HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

May 09

Conservative Leadership Platform Analysis

So, I just read through all the thirteen leadership candidates’ websites, looking for their thoughts on all the stuff this blog cares about: post-secondary education, skills, science, innovation, youth, etc.

The things I do for you people.

Actually, it was a pretty quick exercise because it turns out almost no one in the Tory leadership race places much importance on post-secondary education, skills, innovation, youth.  They seem to care a lot about taxes, and immigration (and to a lesser extent guns), but for a party that was in government less than two years ago, the Conservative candidates seem to have remarkably little appreciation for the things that actually drive a modern economy.  Anyways, briefly, here is what the candidates say about the issues this blog cares about.

 Chris Alexander (Former Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, ex-MP Ajax-Pickering): No specific platform on higher education, but the topic does come up frequently in his policies.  Expanding educational exports to Asia is priority.  He says he wants 400,000 new international students/year by 2020 and 500,000 per year by 2023 (I’m pretty sure he does not actually mean “new” as in new visa applications every year, I think that’s total in the country at any one time).  He also wants to spend money on new National Centres of Excellence and Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research for the digital economy as well as invest more in research related to art and design (I assume OCAD’s Robert Luke has something to do with that one).  He also has a general pledge to incentivize PSE institutions to collaborate more with “incubators accelerators and companies of all sizes”, whatever that means.

Maxime Bernier (Former Minister of industry, Foreign Affairs, and Min. of State for Small Business, MP for Beauce)The main point of interest in the Bernier platform is the rise in the personal tax exemption to $15,000 per year, which will have favourable impacts for many students.  Under his health platform, Bernier indicates he wants the federal government to vacate the health field and transfer tax points to the provinces; though he does not say so explicitly, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the same would apply to the transfer of funds to provinces for post-secondary education under the Canada Social Transfer.

Steven Blaney (Former Minister of Public Safety, MP Bellechasse—Les Etchemins—Lévis): Nothing at all.

Michael Chong (Former Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Sport, MP Wellington-Halton Hills):  Nothing at all.

Kellie Leitch (Former Minister of Labour and the Status of Women, MP Simcoe-Grey): Nothing at all.

Pierre Lemieux (Former MP Glengarry-Prescott-Russell): Nothing at all.  Are you seeing a pattern yet?

Deepak Obhrai (MP Calgary Forest Lawn)Nothing at all.

 Erin O’Toole: (Former Minister of Veterans Affairs, MP Durham): O’Toole is the only candidate with anything even vaguely resembling plans for science and Innovation in the form of a scheme to extend the notion of “flow-through shares” –a tax gimmick heavily used in resource industries to defray development expenses – to new life-sciences and tech companies as well.  More intriguing is O’Toole’s “Generation Kick-Start” platform, which promises everyone who completes a degree, diploma or apprenticeship with an extra $100,000 of personal exemptions (i.e. $15K in reduced taxes) to be used before they turn 30.  That goes up to $300,000 if their credential in an area where skills are in “short supply” (definition vague but seems to include engineers, coders and “skilled tradespeople” even though 3 years into the oil slump the latter wouldn’t really qualify as “in demand”).  The latter half of the proposal is goofy, but the basic idea has a lot of merit.

 Rick Peterson: (A BC Investment Advisor of Some Sort): Nothing at all.

Lisa Raitt (Former Minister of Natural Resources, Labour, and Transportation, MP Milton). Like Maxime Bernier proposal, Raitt proposes to raise the basic tax exemption to 15K.  She also wants to increase the (totally useless) apprenticeship and completion grant up to $4,000.

 Andrew Saxton (ex-MP, North Vancouver)Saxton’s policy pages are – to put it mildly – light on detail.  However, he says he does want to invest in “skills training to ensure Canadian skills are matched with Canadian jobs” (whatever that means).  Also, having lived in Switzerland for some time, he advocates a Swiss-style apprenticeship program which extends into industries like banking, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Andrew Scheer (Former Speaker of the House of Commons, MP Regina-Qu’appelle) Scheer’s money proposals in education are limited to a pledge that parents of students attending independent schools a tax deduction of up to $4000 tuition annually per child, and a tax credit of $1,000 (i.e. a $150 reduction in taxes) to parents who choose to homeschool their child.  In addition, Scheer pledges that “public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus” will “not have support from the federal government”.  He then lists the tri-councils and CRCs as specific funding mechanisms for which institutions would not be eligible: it is unclear if the ban would include CFI and – more importantly – CSLP.  Note that the ban would only cover public institutions; private (i.e. religious) institutions would be able to limit free inquiry – as indeed faith-based institutions do for obvious reasons – and still be eligible for council funding.

