Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Academic Culture

September 15

Why our Science Minister is Going to be Disappointed in Statscan

Last week Statscan sent me a consultation form asking my opinions about their ideas on how to change UCASS (the University and College Academic Staff Survey, which like most Statscan products containing the word “college” does not actually include the institutions most of us call “colleges” i.e. community colleges).  I’ve already said something about this effort back here to the effect that focussing so much effort on data collection re: part-time staff is a waste of time, but the consultation guide makes me think Statscan is heading into serious trouble with this survey reboot for a completely different set of reasons.

Remember that when the money for all this was announced, the announcement was made by our Minister of Science, Kristy Duncan.  One of her priorities as Minister has been to improve equity outcomes in scientific hiring, particularly when it comes to things like Canada Research Chairs (see here for instance).  The focus of her efforts has usually been gender, but she’s also interested in other equity populations – in particular, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities.  So one of the things she charged Statscan with doing in this revived UCASS (recall that Statscan cut the program for five years as a result of Harper-era cuts) is to help shine a light on equity issues in terms of salaries, full-time/part-time status, and career progression.

This is all fine except for one tiny thing.  UCASS is an not a questionnaire-based instrument.  It’s an administrative survey.  That means institutions fill in a complicated set of sheets to provide Statscan with hundreds of different aggregated data cuts about their institution (what is the average salary of professors in Classics?  How many professors in chemical engineering are female?  Etc).  In order to use UCASS to address the demographic questions Duncan wants answered, institutions would first need to know the answer themselves.  That is, they would need to know precisely which instructors have disabilities, or which are “visible minorities”, just as they currently know everyone’s gender.  Which means they would need to find a way to make such disclosures mandatory, otherwise they would not be able to report to Statistics Canada.

I tried this idea out on my twitter audience over the weekend.  Let’s just say it did not go over very well.  A significant number of responses were, essentially: “over my dead body do I give this information to my employer.  If Statscan wants to know this, they can ask me directly.”

Well, yes, they could I suppose, but then the resulting data couldn’t be linked to administrative information on rank and salary without getting each faculty member’s permission, which I can see not always being forthcoming.  In addition, you’d have all sorts of non-response bias issues to deal with, especially if they tried to do this survey every year – my guess is most profs would simply ignore the survey after year 2.  And yes, you’d have to do it frequently because not all disabilities are permanent.

Here’s my suggestion.  Statscan should actually do two surveys.  Keep UCASS more or less the way it is, extend it to colleges (some of whom will take a decade to report properly but that’s life) and part-timers (if they must – frankly, I think more people would be interested in data on non-academic staff than in data on part-time staff) but don’t mess around with the basic structure or try to force professors into reporting on their demographic characteristics – other than gender, which is already in there – to their employers because that’s just more trouble than it’s worth.  Then, every five years or so, do a second survey so in which you take a demographic snapshot of the professoriate as a whole.  It will have mediocre completion rates, but it’s better than nothing.

(In fact, universities and colleges could do this themselves if they wanted to at a cost much lower than whatever Statscan will end up paying, but since they almost never collaborate on creating public data without a gun to their heads it seems like some federal intervention is inevitable if anyone wants this done).

This is not what Minister Duncan asked for, I know.  But it’s the only way to get her the data she wants without causing mayhem on campuses.  Hopefully, pragmatism will prevail here.

October 07

Microcosmographia Academica

Many years ago – I think it was when I first got elected to student council – my grandfather gave me a copy of a 1908 satirical book on academic politics called the Microcosmographia Academica (available online here) by F. M. Cornford. Addressed to “the aspiring academic politician”, it is still very much worth a read today, especially if you’ve just been elected to Senate or have taken on some significant administrative duties. Not all of it ages well (bits of it are unintelligible unless you have a firm grasp of late nineteenth century academic reforms in the UK), but much of it is absolutely timeless.

Consider the problem of how we select professors:

A lecturer [i.e. a junior-rank professor – AU] is a sound scholar who is chosen to teach on the grounds that he was once able to learn.

Replace “learn” with “conduct competent research” and the statement is as true today as it ever was. Similarly, it turns out that the basis for academic snobbery hasn’t changed very much in the last century or so:

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it.  If you should write a book be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called “brilliant” and forfeit all respect.

But the core of the book is an adumbration of ways in which things do not get done in universities. Referring to committees, Cornford says:

…we have succeeded in minimising the dangerous feeling by the means of never allowing anyone to act without first consulting at least twenty other people who are accustomed to regard him with well-founded suspicion…it is clear, moreover, that twenty independent persons, each of whom has a reason for not doing a certain thing and no one of whom will compromise with any other, constitutes a most effective check on the rashness of individuals.

Cornford notes that there is only ever one argument to do something: that it is the right thing to do. All other arguments are arguments not to do something. These he enumerates with great relish: the Principle of the Wedge (“do not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future”), the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, Giving the Present System a Fair Trial, etc. But he is also very good at explaining how to accept something in principle while obstructing it in practice. To wit:

Another argument is that the machinery for effecting the proposed object already exists. This should be urged in cases where the existing machinery has never worked and is now so rusty there is no chance of its being set in motion.

And of course, he deals with political discourse in a university, specifically with respect to Jobs:

These fall into two classes: My Jobs, and Your Jobs. My jobs are public-spirited proposals which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

Non-academic positions still get spoken of this way all the time.

It’s a short piece – not more than a half-hour’s read. It’s worth the time. Enjoy.

November 07

Shite Gifts for Academics

So, now that Hallowe’en is over, you need to start thinking about Christmas. Wondering what to get an academic friend? Check out the facebook app Shite Gifts for Academics, where you’re sure to find something worth giving.

Ok, not really. It’s one of those meant-to-be-funny-but-actually-kind-of-annoying facebook sites where you can “send” something to someone. With a click of a button, you can give a friend one of 212 presents such as “two big male egos in a departmental meeting,” “second wave feminist with an axe to grind” and “non-academic friend who thinks you have summers off, right?”

At this point, you’re rolling your eyes and asking, “This is trite – who cares”? Well, the nice thing about facebook apps is that it’s all about metrics. You can always see how many times someone has sent each gift. And as such, this particular app is an interesting window into the psyche of academics. Since each gift is clearly ironic, it actually functions as a rough-and-ready guide to what it is that academics (ones on facebook, anyway, meaning in the main young-ish academics) dislike the most about their jobs and lives.

So, here we go: the top five gifts on Shite Gifts for Academics (as of November 3):
1) Eighty freshman composition papers (gifted 42,003 times)
2) Sentence in outrageous academese (41,662)
3) Students texting in class (40,944)
4) Boring faculty meeting (31,569)
5) Enthralled class (with an accompanying picture to make it clear that the class is in fact unenthralled) (31,283)

One other entry (overbearing maladjusted colleague) gets over 30,000 “gifts,” and then there’s another couple between 25,000 and 30,000 (“unnecessary Freud reference” and “vengeful student evaluation”), but after that the numbers tail off pretty quickly. That top five really seems to nail what peeves our group of young-ish, facebook-inhabiting academics.

Obviously, one shouldn’t read too much into this, but it’s interesting how much the focus of their peevishness is students and teaching, isn’t it? That can’t be good.