Howard C. Clark: Governance and the Corporate University

Howard C. Clark: Governance and the Corporate University
Campus Reads 2004, The Idea of the University

I am delighted to be back at Dal, and very much appreciate the invitation to participate in this series. And I especially want to congratulate the Senate Committee on Learning and Teaching on developing this program "Campus Reads: The Idea of the University" --the concept is really very creative and original.

Few people today would disagree with the statement that the Canadian university has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, some would argue for the worse. Compared to the relatively few, small, essentially undergraduate institutions that were scattered across Canada in the early 1950s, the vast majority of the 90 or so present universities are large, sprawling, impersonal institutions, from which any sense of community that existed in the often heavily residential colleges of the 1950s has long since disappeared. It is completely erroneous to speak of today's university as if it were a single community with a common sense of purpose, or an agreed set of objectives. Dalhousie or Toronto or UBC consists of numerous micro-communities which are often largely unknown to each other and which have very different objectives and interests. Members of the School of Nursing have no contact with, and virtually no knowledge of the Department of Earth Sciences, and structures that previously gave coherence and some sense of community to the university such as the Senate or the Faculty Club are now very largely ignored, dead or struggling. There is no discussion of major academic issues, such as liberal education in the 21st century, or the need for scientific literacy in all graduates; there is only discussion of the technicalities of subject matter and of regulations at the departmental or perhaps faculty level. The sense of collegiality has been lost. And when faculty refer to the University, they all too often mean the Administration through which they receive salary, and which in their view all too often puts too many bureaucratic barriers in the way of their acquisition and use of research funds.

Now this is a very negative picture, but it must be seen in perspective. The faculty members of Canadian universities have accomplished miracles over the past half century. They have coped well with an enormous tide of undergraduates and enrolments have increased proportionately more than any other country, and in doing so, have managed to maintain reasonably high academic standards that are respected internationally. At the same time they have created a world class research capability in virtually every field. These are enormously significant achievements, and much out weigh the negatives. My point is, however, that all this has simultaneously changed and diminished the nature of the university as an institution. It is not now easy to define what a university now is. It is certainly the collection of largely autonomous and separate departments and schools: beyond that, is it any more than the administrative and physical understructure for the research and teaching purposes of faculty? Is it now just like another corporation?

The university used to be regarded as an important and essential institution in a civilized society, in its own right. Now, it is valued just as a means to an end --- the means of obtaining a degree which is essential for a job, and the source of research which is valued externally so long as it can be claimed to have immediate and useful application.

How and why did this happen, and can the change be reversed or will it intensify? Certainly external factors have been significant. The social policy which all Canadian governments embraced after WWII required that post-secondary education be available to all who were qualified and could benefit, and this "massification" of the universities, which was socially desirable and economically essential, has alone caused the profound evolution of the university from small elite colleges to more impersonal mass- education institutions. But it has not been factors such as this that are causing the "corporatization" of the university. Here the central role of the faculty must be examined and realized.

Let's first look at this historically. Some of us who are older (or just plain old!) will remember that provincial governments began to reduce funding (or more accurately fund universities at less than the rate of inflation) after the largesse of the 1950s and early 1960s, in the early 1970s. How did universities respond?--and I mean faculty members, as I was then, and administrators especially those who sat on research council committees and similar bodies. The old argument that universities were vital social institutions and needed to be adequately supported in their own right , was of course made, but more and more the argument became based on the importance of post-secondary degrees for employment and above all on the enormous importance of university research for social and economic development. These arguments were made even more forcefully in the 1980s, and lo! In the 1990s the public and governments actually were convinced by them. Universities became important again, but now for the ends they served, not for themselves.

Governments were still believers in efficiency. They kept and still keep a tight rein on operating grants, and were not particularly upset to see class sizes mushroom. But in terms of research, over the last decade the purse strings have been loosened and money has flowed generously through new programs into the research activities of the universities. Canada is probably now one of the best countries in the world in its support of faculty research. Most of these programs have strings attached--economic relevance has to be established, business sector partners are required, and patents and spin-off companies are expected. But these programs did not appear out of the blue--faculty members were heavily involved in their development as members of research councils and as consultants. And every one of these programs, since it brought new research money, has been welcomed by faculty who have been eager to apply. Competition for all of them has been fierce, as faculty members have re-shaped their research interests to qualify for the new funds.

To take just one example, The Networks of Centres of Excellence Program is regarded as perhaps the most successful new program; originally designed for the sciences and engineering, it now encompasses most disciplines within the university. The program is based on and encourages a corporate model; business sector partners must be found who will contribute real money, management and governance are on a corporate model with legal incorporation encouraged for each network, effective reporting and accountability processes are required, and of course patents and spin-off companies are the expected products together with publications. And the Program is so successful that many network members feel a greater allegiance to their network, a corporate body, than to their home university

My principal point is that faculty have participated in policy development, program implementation, and have eagerly welcomed every new program however much it encouraged a corporate outlook, so long as it provide additional research money. And a major consequence of these programs has been to loosen still further the ties of the individual faculty member to the university, and to make the institution less and less relevant, except in its corporate activities.