Brad Trost (ex-MP Saskatoon-University): Nothing apart from a pledge for tax support to private education and homeschooling identical to Scheer’s.

And that’s the lot.  I think it’s fair to say that the field’s appreciation for the role of knowledge and skills in the modern economy is pretty weak.   Maybe dangerously so.  Still, if you are voting in this election and you think PSE and skills are important, your best bet is probably Chris Alexander; if you want to raise youth living standards, vote for O’Toole followed perhaps by Maxime Bernier or Lisa Raitt.

(And yes, I know the percentage of Conservative voters motivated by those two sets of issues are vanishingly small, but I only have this one shtick, so cut me some slack).

 

April 07

CEU and Academic Freedom

Let me tell you about this university in Europe. It’s a small, private institution in which specializes in the humanities and social sciences. It’s run on western lines, and is one of the best institutions in the country for research. And now the Government is trying to shut it down, mainly because it finds the institution politically troublesome.

Think I’m talking about Central European University (CEU) in Budapest? Well, I’m not. I’m talking about the European University of Saint Petersburg (EUSP), which has had its license to operate revoked mainly because of its program of studies on gender and LGBTQ issues. And I’m kind of interested in why we focus on one and not the other.

First, let’s get down to brass tacks about what’s going on at Central European University (CEU). This Budapest-based institution, founded by George Soros 25 years ago during the transition away from socialism, is a gem in the region. No fields of study were more corrupted by four decades of communist rule than the Social Sciences, and CEU has done a stellar job not just in becoming a top-notch institution in its own right, but in becoming a bastion of free thought in the region.

The Hungarian government, which not to put too fine a point on it is run by a bunch of nationalist ruffians, has decided to try to restrict CEU’s operations by legislating a set of provisions which in theory apply to all universities but in practice apply only to CEU. The most important of these provisions basically says that institutions which offer foreign-accredited degrees (CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which handles most accreditation of overseas institutions) have to have a campus in their “home country” in order to be able to operate in Hungary and be subject to a formal bilateral agreement between the “home” government and the Hungarian one (CEU does business on the basis of an international agreement, but it’s between Hungary and the State of New York, not the USA). There is, as CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff (yes, him) says, simply no benefit to CEU to do this: it is simply a tactic to raise CEU’s cost of doing business.

So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is not an attack on academic freedom the way we would use that term in the west. We’re not talking about chilling individual scholars here. The ruling Hungarian coalition couldn’t care less what gets taught at CEU: what bothers them is that the institution exists to support liberalism and pluralism. What we’re talking about is something much broader than just academic freedom; it’s about weakening independent institutions in an illiberal state. It’s also about anti-semitism (the right wing in Hungary routinely refer to CEU as “Soros University” so as to remind everyone of the institution’s Jewish founder). Yet somehow, the rallying cry is “academic freedom”, when plain old freedom and liberalism would be much more accurate.

I wonder why we don’t hear cries for academic freedom for EUSP, where in fact the academic angle – the university’ research program in gender and queer studies being targeted by a homophobic state – is much more clear cut. Is it because we reckon Russia is beyond salvation and Hungary is not? That would certainly explain our anemic reaction to increasing restrictions on academic freedom in China (where criticism of government is fine, but criticism of the Communist Party is likely to end extremely badly). It would explain why Turkey has faced essentially no academic consequences (boycotts, etc) for its ongoing purge of academic leaders.

I don’t mean to play the whole “why-do-we-grieve-bombings-in-Paris-but-not-Beirut” game. I get it, some places matter more in the collective imagination than others. But I actually think that CEU’s decision to portray this as an academic freedom issue rather that one of freedom tout court plays a role here. We can get behind calls for academic freedom (particularly when they are articulated by English-speaking academics) because academic freedom is something that is everywhere and always being tested around the edges (yeah, McGill, I’m looking at you). But calls for just plain old “freedom”? or “Liberalism”? The academy seems to get po-mo ickies about those.

