The Dubai Campus and Transparency

David Porreca, FAUW President

This blog follows up on correspondence received by FAUW’s Board of Directors regarding a bullet point in the 29 January blog posting entitled “To Provost or Not to Provost,” that related to the closure of UW’s Dubai campus.

Thanks to discussions undertaken with interested parties, I can clarify what I have identified as the key unifying concern relating to UW’s involvement in the Dubai satellite campus.

In essence, at the time of its opening, the Dubai campus was presented to the campus community generally, and to the bodies of collegial governance in particular, as a fait accompli, with little possibility for any feedback to have any material impact on whether UW should get involved.  Moreover, the satellite campus was presented without a publically released, clear business plan that could be used to weigh properly the potential benefits and opportunity costs of getting involved in such an enterprise.
In other words, there was a drastic lack of transparencythat shrouded the initial opening of the Dubai campus from the critical scrutiny that may (or may not) have revealed the concerns that eventually led to its closure.
Speaking of which, the closure of the Dubai campus came as a surprise to many, even though some cheered for understandable reasons – ones I raised in the aforementioned bullet point from the earlier blog post. As of May 2012, UW’s President was announcing publicly that “it’s not a question of whether Dubai is sinking, but how fast it can swim!”  Not six months later, it was closed.  Rationales for the closure were made public, but apparently without consultation with all of the immediately concerned parties, nor with the broader campus community whose operations will be affected substantially.  Again, a lack of transparencyreigned over the decision-making that led to the closure, leading to negative consequences for several interested parties. 

The University of Waterloo must be willing to stand by its commitment to transparency in deed, not just in word. Consequently, proper consultation must happen in the future to ensure that large-scale initiatives (e.g., satellite campuses in overseas locations) that have a significant impact on the university’s operations will not be undertaken without all stakeholders providing public agreement to a publicly released plan.

The Limits of Academic Freedom

Peter van Beek, Chair, FAUW Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee
Should a psychologist who is a “scientific” racist be defended? What about a historian who is a holocaust denier?  A biologist who is an advocate of intelligent design?  A physicist who denies anthropogenic climate change?  An engineering professor who fiercely challenges the university administration when they propose to open a satellite campus in a country with a questionable human rights record? And finally, what about an ethnic studies professor who, days after the 9/11 attacks, characterizes those who died in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns”?  Should that faculty member’s right to speak and write be defended?
In other words, what are the limits to academic freedom?  That was the topic of a conference organized by the Harry Crowe Foundation that David Porreca, George Freeman, and I attended in Toronto recently on a cold January weekend. Below are some of the highlights that I took away from the conference. However, let me first put forward a disclaimer: Although I have been a faculty member for almost twenty-five years and I chair the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee, to my major discredit I came to the conference pretty much a blank slate on this topic. My learning curve was steep.

In what follows, the CAUT is the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the “national voice for academic staff”, and the AUCC is the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, a “unified voice” for university presidents. As may be surmised from their descriptions, the two associations sometimes have fundamentally different points of view on topics, academic freedom being one of those.
The CAUT has an elegant one-page policy statement on academic freedom. Our Memorandum of Agreement, which governs the conditions of employment for faculty members, has a statement on academic freedom that is quite closely based on the CAUT policy statement. To oversimplify, academic freedom has four main components: freedom in research and publication, freedom to teach and discuss, freedom of extramural expression (the freedom to critique society and the government), and freedom of intramural expression (the freedom to criticize the university and the university administration).
The AUCC recently adopted a less elegant policy statement on academic freedom that received much criticism at the conference. Quite shamefully, in my view, the AUCC statement omits both freedom of extramural and intramural expression.  Some of the most controversial conflicts over academic freedom in the past have revolved around extramural and intramural expression. Bertrand Russell was dismissed in 1916 by Trinity College, Cambridge, for his public criticism of the government. Harry Crowe was a professor of History at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) who was dismissed from his academic post in 1958 because of his criticism of organized religion and the university administration. And lest one think that these conflicts are of the past, Ignacio Chapela was denied tenure by the University of California at Berkeley in 2003 (ultimately granted in 2005), perhaps due to his intense criticism of adeal between Berkeley and Novartis, a Swiss biotech firm. The university collected a total of eighteen letters from external evaluators! My understanding is that collection was continued until a negative letter was finally received.
The AUCC statement also emphasizes institutional autonomy and institutional academic freedom, as opposed to academic freedom being a right of an individual faculty member.  It also emphasizes the role of professional norms in academic freedom (i.e., academic freedom more narrowly defined as belonging in one’s area of expertise and where the discipline sets the standard of inquiry). While professional norms might be a way of shutting up those anthropogenic climate change deniers that I find so annoying, professional norms can also be used to snuff out dissent. Academia is replete with orthodoxy and fundamentalism, and those who own the podium are often reluctant to share the power or to allow critical voices. Several panelists at the conference referred to an excellent speech by Harry Arthurs on why it does not make sense only to allow professors to speak on their “areas of expertise”.  Interestingly, not all university presidents support the AUCC policy.  David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, released a public statement distancing himself from the AUCC policy and (although correlation is not causation) subsequently resigned from the AUCC Executive. Patrick Deane, President of McMaster University, also clearly distanced himself (me judice) from the policy during his presentation at a panel during the conference.
Much more could be said, as there were panels on academic freedom (AF) and professional norms, AF and institutional autonomy, AF and religious belief, AF and equity, AF and the law, and AF and the growth of university-industry collaborations. But I am wary of going on too long, so let me leave further discussion as a possibility for the future.

