and Brown studied at Edinburgh).  Australia runs a close second.  Of the fifteen prime ministers with a university education (fourteen did not attend), seven went to the University of Sydney, three to Melbourne, and one each to ANU and Western Australia (two went to UK universities, without ever attending an Australian one).

Japan and France have a different sort of concentration.  In France, where every head of state since 1900 had a post-secondary degree, fourteen of the seventeen Presidents studied in Paris.  Among the pre-WWI presidents, all of whom went to school before 1908 during a period where there was only one university in France (but lots of different affiliated faculties dotted around the country), they nearly all studied Law in Paris.  Since DeGaulle, all Presidents have attended a “Grande Ecole” in Paris, with the exception of Sarkozy who attended Paris X.  In Japan, 29 of 32 post-War prime ministers studied in Tokyo, the only exceptions being Uno (Kobe), Ikeda (Kyoto), and Tanaka (no PSE).  Eleven of these went to the University of Tokyo, and seven to Waseda, with the rest scattered around the capital’s other mainly private universities.  So, in the UK, France, Japan, and – perhaps oddly – Australia, elites come from a fairly narrow set of proving grounds.  The US is a bit better, but maybe not much: the last twenty Presidents have five Harvard Degrees and five Yale Degrees among them (only one – Bush Junior – has both).

However, Canada and Germany seem to have much less concentrated patterns of attendance.  In Canada, the university with the most prime ministerial graduates is U of T (four out of seventeen).  In Germany, you have to be careful how you count pre-WWII, because those guys went to school in the 1800s when it was still the tradition to wander around taking courses at three universities before eventually taking a set of exams somewhere (credits were not a thing back then), but Humboldt has five Chancellors  (out of twenty-seven) if you don’t get picky about where the exams were taken.  In other words, in these countries, the path to the top seems somewhat more open to people from a wider set of backgrounds.

But that’s nothing compared to New Zealand, where only seven out of twenty-two prime ministers even went to university (closest competitor on that score is Australia, where fourteen out of 29 were non-attenders), and no university can claim more than two of them.  In fact, they’ve had as many prime ministers who did not finish secondary school as they’ve had those who finished university.  The contrast with Canada is fascinating; even if you knew nothing else about the two countries, you’d know our society has been much more urbanized and stratified for longer than our kiwi cousins.

To summarize:

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Another interesting comparison is with respect to study abroad. Canada looks pretty good on this measure with 6 PMs having got some education abroad, but we actually come second to Australia, which has seven.  The Japanese do well, too, with five.  Germany has a number of Chancellors who studied at Strasbourg, but at the time it was part of Germany – Adenauer (LSE) and Luther (Geneva) were the two who actually studied abroad.  The New Zealanders have one.  The Americans have one and change, what with Clinton having a couple of years at Oxford and Kennedy having a couple of weeks at LSE.  The French and English, needless to say, have none.

(A final completely tangential fact I have to throw in here, because not enough people know it: before moving to Columbia, Obama started his educational career at Occidental College, which was the real-life setting for “California University” on the original Beverly Hills 90210.  This means he literally could have been at the Peach Pit all those years.  Fabulous.)

Anyways, I’m not sure much of this means anything, but it is an interesting way to think about comparative stratification, both social and educational.

November 30

Canadian PMs’ Higher Education Experiences

For giggles the other night, I started looking up the educational backgrounds of various countries’ heads of government.  I’ll do the other countries tomorrow; today, I thought I’d start with Canada.  Let’s do it by the numbers.

One: The number of Canadian PMs who have held PhDs.  It was McKenzie King, who earned a PhD from Harvard for his dissertation on “Oriental Immigration to Canada”. He was against it: “Canada should remain a country for the white man”, he wrote with singular obliviousness.

Three: The number of PMs offered spots at Oxford.  But only two took them up, as Louis St. Laurent declined his Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a legal career.  It’s also the number of degrees Diefenbaker obtained from the University of Saskatchewan.  Apparently, he was the first person to achieve this feat.

Four: The number of PMs who graduated from the University of Toronto, the most of any single university.  The quad in question: Martin, Pearson, Mackenzie King, and Meighen (Harper attended, but dropped out, before doing two degrees at the University of Calgary).

Six: The number of PMs who studied abroad.  Nearly all of them were in some form of political science (King, Turner, Trudeau, Campbell), though Tupper studied medicine at Edinburgh, and Pearson studied history at Oxford.  I’m fairly sure only Australia can claim more.