Frankly, we need to get less squeamish about this. Academic freedom as we know it in the west does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of underlying societal commitment to pluralism and liberalism. If we only try to defend the niche freedom without defending the underlying values, we will fail.

So, by all means, let’s support CEU. But let’s not do it just for academic freedom. Let’s do it for better reasons.

August 24

Carleton’s Loyalty Oath

I am a proud Carleton alumnus.  If you want a master’s degree related to public policy, there are (or were, anyways) few better places in Canada to study.  You get a great mix of students there, many of whom brought perspectives from their work in government or NGOs, and that greatly enriches the learning experience.  I’m always talking up Carleton.  So it’s frankly been a bit dismaying recently to see Carleton’s Board of Governors acting like goons.

The kerfuffle has to do with a Professor by the name of Root Gorelick, who was the faculty’s representative to the Board of Governors.  Like many elected faculty board representatives, he has over time developed a reputation as being oppositional: he views his job as helping to hold the institution to account.  He also views himself as a representative; that is, he communicates to what he believes are his constituents through a blog about issues that are confronting the board through his blog (available here).

The executive committee of the Board – and, one can safely presume, the university’s senior administration – do not share Gorelick’s views about his role as a “representative”.  Instead, they have spent the last few months arguing essentially that although some Board members are elected (student and staff representatives, for instance), their job as Board members entails a fiduciary duty to act for the good of the institution and not to act as “representatives” in a parliamentary sense.  In particular, they further argue, once the Board makes a decision, Board members must collectively defend those decisions and not go blogging critically about them.

This is not an indefensible point of view, I suppose, though not one I share.  You don’t see corporate board members of major corporations (or even many non-profit ones like hospitals) blogging about internal divisions within the Board.  But then again, University Boards are by design meant to have some democratic features that corporate boards do not.  Some people view this as a defect in university governance, but it’s  workable provided there are proper safeguards (you don’t let the faculty representative on the committees which discuss collective bargaining, for instance). 

What is indefensible is adding a clause to the Board’s Code of Conduct which is in effect a loyalty oath. To wit, Board members shall “Support all actions taken by the Board of Governors even when in a minority position on such actions. Respect the principle of Board collegiality, meaning an issue may be debated vigorously, but once a decision is made it is the decision of the entire Board, and is to be supported”.  This is absurd: a University Board can have a loyal and respectful opposition; it does not require the rigid solidarity of a federal Cabinet or a Supreme Soviet.

One suspects that the Carleton Board has not taken this step purely because of some abstract principles about governance.  Gorelick comes across as a bit of a stereotypically cranky aging academic, and certainly if you believe his account of recent events (written up here in Academic Matters, the heart of his dispute with the Board is over specific policy issues, not abstractions.  Specifically, he seems to have irritated some other Board members with his opposition to increasing levels of security and secrecy around Board meetings and on the composition of the Board itself. 

Personally, I think Gorelick is right about the first issue (if UBC teaches us anything, it’s that the first sign of a Board going astray is when it starts doing more things in secret) and out to lunch on the second (reducing the number of external governors invites governments to do more direct micromanaging of universities).  But Gorelick’s politics are immaterial here.  Dissent on a Board is not something that needs to be stamped out.  Requiring Board member to sign a loyalty oath before seating him on the Board is wrong.   Carleton needs to re-think this policy.

So says this alum, anyway.

March 24

The Continued Cheapening of the Term “Academic Freedom”

Exhibit One: A Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) briefing note on outsourcing of IT services at universities contains the phrase “Academic staff can challenge access to their professional and personal data by providers of cloud services based on their academic freedom and privacy rights…”

Exhibit Two: A CAUT investigation” shows that at the University of Manitoba, one group of economics profs doesn’t like another group of economics profs, and the majority sometimes uses its democratic rights to make decisions that the minority dislikes.  This was called “a violation of academic freedom”.

