One of the most extraordinary moments last week in the run-up to the Senate non-confidence vote on Western President Amit Chakma’s tenure was the publication of an opinion piece in the Western News – the official organ of the university, no less – entitled, “Nothing personal, but it’s time to go”. Written by two professors in the English Department, it is a rhetorically excellent savaging of President Chakma. Read it, it’s worth it.
Although well-written, I was particularly struck by the thinness of the litany of complaints. There was a certain, and surprising, inchoateness to the anger. Yes, it was bone-headed of Chakma to take the second year’s worth of pay, but that’s not what’s driving criticism here. The authors clearly believe that, at Western, things are going to hell in a handbasket in a way they aren’t elsewhere. And they have no doubt that Chakma and his executive team are the reason it is worse at Western. Given the article’s claims, it would seem that Chakma’s most unforgivable sin is that he does not – indeed, cannot – understand Western because he is from somewhere else. To the authors, he is simply not “one of us” (personally, I found it difficult to read the article without thinking of that famous scene from the 1932 film, Freaks).
Now, sometimes the “not one of us” argument has some force. When, after running into financial trouble, Cooper Union President Jamshed Barucha – formerly of Dartmouth and Tufts – decided to introduce tuition at the erstwhile free-tuition school, the issue of his sense of attachment to the institution could genuinely be called into question. Free tuition was part of the school’s identity, and you don’t screw around with that lightly (ht to Keegan Goodman for the analogy).
But, to put it mildly, I don’t see anything of that magnitude happening at Western. Universities are pretty isomorphic; the amount of local knowledge needed to run one is really small, unless it is really an outstanding and highly particular university (MIT, say). I grant that under Chakma, the strategic direction of the institution has changed for the blander (see here for my take on the banality of its recent strategic planning exercise); but let’s face it, it’s strategic directions were pretty bland to begin with. Apart from a stronger-than-average commitment to the undergraduate student experience, Western isn’t a particularly distinctive institution. The one time it had a chance to be really distinctive – when its Waterloo engineering extension campus came up with a program for co-op education – it cut the campus loose because that co-op stuff was self-evidently second-rate, and had no future at a serious university.
My guess is that the “not one of us” line-of-attack is actually another way of saying: “if you’d been here longer, you’d at least act as if you understood the concerns of those in the institution who are doing less well under this administration than under the previous one”. In other words, there seem to have been significant weaknesses in communication and consensus-building on campus. On its own, these were probably not serious enough to come to the fore and become a political issue that anyone outside the campus would care about. But Chakma and the Board, through the incomprehensible decision to allow Chakma to cash his leave-year pay while sitting as President, effectively handed a large, spiked club to anyone within the institution who had a grievance. The result is articles like this one, which have substantial (though obviously not universal) resonance on campus. Chakma survived the vote last Friday, but the damage done to his Presidency may be permanent.