MOOCs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

David Porreca, FAUW President

Last week’s FAUW Board meeting was dominated by a discussion of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. 
MOOCs: They’ve become too big to ignore, and have drawn in the likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford.  They have also become the darling idea of the “faculty productivity”-obsessed, and the bane of those who value the dynamic interplay between research and teaching that defines what we do as regular faculty members. 
To what extent should Waterloo get involved in this new method of content delivery – recently approved for academic credit by Antioch University in Los Angeles?  How can we go about pulling some value from the MOOC bog?

The Good: “It’s Free!”
The lack of a “paywall” for admission or registration has enabled registration numbers in existing MOOCs to run from the low thousands to over 100,000. Free online mini-courses could provide, at a once-only, up-front cost, a potent means of “branding” our university.  If the production values are truly professional – reports from existing MOOCs hint at the opposite – what better way to showcase the best of what we do at UW to attract clever young people to our university?  They could serve an analogous function to the mini-lectures that are offered to prospective students during the March Break Open House days across campus. 
The Bad, Part 1: “It’s Free!”
The moral commitment to an education that comes with some kind of fee – however nominal – raises the level of the student’s commitment to their studies.  Free MOOCs have demonstrated this principle in action, with completion rates in the single-digit percentages. 
The Bad, Part 2: “It’s Massive!”
Coming Soon: World of Coursecraft
The enormous numbers of registrants in MOOCs have been known to overwhelm the servers on which the courses are supposed to run, as well as overwhelming the generally under-paid and over-worked contract academic staff who coordinate the courses.   Clearly, the necessary infrastructure – hardware, software and properly qualified human personnel – are each equally essential to the success of any effort toward making a MOOC successful.
Moreover, the mode of delivery turns active, interactive learning into passive “info-tainment” that precludes “deep learning.”  Indeed, those who enroll in a MOOC interact mostly with their peers, including the marking of quizzes.  MOOCs might appeal to those concerned exclusively with raw enrollment numbers, but their scale largely precludes the sort of critical analysis that happens best through face-to-face interactions.  The granting of academic credit for MOOCs represents a hazardous devaluation of what we do as academics by missing utterly the activities that we do that add the most value to an education.
The Ugly: It’s for Profit!
Two of the three main enterprises that have been responsible for the recent explosion of MOOCs are for-profit companies.  They are inserting themselves as intermediaries in the workings of academic life in the crucial interstices between instructors and students.  In an analogous way, Access Copyright has attempted to squeeze profit from necessary academic interactions in a way that hinders the delivery of higher education by increasing the cost to the participants.  In the case of MOOCs, the cost comes primarily in the form of the resources sunk into the preparation of courses that fail to accomplish what on-campus, in-the-flesh classes do. 
Although the courses themselves remain free, the MOOC-sponsoring organizations do not have a clear business model.  They are all, however, functioning with the backing of substantial venture capital that will expect some return on their investment at some point down the line.  So far, they have been looking into providing services to employers who are looking for contact information of the best students enrolled in the MOOCs, a sort of credentialized headhunting service.  In addition, one can easily imagine how advertising could become an important revenue stream considering the numbers of participants involved.  Either way, the insertion of for-profit middlemen between instructors and students is a pernicious development that flies in the face of higher education as a public good. 
The University of Waterloo would be unwise to ignore the MOOC movement entirely – the state of development of these courses has been likened to the state of the desktop computer market in 1981 – so we should remain involved at least to the extent that it will enable us to seize upon any unexpected positive developments that may arise. 
Yet the style of interaction between faculty and students in such courses does not correspond to anything any of us would recognize as good pedagogy.  The use of MOOCs should therefore be limited to free promotional materials.  If they are done well, they will be elegant showcases of useful content that highlight the best of what we can do at Waterloo.  The Faculty Association will oppose any attempt to accept academic credit for MOOCs, as doing so will risk incalculable consequences on our capacity as faculty members to deliver on our teaching responsibilities.