Exhibit Three: Another CAUT investigation released just this month, this time with respect to certain events in the Laurentian University Faculty of Arts, related to hiring, selection of chairs, changing of students’ marks, and “failure to maintain a faculty complement” (i.e. not hire as many people as the Faculty Union would like).  According to the report’s conclusion, “the overall effect of these actions has been to create a feeling, at least among some portion of the faculty, that their academic freedom is under threat”.

Exhibit Four: This article in The Guardian entitled, “The Murder of My Friend Giulio in Egypt Was an Attack on Academic Freedom”.  ’Nuff said.

Let’s take these one by one:

Is it reasonable to suggest that outsourcing of some IT functions might have privacy implications? Sure.  Might those implications violate the terms of a collective agreement?  Possibly; depends on the wording of the CBA.  But academic freedom?  No, that’s ridiculous.  Whatever other rights might be at risk, one’s freedom to write and teach are not affected here.

Is it reasonable to suggest that the University of Manitoba’s Economics department might have been the scene of insalubrious sniping and score-settling among academics?  Maybe.  But that happens.  People within a discipline disagree within one another.  But does a department have to continue to behave democratically?  And what if your “side” loses?  Tough: that’s how self-governance works.  It’s no breach of academic freedom.  The freedom to write and teach were not affected.

Is it reasonable to suggest that there might be a management problem – even a violation of a collective agreement – if a Dean tries to stop a department from democratically selecting its own chair?  Of course (although one should note here that CAUT effectively argued the EXACT OPPOSITE in the Manitoba Economics case, demanding that majorities shouldn’t have the right to determine policy and selection).  Should one be worried about stories of (seemingly) capricious management, especially with regard to changing of student grades?  Yes.  But even if the worst of these stories is true, it amounts to bad managers, not a violation of academic freedom.  No one’s freedom to write or teach was ever in doubt.

Finally, is it reasonable to suggest that a grad student being murdered in Egypt is an attack on academic freedom?  No, that’s just deranged.  It’s an attack on life, part and parcel of a general attack on democratic freedom.

Allow me to gently suggest that if a particular concept of “freedom” stretches all the way from “not being murdered by a brutal military regime”, to “not having one’s university’s IT services outsourced”, it’s probably not a very useful concept.  If it encompasses everything, then it means nothing.

Not everything has to be about academic freedom.  Let’s save that term for the important stuff, shall we?

February 08

(#fake)Tenure, Governance, and Academic Freedom

If you follow higher education news from south of the border, one scrap you’ll probably have noticed over the past year or so is the one over tenure in Wisconsin.  Until recently, tenure provisions at the University of Wisconsin were inscribed in state law.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker decided to remove tenure protection, leaving the University’s Board of Regents to inscribe it in their own rules.  At the same time, the Governor gave university management more power, free from the scrutiny of Senate and other shared-governance arrangements, to close or modify programs.  Put these two things together, add the fact that public sector unions in Wisconsin are legally forbidden from bargaining over anything other than wages, and you have a situation where it’s a lot easier to get rid of professors than it used to be.

So far, so clear.  For obvious reasons, professors at Wisconsin are upset about this, and many are calling this new system #faketenure because they believe that any tenure protection given through new Board of Regents rules is effectively undermined by the new management powers to eliminate or modify programs.  This, they say, means that there will be a form of academic chill at Wisconsin, with people afraid to voice controversial opinions or undertake challenging research for fear of political backlash.

Now, I get why most professors would prefer the old regime to the new, but the idea that challenging or difficult research can only take place in environments where tenure is ironclad and all program modifications can only take place with faculty agreement is simply not true.  If this is genuinely your position, you have to have a good answer to the question: “what about the UK and Australia?”

In the late-1980s, the Thatcher government in the UK simply abolished tenure for anyone hired after 1987.  People were still hired on permanent contracts (though as in the US and Canada, massification also led to an increase in the use of part-time contracts), but there was nothing stopping institutions from making people redundant by chopping whole departments – as is the case in Wisconsin.  Of course, unions can deter this to some degree by insisting on buyouts, redeployments, etc (as indeed Canadian unions do, too – see here for more on this).  But essentially, the conditions in the UK are pretty close to what some in Wisconsin are calling #faketenure, and yet one doesn’t often encounter the claim that UK researchers are doing ideologically cowed, or less daring research.