To go further, the eagerness with which all these new sources of research funding have been welcomed by faculty in my opinion reflects a value system within the university that is now out of balance. It is again a value system that faculty have developed and which is deeply ingrained, and it is one that believes that the one essential and most valuable activity of each and every faculty member from the date of appointment until retirement or death is research and publication. Now I am not arguing against the central importance of research for a university--indeed I firmly believe that it IS central. But to believe that each and every faculty member must be an active, publishing researcher during every career year without change is both insulting and de-humanizing. Faculty members are individuals whose interests, enthusiasms and capabilities change over the years just like everyone else’s. Not only does this value system discourage other activities and contributions to the university community, it is also an incredibly stupid use of human resources. A new faculty member at Dalhousie knows perfectly well that there is one thing and one thing only that will guarantee academic success--that is to get research grants and publish papers. So the new faculty member scurries off to office or laboratory, gets buried in research with a little teaching thrown in, and publishes as much and as often as possible. There is no time for other things. Don't become involved in other university activities, because they won't count, don't waste time in the coffee room or at the faculty club, just get on and publish , publish--and by the way, you had better recognize that you will have to keep this up for the next 40 years if you want to be promoted and to win respect. Is it surprising that the university has lost its humanity and human touch?

And again, while there has been this steady drift towards a corporate university, it has been the faculty who have effectively both governed and managed the university. There is no other institution like the university in which one professional group has such power and control over the organization. Not only do faculty determine what is taught and how it is presented, and decide what research will be done, and what students will be admitted under what standards, but they also select their fellow faculty members, decide who will be promoted, set their own conditions of appointment, select their own academic administrators, completely control Senate, sit on the Board and its Committees, and have a considerable influence on the university’s finances and budgets. On top of that, faculty have tenure and absolute job security and additionally the benefits of collective bargaining. And while many will say that this is not so, and that faculty only have the right to recommend and that Boards decide, in practice, Boards accept all these recommendation without quibble. The practical effect of the changes to participatory governance that occurred in the 1970s has been to give control of the university to faculty, and it has been during the past 30 years under faculty control that the institution has slipped towards corporatization.

Can changes, in governance or behaviour, restore the sense of community of the university and make learning its prime and only objective again? Certainly, even without governance changes, there are important things that could happen. I believe that university boards have been too passive, particularly in terms of the internal running of the institution is concerned. A board could take much more interest in what is taught and how effectively it is taught. A board can insist on much greater accountability, that more vigorous and effective methods be devised and put in place for the regular evaluation of academic programs, it can insist on better keeping of personnel records at the departmental level, on more formal job descriptions and evaluations for academic administrators such as Chairs and Deans, and even Presidents and so on. The Senate could be once more a place where major academic issues are debated, such as the corporatization of the university. Incidentally, this series is being sponsored by a Senate Committee which is good but why should not the Senate itself be the centre for such debate? But even here, many such suggestions will be opposed by entrenched faculty interests. And many possible changes that might help re-create a sense of community, would be dependent on the confrontational nature of collective bargaining--hardly the climate in which to foster community.

No, I fear that present trends will continue. The research ethos is too heavily entrenched in the university, and faculty are not under any real pressure to change a system which works so well for most of them. There is of course the remote possibility of more direct government intervention. It must not be forgotten that inevitably, a day will come when some prominent politicians will ask, "Just what economic development have we actually achieved from all that cash we invested in the universities? Have we really got our money's worth, or could we now buy that research more cheaply elsewhere?" And governments could and perhaps should directly intervene to improve university governance. But Canadian governments have historically been reluctant to so intervene, and are far more likely to react by once again by reducing funding.

That being the case, further corporatization is likely to continue. It is perfectly possible to see the day when the university is essentially a leasing corporation, a landlord, owning specialized research buildings and facilities including a library etc., which it leases to individual or group research entrepreneurs. It has a full corporate board which issues bonds, perhaps even floats shares through partnerships with successful entrepreneurs. Researchers raise their own research grants and funding, accounting services are outsourced to the university for a fee, the university charges a rental fee and for payment provides a wider range of services. Successful researchers will gain patents and ownership of intellectual property, with perhaps the university retaining a small share, and of course spin off companies will flourish in the adjacent development park. And by the way, since teaching benefits from proximity to research (although we have never bothered to find out how), the university will also provide, for a suitable fee, specialized undergraduate and especially graduate training programs. But then it becomes a question of who might most efficiently and cheaply teach these programs, so the university as a corporation hires on contracts at low cost career teachers who certainly never have time or access to the facilities to do research. There is certainly no such thing as tenure --- research entrepreneurs take their chances along with everyone else in the market economy, and teachers come and go on contract at low cost.

How far are we from such a scenario? And what do the faculty, in whose hands the future of the university rests, want to do about it, if anything? Perhaps one conclusion is contained in an old saying, "We have seen the enemy, and it is us!" But on a more positive note, the opportunities for faculty to reshape the university are enormous. There are many things that can be done to redefine and regain the university as a community, and many other things that will hasten its corporatization. Whichever occurs will be largely determined by the faculty; let us hope that the future of the university is not determined by apathy or indifference.