Seven: Of the last nine PMs, seven have dropped out of a university program at some point.  Turner dropped out of a graduate program in Paris (after completing his Rhodes – the man was no dummy).  Both Trudeau and Campbell dropped out of doctoral degrees at LSE.  Both Mulroney and Clark dropped out of Dalhousie Law School.  Harper dropped out of U of T, before ending up at Calgary; and our current Prime Minister dropped out of an Engineering program at Polytechnique (in which he enrolled after getting degrees at McGill and UBC).  And we wonder why there’s never been a big push in Canada on retention/completion.

Eight: The number of Prime Ministers with law degrees.  Additionally, Macdonald, Thompson, and Borden passed the bar without attending law school (we didn’t have any in the very early days), and Thompson even went on to found the Dalhousie law school from which two of our later Prime Ministers dropped out.  So that makes eleven lawyers out of 23 Prime Ministers.  Personally, I think this explains a lot about our country.

Eighteen: The number of Prime Ministers with university degrees.  Of the five who did not have one, three were the aforementioned lawyers.  The other two were Alexander Mackenzie, who apprenticed in Stonemasonry, and Mackenzie Bowell who had a teaching diploma (not a higher education credential back then) from a long-defunct Normal School in Hastings, Ontario.

Ninety-Six: The number of years since we’ve had a Prime Minister without a degree (Borden).  In the US, the equivalent figure is sixty-three (Harry Truman), whereas in England it is eighteen (John Major).

November 27

Kids These Days

I’ve had a few people ask me in recently: “what’s going on with students these days?”  Or words to that effect.  Although they don’t say so explicitly – they assume I know what they mean – what they are talking about is (in no particular order): that Atlantic article from a couple of months ago about intellectually-coddled students, the imbroglio at Yale, and the highly amusing Yogapocalyspe at the University of Ottawa.

The line people seem to have these days goes something like: “isn’t it disastrous that students seem to be so intolerant/oversensitive/whatever”?  Certainly that seems to be what Neil MacDonald means in this piece, published by the CBC on Wednesday.  But frankly, an awful lot of it is just media hype.

Take the Atlantic piece.  I mean, it’s the Atlantic for goodness sake.  They publish a variation on this article every three years, or so.  They take a half dozen incidents, mostly at Ivy League schools (maybe a couple on the west coast too, for the sake of variety), damn near all of them in humanities departments, and then claim that this is representative of the entirety of American higher education.  These articles are entertaining, of course, and they appeal to our “oh my God everything is going to hell in a handbasket” sensibilities (which we all have to some extent).  But as an accurate reflection of the state of higher education in America – let alone north of the border – it’s simply not on.  Worrying?  Maybe.  A trend?  Probably not.

That’s the thing about these stories, you have to keep an eye on the sample size.  Take the Yale story, for instance.  Basically, the administration, in somewhat circuitous terms, sent out an email telling students to please not wear blackface at Halloween.  One minor college official decided to make this a teachable moment, and sent out an email saying: “hey, this is Yale, should a paternalist administration really police what kids wear at Halloween?”  In some ways the email was quite a reasonable one, and if it had been sent from one administrator to another, no one would have thought anything of it.  But frankly, if you’re a college professional in this day and age, and after a year of #blacklivesmatter, if you think it’s a good idea to send out an email to hundreds of students in which it looks like you might be defending blackface in the name of free speech, you need your head examined.

And so yes, a number of students got upset.  Some of them asked for some resignations, and one or two of them were even rude and insolent to professors and administrators!  On film!  But again, how many people are we really talking about here?  Is what they said really so terrible?  I mean these students are 20 years old.  Twenty year olds say a lot of stupid stuff – the difference today is that the rest of society can hear about it and discuss it in real time.  The issues at play at Yale are important, but at the same time, from a generational zeitgeist POV it’s tempest-in-a-teacup stuff.

And then there’s the yoga thing at U of O.  It’s somewhat different in the sense that it’s not people (seen to be) over-reacting to a provocation, but rather a sheer po-faced holier-than-thou inanity by a student federation functionary.  Hilarious?  Certainly – my particular favourite being the comment that the student union was really just trying to find a way to be more inclusive of people “that feel left out in yoga-like spaces” (my suggestion: more beer, pizza, and wi-fi in yoga rooms: I know I’d feel more included).  Infuriating?  Sure – the instructor suggested changing the name of the class from “Yoga” to “mindful stretching” to deal with the cultural appropriation, only to be told there wasn’t time to get the term translated (this is U of O, after all).