It’s the same thing in Australia.  Universities give out “permanent” positions somewhat more quickly than our universities – their equivalent of “tenure-track” is maybe half as long as it is here – but academics are much more actively managed (a fall in publications will bring a rise in teaching load relatively quickly), and large-scale institutional restructuring is much more common (La Trobe University, for instance, more or less slashed its entire economics department a couple of years ago).  Again, possibly not a model to follow if you’re a prof, but can anyone really claim that Australian academics are less free, less bold, less daring than their counterparts elsewhere?

To put this simply: people make a lot of universal declaratory statements about tenure and academic freedom.  For the most part, they aren’t true.  There is lots of top-notch research – even in the social sciences and humanities, where a lot of the most controversial stuff is concentrated – that occurs in places without the specific North American context of tenure and shared governance.  This is undeniable.

Now, this isn’t to say that removing those kinds of protections over here in North America wouldn’t have an effect.  One of the reasons the loss of protection in Wisconsin is cause for concern is because Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is increasingly a partisan body, with its members entirely appointed by the Governor, and it’s not that far-fetched to imagine them going after specific programs or even specific professors.

But that’s precisely the point: claims about the effects/benefits/drawbacks of any particular constellation of policies on tenure and academic freedom need to take very close account of the legal and political context in which they are operating.  Claiming that tenure *has* to be inscribed in a collective bargaining agreement, or that it *has* to be inscribed in legislation are equally incorrect; the point is that there are many possible equilibria on tenure, governance, and academic freedom.  Claiming the opposite is simply evidence of a fairly limited imagination about how higher education can be run.

October 01

Golden Liberty or Rapid Collegiality?

Once upon a time, there was a land of liberty known as Poland.  While the rest of Europe was going through the counter-reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the beginnings of absolutism, Poland had the world’s most liberal constitution.  Nobles (who formed a rather substantial portion of the population) had the right to elect their king.  Religious freedom existed (though Catholics remained a strong majority).  The king could not declare war or peace without Parliamentary agreement (the Sejm), nor could he raise taxes without them.  That said, he was responsible for maintaining an army, paying state debts, and paying for the education of noble youth.  Parliament had the right to form coalitions to push through certain political aims, and the right to foment an insurrection if the king tried to infringe upon their privileges.  Most astonishing of all was the Sejm’s practice of liberum veto: the right of any individual noble to veto legislation, thus requiring all legislation to have consensus among the nobility.  All of this was known collectively as the “Golden Liberty”.

I mention all of this because of an intriguing line in Julie Cafley’s Globe piece on the subject university governance.  To wit: “Universities are a paradox. While their governance structures are slow and process-driven, professors enjoy a high degree of flexibility and independence”.  Indeed, one could go further: governance structures are slow and process-driven precisely because professors jealously guard their flexibility and independence, and wish to throw obstacles in the path of anything that might threaten them.

The nature of tenure, academic freedom, and prevailing academic management practices do give academics enormous freedom in their working lives.  They do not have a liberum veto over university policy, but they certainly do have freedom over how they do their jobs; there are very few ways an institutions can influence how a professor delivers his or her teaching responsibilities, or research activities.  In the US, faculty at private universities have been denied the right to bargain collectively because the Supreme Court ruled that their working conditions amounted to them being managers, not employees.

Universities – North American ones anyway, less so elsewhere – are, by design, anarchies.  This is mostly to the good: top-level intellectual collaboration is a lot like jazz, and there are few jazz musicians who are free of anarchistic tendencies.  But managing anarchy – even just nudging the enterprise in the right direction – is very tricky, especially when the executive has very little effective power.  But an excess of libertarianism/weak central direction can be damaging.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, the liberum veto was used sparingly.  But as the 18th century wore on, and the need for greater central expenditures became pressing, the Polish nobility was gripped by an anti-tax, anti-central government feeling. Nobles started throwing vetoes around like confetti.  Nothing got done.  The country grew weak.  And eventually, over the course of the final quarter of the eighteenth century, it was dismembered, and its various bits incorporated into Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  It did not reappear as an independent country for 120 years.