Academia in the Age of Austerity

Part 2 – The view from other situations

I return you to the scene: 120 conference attendees, absorbing a talk on the decline of the university as a centre of critical thought and human development, while using a spoon to chip away at a perfect sphere of hyper-frozen desert effectively unsupported on a flat plate without (a) making too much noise; or (b) launching the sphere across the table at a colleague.

Borg adapting to phasers
After lunch, more discussion on the austerity excuse to rewrite Ontario labour legislation brought home the scary point that the government might adapt its strategy based on lessons learned through the zero-zero ‘consultations’and the various fights with big unions such as the ones representing teachers (in my mind, I think of the Borg response to phaser fire in Star Trek).  The most extreme case would be US-style ‘right-to-[be-exploited-in-your]-work’ legislation to cripple all collective bargaining.  Many of our neighbouring states have it already. 

Britt Hall - National Education Association, Director for Wisconsin
Britt Hall –
National Education Association,
Director for Wisconsin
When warned by Wisconsinites in May 2011 at CAUT Council, that we had one to three years to avoid taking their path, I’m sure many thought such things would be unthinkable in Ontario.  At that time, we were told that the hard-right-wing message is well scripted and revolves around a simplistic “power back to the people” message of (a) eliminating collective bargaining; (b) removing Rand formulae; and (c) requiring constant recertification.  It is a strategy of divorcing both the public and association members from association leadership.  The moral of the story, as told to us, was to learn to fight now, not after it starts, and to use every means to get and stay connected with our members.  A look back at the polling data mentioned in my previous post will convince you of how easily such legislation could slide past the Ontario public.
Maybe this is a good time to point out that if FAUW manages to get you, just once, 0.5% more scale increase than the university/government wanted to pay you, your dues are pretty much covered for the rest of your career.
A session on student perspectives was very enlightening.  We could learn a lot about organizing political dissent from the Quebec student example.  They seem to have made masterful use of decentralized support building and clear messages attuned to the general public’s sympathies.  What got lost somewhat in Ontario news reporting was that the protest was not all that much about money, but rather the forced effective change of higher education from a social good to an individually consumed service.  The metamorphosis in Ontario has been more gradual and is already much farther along, so the Quebec uprising didn’t gain much traction here. 
However, students told us they are very worried about tuition levels which result in too much debt and as many as half of all students are working too many hours at outside jobs during school terms.  They argued that tuition should be zero but I think this ignores some perverse incentives and moral hazards that might enter the picture with that much imbalance between the government and individual investment.  Still, if a university (or college) education is increasingly the franchise for adult life, then it clearly is a social good and saddling the student with an undue fraction of its cost can be viewed as a ‘youth tax.’  Tuition may yet become the galvanizing issue for dissent even in Ontario.
The last half day of this conference focused on international perspectives.  England is always a bracing example.  Recently, government there cut teaching support to universities by 80% (yes, that says eighty percent) and allowed massive increases in tuition, implementing a near instantaneous ideological shift.  They expect an average student to accumulate about $70k (Canadian) in debt and take 20 to 30 years to repay it – essentially education via a mortgage.  One effect this year has been a sharp drop in enrollment.  Whether a student carrying that much debt might go on to graduate studies remains to be seen and was not part of the consideration by government.  England is also way, way down the metrification path and, curiously, universities themselves appear far more interested in rankings than do funding agencies, students, or government.  Perhaps the next time rankings are justified in Senate, we should ask for verifiable proof that these things matter to anyone but us?
From the US perspective (courtesy of Jeffrey Williams,Carnegie Mellon), we heard about what was called a deliberate policy shift over the last few decades.  Students have been reconfigured as objects of private profit (customers).  Faculty have been reconfigured as minority players – only one quarter or less are permanent employees.  Administration has grown and become corporatized.  Buildings and grounds exist largely for self-accumulation with enticing things like luxury dorms and fitness centres.  Two-thirds of students accumulate on the order of $30k of education-related debt by graduation, essentially a form of indenture.  Universities play a role in class sorting and the class divisions which plague the country.
According to panelist Eleanor MacDonald (Queen’s), much of the cutting in Ontario since 1990 was absorbed not just in tuition hikes but in quality degradation and workload increases in universities.  We require less of students in the form of fewer assignments with less participation and less critical t
hinking, if only due to the sheer number of students in each class.  In addition to this, the corporatization and branding activities in universities are leading to subtle and not-so-subtle disavowal pressures to not talk about the deterioration.  We all are meant to be promoters and marketers of our individual units and schools.  She believes we should get involved in the democratic processes and start to talk more openly.  Since this is precisely what FAUW tries to do, I couldn’t agree more.
George Freeman