But again, is this really evidence of “political correctness gone mad”?  What we have on the record are the comments of a single student union officer.  This particular student union has had a rough year, having lost two executives before the end of September. If I had a cynical mind, I’d say there’s a reasonable chance that the organization couldn’t get its act together quickly enough to offer all of its programming, and then tried to cover it up by offering up some half-baked account about cultural appropriation.  This, at least to me, seems a likelier scenario than any narrative suggesting that even a halfway significant-sized group of U of O students believe a word of this stuff.

In other words, what I think we have here are two nothingburger stories, and a specific-to-Yale story, all of which happened to break in a short period of time, and then people like Neil Macdonald came along trying to spin it into a single overarching narrative.  But remember: not all clustering is meaningful; sometimes it’s just coincidence.

So If you ask me what’s up with kids these days, I think I’d answer “they’re pretty much the same as they always were”.  And if someone tries to tell you differently, ask about their sampling strategy.

November 26

Beyond Tenure

Today, Higher Education Strategy Associates is releasing a paper called Beyond Tenure: Faculty Employment Protection at Canadian Universities (available here).

People make a lot of fuss about tenure.  They say things like “lifetime employment, now isn’t that cushy”, etc. etc.; or, on the flip side, “tenure’s absolutely essential to protect academic freedom”, heart of the university, etc. etc.  But tenure actually isn’t a guarantee of employment come what may.  Nothing prohibits a university from letting people go if the institution is in deep financial trouble, or if no one is taking courses in the particular subject in which one is tenured.

Well, nothing except for collective agreements.  If you look at the history of faculty unionization in Canada, the main catalyst for certification has tended to be job security rather than pay.  So you’d expect Canadian faculty collective agreements to have pretty strong language in terms of job protection.  But you might not expect exactly how strong that protection is, or it’s consequences.

This summer, my colleague Jonathan Williams and I sifted through the faculty agreements from all Canadian universities (to be fair, Jonathan did most of the heavy lifting).  We looked specifically at the kinds of ways faculty agreements limit the ability of universities to downsize, or re-deploy staff.  There are a number of ways to do this, including no lay-off clauses, minimum staff complements, redeployment clauses, etc.  We do lots of fun comparisons in the publication, noting which institutions have ended up negotiating which kind of approach to terminations, which institutions come close to having CAUT’s “model” contract, etc.

(On the whole, I think my favourite faculty agreement in the country is Acadia’s.  It is seemingly one of the most rigid, requiring the university to keep a minimum complement of 140 academic staff at all times.  Except if you read the annexes, this clause is in suspension for the duration of the current agreement for the simple reason that both sides acknowledge that Acadia can’t afford that many staff – at the moment, they are about 30 profs short of the target.  Yet the clause has to stay in.  Why?  Morale purposes?  It’s not entirely clear.  Pretty goofy.)

But our main focus is on what are called “exigency clauses”: the processes through which a university can attempt to reduce staff complement in a financial emergency.  And what tortured processes these are.  Committees get created to determine the exigency’s severity.  Then, institutions are required to take certain steps before even considering laying-off faculty; in a few cases, firing all the contract staff first (now there’s some solidarity!), or selling off buildings and other assets (the case at Brock, Concordia, Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent, Queen’s, StFX, and Wilfrid Laurier).  Even if all that is satisfied, then the university still has to provide a layoff notice period (median length: 12 months), and then there is a requirement for severance pay on top of that (median length: 12 months).  The upshot of all this is that it is a rare institution where management can get away with spending less than 2 years’ worth of salary on a professor that eventually is released.

Now, this is really just faculty unions doing what unions are supposed to do: raising the price of layoffs so that management will find other ways to save money.  But in a business where labour costs take up 75% of all income, being too effective at this game can cause real problems for institutions’ ability to manage costs.  And that’s kind of where universities are now.  The rules in collective agreements are so restrictive in terms of reducing staff numbers in case of exigency that, in effect, the only realistic option available to management is to freeze hiring and reduce numbers by attrition.  This is basically tantamount to saying that universities are incapable of shrinking strategically: their future shape will be determined by the current age profile of the faculty, and nothing else.

And remember: none of this has anything to do with tenure, academic freedom, or anything else.  It’s all on top of tenure, purely about job protection in the face of economic uncertainty.  Nice if you can get it, but as Nova Scotia’s Bill 100 shows, if unions get too successful at this, governments can and will intervene to provide universities ways to circumvent collective agreements in extremis.  And perhaps more to the point, if firing someone is this difficult, then maybe – just maybe – institutions will become less eager to hire professors in the first place.  For those wondering why casualization and increasing use of sessionals is a thing, you’ve got your answer right here.

I hope you all enjoy reading the document, and feel free to let me know what you think.

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