There are lessons here for universities.  Jazz is good, but paralysis is not.  In order to succeed, universities need to be effective organizations.  Consultation: yes; freedom: yes – but sometimes decisions need to to be taken quickly, and then actually implemented in a faithful fashion. “Rapid Collegiality”, let’s call it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to achieve; in fact, I can think of few things more difficult.  But when universities start appearing ineffective to the outside world, the outside world wonders why on earth we support them to the tune of, say, 2% of GDP.  And, then, like Poland, a long slow decline could begin.

August 19

Was Jennifer Berdahl’s Academic Freedom Infringed Upon?

UBC’s  Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, Jennifer Berdahl, became embroiled in a mini-cause célèbre this week when she claimed her employer attempted to silence her, after she penned some thoughts on President Arvind Gupta’s resignation.  Do read her j’accuse, available here; it’s quite something.  Finished?  Ok, on we go.

The question is: was Berdahl’s freedom infringed upon?  Let’s start with the fact that there are many definitions of academic freedom, with the scope being quite different in each case. Start with the famous 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.  But look also at the 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first global colloquium of university presidents, and at CAUT’s Policy Statement on Academic Freedom.  Even a quick glance shows that CAUT’s definition is much more expansive than anyone else’s.  It effectively says all speech is protected under academic freedom; specifically, it suggests there is an unlimited right to critique an employer.   The other two make it clear that research and teaching are protected, but are more circumspect when it comes to speech in other contexts.  Both suggest that when it comes to public speech, professors should be able to claim academic freedom, provided their statements are careful, truthful, and maintain a scholarly demeanour.  That is to say, one’s claim on academic freedom is reliant in no small measure on the quality of one’s argument.

So, if we go to Berdahl’s initial blog post, the question of whether her speech was protected definitely depends on whose standard of academic freedom you accept.  In fairness, her post, “Did Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?” (in context, the question is rhetorical), is a pretty awful piece of writing.  She begins by conceding that she has no evidence whatsoever about the case, but then goes on to imply that Gupta was fired because he is brown and not particularly confrontational, and subtly suggests that UBC’s leadership culture is predicated on chest-thumping bravado and racism.  Is this writing protected under the CAUT definition? Sure.  Under anyone else’s?  Not so clear.

(Some have suggested that what she was doing was proposing a hypothesis, and Berdahl herself has said that the answer to her question might have been “no”.  One or both of these may have been the intent, but if so, the drafting was very, very poor, because that’s not at all how the piece reads.)

Let’s move on now to the question of whether UBC acted improperly in its reaction to this incident.  Certainly, Board of Governors Chair John Montalbano did.  His judgement was already in question because of the cone of silence he imposed surrounding Gupta’s departure.  But going around the entire academic hierarchy, and directly challenging a professor over something she wrote?  That’s not vaguely acceptable, even if the professor is calling you a racist jock, and even – or more accurately, especially – if said professor holds a named chair… with your name on it.  

Where it gets trickier is with how the administration responded.  I’m hesitant to write much here because we only have Berdahl’s side of the story.  She says that administrators told her to hush up because she was upsetting Board members.  If this is the only reason she was chastised, it’s a poor show on UBC’s part.  But it’s also possible (and I would have thought likely) that at some point in those various meetings with superiors, someone said, “hey, maybe you could, you know, NOT imply that your employer is run by racist jocks, especially given that you don’t have a shred of evidence about the situation – or, given that you’ve already done so, can you do us all the favour of not repeating a baseless allegation in other media?”

To my mind, such an approach would have been entirely justified.  The statement she made in a blog post would never have passed peer review.  It wasn’t scholarly.  It wasn’t made in a classroom setting.  She certainly has the right to make the statement – everyone has free speech rights – and there’s no excuse to try to bully her about it, as Montalbano seems to have done.  But protected under academic freedom?  CAUT would claim it so, but it’s a harder case to make under other active definitions.

February 11

Who Owns Courses?

After the preposterous CAUT report on the University of Manitoba’s Economics Department was released, President David Barnard offered a wonderfully robust and thought-provoking refutation of CAUT’s accusations.

One of the most interesting observations Barnard makes relates to a specific incident from the report, namely the request by a departmental council to review an existing Health Economics course after having approved a new Economic Determinants of Health Course taught by the same professor.  CAUT viewed this as a violation of the professor’s academic freedom (basically – she/he can teach whatever she/he likes).

