The Corporate University

—David Porreca, FAUW President

This week’s blog post draws on some of the discussion that occurred at this past weekend’s Faculty Association Presidents’ Forum organized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers in Ottawa.

I have often been curious to what extent the predominance of corporations in our society and political culture has permeated the academic environment in general, and that at UW in particular. How far down the corporatization slope have we gone?

1) Privatization and diversification of funding sources

UW began its life as a public institution, receiving the vast majority of its operating monies from the public purse, and therefore assumed to be operating for the public good. In recent years, however, UW has diversified and privatized its sources of funding, with growing proportions coming from tuition fees and partnerships with industry, to the extent that much less than half of our operating expenditures is sourced from public funds – I recall 39% being mentioned at a Town Hall meeting a little while ago.

The consequences of this shift are both good and bad: on the one hand, the financial health of the institution is less dependent on the vagaries of provincial politics; on the other, our institution is forced to deploy special efforts to maintain academic integrity in the face of the increasing pressure to put ‘bums in seats’ in order to balance the bottom line. International students in particular are at risk of being treated as customers rather than learners.

In essence, we must be extremely wary to preserve the core academic function of our institution despite the trends observable in many of our peer institutions which are being run first and foremost as if they were money-generating enterprises.

2) Deprofessionalization

This trend has manifested most intensively among Ontario’s teaching profession at the elementary and high school levels, but is also creeping into higher education. The fact that so many programs rely so heavily on contract academic staff (contingent, short-term contracts; “sessionals”) is an unsettling symptom, since these positions are by definition “flexible”. By this I mean positions that are precarious and benefitting of either none or only limited guarantees of academic freedom and collegial governance that come with tenure-track jobs. Moreover, these jobs tend to be teaching-only, which compromises the link between research and teaching that is so crucial to what makes higher education a valuable enterprise.

Here at UW, FAUW is currently investigating the status and conditions of lecturers on our campus, with a view to ensuring proper academic freedom and collegial governance for all limited-contract academics on our campus. Even if the Memorandum of Agreement governs regular faculty members whose contracts are one year or more, the contingency of these contracts de facto has an impact on the perceived academic freedom of the individuals involved.

Growing numbers of contract academic staff is the principal but not the only symptom of the deprofessionalization of academia.

Growing numbers of contract academic staff is the principal but not the only symptom of the deprofessionalization of academia. At this past weekend’s CAUT Forum, we heard that between 1990 and 2009, university operating expenses in Canada dedicated to professorial rank salaries have declined from 39% to 29% of total expenditures. This resource allocation trend is a concrete demonstration that tenured faculty positions are slowly being eroded, to the great detriment of the academic enterprise.

Where has the difference been spent? Largely on administrative expenses, i.e., “send in the managers”. In the abstract, managers are only necessary to make up for prior ill-advised hiring decisions. The increasing concentration of managerial authority in academic institutions has manifested in the adoption in many places (such as Brock, WLU, Guelph, and York – UW is mercifully excluded from this list) of such unproven management fads as the RobertDickeson “program prioritization” scheme. These do violence to the principle of collegial governance, and create divisive work environments that are not conducive to the primary functions of academia, namely teaching and research.

Deprofessionalization also manifests in a growing audit culture that emphasizes accountability metrics that may work well in a corporate environment, but which are woefully inadequate for the long-term view that the institution of tenured academia was designed to foster. Good teaching is not something that can be consistently measured, any more than anyone’s ‘soul’ can be measured. Research impact is trans-generational in some fields – my own department can claim a 2,300-year tradition – such that the number of citations in any given year is possibly the least relevant measure of an idea’s impact. How can the bean counting of research impact the way it is practiced today ever be effective in picking the winners of what will have been most significant in 10, or 25, or 100 years? Just because something is measurable doesn’t mean it has value, just as not everything that has value is measurable. Whatever is measured will be prioritized, at the opportunity cost of other things.

3) “Open for business”

Collaborative research with industry has been a growing trend that has squeezed out basic research. This trend has been a matter of government policy at the highest levels, and it is reflected in the relative changes in NSERC funding that has shifted significantly away from basic research toward “targeted” research that involves industry. The potential impact on academic integrity is substantial.

Expect to hear more about these issues as they relate specifically to UW in upcoming blog posts. For more on industry-academia interactions in Canada (including a section on UW’s own Balsillie School of International Affairs”), please see CAUT’s report, also entitled “Open for Business”.

One thought on “The Corporate University

  1. Prediction for the next 25 years (starting in 2009) by Eric Utne: “We will see through the tyranny of counting and measuring and evidence-based requirements, developing an appreciation for intuition, complexity, and whole systems thinking.” [From Eric Utne, “Forward: 25 Years and Dreaming,” Utne Reader, Ogden Publishers Inc., Topeka, Kansas, p. 96, Sep-Oct 2009. Only twenty years left and the trajectory is the wrong way in Ontario it would appear.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.