About four months ago, UBC President Stephen Toope wrote a widely-praised piece called “Universities in an Era of Non-Lieux“. Basically, the piece laments the growing trend toward the deracinated homogenization of universities around the globe. He names global rankings and government micro-management of research and enrolment strategies – usually of a fairly faddish variety, as evidenced by the recent MOOC-mania – as the main culprits.
I’m not going to take issue with Toope’s central thesis: I agree with him 100% that we need more institutional diversity; but I think the piece fails on two counts. First, it leaves out the question of where governments got these crazy ideas in the first place. And second, when it comes right down to it, the fact is that big research universities are only against institutional diversity insofar as it serves their own interests.
Take global rankings, for instance. Granted, these can be fairly reductionist affairs. And yes, they privilege institutions that are big on research. But where on earth could rankers have come up with the idea that research was what mattered to universities, and that big research = big prestige? Who peddles that line CONSTANTLY? Who makes hiring based on research ability? Who makes distinctions between institutions based on research intensity? Could it possibly be the academic community itself? Could it be that universities are not so much victims as culprits here?
(I mean, for God’s sake, UBC itself is a member of “Research Universities Council of BC” – an organization that changed its name just a few years ago so its members would be sure to distinguish themselves from the much more lumpen new [non-research-intensive] universities who caucus in the much less-grandly named BC Association of Institutes & Universities. Trust me – no rankers made them do that. They came up with this idea on their own.)
As for the argument that government imposes uniformity through a combination of meddling and one-size-fits-all funding models, it’s a point that’s hard to argue. Canadian governments are notorious for the way they only incentivize size and research, and then wonder why every university wants to be larger and more research-intensive. But frankly, this has traditionally worked in research universities’ favour. You didn’t hear a lot of U15 Presidents moaning about research monocultures as long as the money was still flowing entirely in their direction. So while Toope is quite right that forcing everyone into an applied research direction is silly, the emergence of a focus on applied research actually has a much greater potential to drive differentiation than your average government policy fad.
So, to echo Toope, yes to diversity, no to “non-lieux”. But let’s not pretend that the drive to isomorphism comes from anywhere but inside the academy. We have met the enemy and he is us.