In an age when we are all intensely aware of intellectual property rights issues, we have, over time, come to focus on the professor’s role as a creator of content.  And this is absolutely right.  The way in which Economics Macro 300 or Organizational Behaviour 250 gets taught is a reflection of a professor’s lifetime of scholarship, and many hundreds of hours of hard work in creating a pedagogy and syllabus that conveys the necessary information to students.  The idea that this “belongs” to anyone other than the professor is ridiculous – which is why there have been such fierce battles over the terms of universities’ involvement with private for-profit companies, like Coursera, with respect to online education.

Barnard responds to this line of thinking by reminding us of a very important truth: Macro 300 and OB 250 exist independently of the professors who currently teach them.  When they are approved by Senate, they become the property of the university as a whole (with the department in which the course is situated taking special responsibility).  After the incumbent of a particular course retires or leaves, someone else will be asked to takeover.  The course, in this sense, is eternal and communal.  It does not “belong” to the professor.

There’s an obvious tension here between the way a course gets taught (owned by the prof) and the course objectives and outcomes (owned by the university).  Usually – at least in Canada and the United States – we solve the problem by always leaning in favour of the professor.  Which is certainly the easier option.  However, this attitude, which gives total sovereignty to professors at the level of the individual course, inevitably leads to programs become disjointed –  especially in Arts and Sciences.  Students end up missing key pieces of knowledge, or have to learn it and re-learn it two or three times.

Universities own courses in the sense that a course is a building block towards a degree, (which the university very definitely owns – its entire existence is predicated on being a monopoly provider of degrees).  As a result, course objectives, how a course fits into the overall program goals, course assessment guidelines, and course delivery mechanisms (online, blended, or in-person) are all legitimately in the hands of the university and its academic decision-making bodies.  The actual syllabus – that is, what material gets taught in pursuit of the objectives – and the pedagogical methods used is what belongs to the professor.

The problem here is that, in Arts and Science at least (less so elsewhere), our smorgasbord thinking about curriculum makes us prone to assuming that courses stand alone, and do not contribute to a larger programmatic structure.  Hence the widespread fallacy that professors “own” courses, when the reality is that courses are a shared enterprise.

February 02

Why is CAUT Cheapening Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom is precious; it’s not something you want to mess with  – which is why it is such a mystery that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) permitted the Report of the Ad-hoc Investigatory Committee into the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba to be published.

The back story, near as I can tell, is: for decades, the UManitoba Economics Department contained a fairly large squad of what are known as “heterodox” economists (i.e. political economy types who in the 70s would mostly have described themselves as Marxist or Institutionalist).  They were never a majority within the department, but they certainly gave the place an overall pinkish tinge.

Then, for obscure reasons around 2006, relations between heterodox and “mainstream” factions in the department seemed to deteriorate.  There appears to have been some seriously childish spats at departmental meetings.  There was a contentious departmental chair search, which one of the “hets” lost.  New hires tended to be reserved for mainstream economists, which hurt the hets’ feelings, as they wanted to maintain the “balance” between heterodox and mainstream.  Hets’ grad students tended to get the short end of the stick when it came to recommendations and funding, or would be told they were unlikely to get jobs after graduation. Etc., etc.

Now, this kind of stuff happens all over academia.  What a discipline believes collectively about itself and its methods changes over time.  Those  on the “winning” side tend to do pretty well; the other side, less so.  We’ve seen fights like this over post-modernism in History, critical theory in English, and in anthropology between its cultural and social wings (at Stanford, that fight got so bad in the 90s that they temporarily split Anthro into two separate departments).

In a decent workplace, management would have told everyone to shut up and get back to working together.  But in universities this almost never occurs; “collegiality” permits a lot of bad behaviour to go unpunished.  And so instead of everyone finding a way to work together like adults, someone went and convinced CAUT to send out a commission of inquiry to find out if the treatment of the heterodox amounted to a violation of academic freedom.

The thing is, if you get CAUT to “investigate” a claim, you can be pretty sure the answer will be “yes”; examples of “investigations” where the complainant is not found in the right are pretty much non-existent.  Everyone at University of Manitoba knew this, and so two-thirds of the department – basically everyone in the orthodox camp – simply refused to talk to investigators. This fact is largely glossed over in the report itself, but it’s significant both because the report is almost certainly unbalanced in the complainants’ direction, but also because it’s clear that a whole bunch of CAUT members believe that CAUT does not have their interests in mind.

Predictably, the investigating team “found” that the hets’ minority academic rights had been infringed.  To correct this, they suggested (among other things) a new search for a department head, and ensuring that the next three appointments all be heterodox economists.  Their rationale was that mainstream economists have “persecuted” heterodox, just as the established church used to persecute free-thinking academics (and yes, really, that was the argument).

Now, possibly, there is an argument to be made that the sandbox fights have become so extreme that it’s time to take the Stanford route, and take the hets out of Economics by creating a Department of Political Economy.  But the idea that minority views within a discipline automatically deserve “protection” and guaranteed quotas of appointments?  Who would police this?  Would CAUT argue the same for climate change deniers in Environmental Sciences?  That way madness lies.

But more importantly, the idea that even the unbalanced parade of allegations presented in the report amount to an infringement of academic freedom is simply nonsense.  No one’s fundamental rights of expression or freedom of inquiry were eroded; at the absolute worst, what occurred amounts to ideologically-based intra-departmental sniping and score-settling.  To claim that this amounts to a violation of academic freedom is to deprive the term of all meaning.

And that’s bad, because academic freedom matters.  The last organization that should be cheapening this is CAUT, and the worst reason to do so is in helping out a few ideological fellow-travellers in a sandbox fight against other academics.  Yet here we are.

July 21

University of Saskatchewan Detritus

We all remember this spring’s controversy at the University of Saskatchewan over the firing of Robert Buckingham, which resulted in the resignation of the University’s Provost, Brett Fairbairn, and the firing of the President, Ilene Busch-Vishniac.  Despite all the coverage, a number of key questions were never answered, like “how could anyone possibly think firing a tenured professor was a good idea?”  And, “who’s idea was it to fire him anyway – the Provost’s or the President’s?”

We now have more insight, as Fairbairn recently released a five-page letter providing his perspective on events.  Two key points from his account:

  • The decision to fire Buckingham as Dean was a group decision.  The Provost, “leaders responsible for Faculty Relations, HR internal legal expertise and Communications”, and the President (by phone) were all present.  But the key question of whether to dismiss him from the university altogether was referred to HR for further study.  At this point Busch-Vishniac told Fairbarin: “I will stand behind any actions you deem necessary and will not second-guess”.
  • The decision to fire him from both jobs was the HR department’s recommendation.

How HR came to this conclusion isn’t clear; Fairbairn notes that it had happened before at U of S in a case where there had been an irreparable breakdown in relations between employer and employee. Without knowing the case to which he’s referring, it’s hard to know what to make of this.  Certainly, the employer-employee relationship with Buckingham as a dean was irreparably damaged (which is why they were correct to fire him); it’s not at all clear that he couldn’t have remained as a faculty member since he wouldn’t have had any real contact with any of the superiors whose trust he had abused as Dean.  For whatever reason, Fairbairn decided to take the “expert advice” from HR, and did so without looping back to the communications people to get their input (which might have been valuable) or checking with Bush-Vishniac.

Far from backing up Fairbairn as promised, Busch-Vishniac threw him under the bus and asked for his resignation three days later.  That was emphatically the wrong call.  From the moment she gave the go-ahead for Buckingham’s dismissal, it was clear that either both of them would stay, or neither would.  Fairbairn decided to go, astutely noting that “the only thing worse than blame and recrimination among senior leaders is mutual recrimination among senior leaders”.

Fairbairn’s letter is a valuable peek into how crises get managed at universities.  I think it shows him as a manager with mostly the right instincts, but who erred in accepting some terrible advice from professionals who should have known better.  Others – mostly people who genuinely have no insight into how major organizations function – will probably see this distinction as irrelevant since the real crime was firing Buckingham as a Dean in the first place.  Former CAUT director James Turk, in particular, has made the “managers should have a right to criticise each other publicly” case – to which the correct response is: “and how much freedom did Turk allow his staff and executive to criticise his management as CAUT director?”.

If I were at the University of Saskatchewan, though, my main question after reading Fairbairn’s letter would be: “how is it that the HR department got off comparatively lightly?”  Food for thought.

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