What’s Wrong With Canadian Universities


In the summer of 2001, I took early retirement from Toronto’s York University. After a 29-year career as an academic, I walked out the door from a senior position in one of Canada’s leading departments of political science in Canada’s leading metropolis.

The immediate cause of my departure was the poisonous effect on university life of two prolonged and bitter strikes at York—a two-month faculty strike in 1997 and a three-and-a-half–month strike by graduate student teaching assistants in the winter of 2000/01. Five and a half months of picket lines in three years was enough to drain the enjoyment out of academic life. Worse was what the conflicts revealed about how academics, academics-in-training and administrators react under stress. In crisis mode, universities are revealed as deeply dysfunctional institutions. Academic communities are very delicate constructions. Pull out a thread or two and the entire fabric can unravel with astonishing rapidity. Looking ahead to years of frayed civility, snapped personal bonds, burned bridges and a pervasive culture of belligerent complaint allied to whining self-righteousness, I decided that a quick exit was the least painful course.

In truth, my discontent had deeper roots than York’s admittedly extreme labour strife. For years, I had been growing more and more alienated from the academic industry. Certain routine aspects of university life, such as hiring new faculty, can bring out the worst in everyone. Perfectly legitimate causes, such as gender and racial equity, can turn vindictive, setting off seemingly endless chains of recriminations. Student life seems, from the outside at least, to be increasingly harried and joyless. And research, the ultimate self-justification of the university enterprise, rewards the arcane, the trivial and forms of knowledge hermetically sealed from the larger society.

To read academic journals or to attend academic conferences, even in my own discipline— something I have found myself doing less and less—is to fall into worlds that are more and more self-referential, with few echoes in the real world. Even within existing disciplines, there is incessant specialization, with subdivision into fields and subfields, with practitioners who rarely talk to others outside their narrow patch. What is the point of this scholastic isolationism, this constant compulsion to reinvent the wheel in new and impenetrable jargon, if not simply to further careers and hasten more external funding for an enterprise that has only dimly perceived intrinsic purposes?

Two of my fellow political scientists, Tom Pocklington and Allan Tupper, have now produced a book that makes a systematic case that universities, in their subtitle, “aren’t working.” No Place to Learn argues convincingly that “knowledge factories” are failing. The authors also point out that universities have made themselves largely unaccountable with a self-justifying mythology that defeats any attempts by outsiders to penetrate the smokescreen. Although it is written in language that is accessible to outside readers, few non-academics will likely read this book, even if they or their children are in or have gone through the system. The performance of universities remains to most an abstruse, uninviting subject. Universities, of course, like it this way.

Pocklington and Tupper admit, ruefully, that their strictures are unlikely to elicit much sympathy within the halls of academe either. There are too many vested interests bound up in protecting the status quo, and all defences are quickly rallied to fight off any attacks, even when they come from within. There will be some academics who treat the authors as fifth columnists, giving aid and comfort to the enemies without. It is one irony among many that universities enjoy a degree of autonomy that is unparalleled among our public institutions, yet are afflicted with deep paranoia about what “they” (politicians, businesspeople, the silent majority of taxpayers) have in mind to impose upon the campuses. Funding of post-secondary education is, to be sure, a major problem, but so too is the financing of other public institutions and programs. Cost-cutting and know-nothing populist politicians have occasionally interfered, or more often threatened to interfere, in the internal business of universities, such as curriculum, hiring, tenure and promotion, and employment policies. These threats are immediately interpreted as assaults on academic freedom, and self-interested institutional autonomy is wrapped in the flag of ancient and honourable liberty. The question of academic freedom for what is generally viewed as impertinent, or irrelevant. Worst of all is to have this question raised by one of us, thus giving aid and comfort to the crass and untutored enemy.

Admittedly, some politicians have been bumptious in their ventures into higher education. It does not help when a premier, like now-retired Mike Harris in Ontario, appoints a minister responsible for universities who dropped out of high school after grade ten. Yet even in an era of neoliberal restructuring, what is remarkable is the success of Canadian universities in maintaining levels of funding and degrees of autonomy in setting their own rules and evaluating their own performance. In Alberta, where Pocklington and Tupper teach, the Ralph Klein government went through a severe cost-cutting exercise a number of years ago, but now that the province’s books are in order, the Alberta university system is relatively flush with funds. Moreover, institutional autonomy remains largely unimpaired.

Neoliberal governments do want to control costs. Post-secondary education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, especially jealously guarded in Quebec for cultural and linguistic reasons. The federal government has nonetheless recently extended its direct funding of research and scholarships. But provincial funding has been stagnant or declining in real dollars in many provinces. Alternative funding strategies include imposing higher user costs through tuition fee increases and encouraging private-sector sponsorship and partnerships. The former raises issues of equity and accessibility, while the latter raises the spectre of corporate control, as opposed to state control. Both reflect a marketization of higher education. This approach is eagerly adopted by some universities, especially those strategically situated to reap corporate dollars, like the University of Toronto. But the market can also threaten to become master, one that many academics find even less congenial than the state.

Despite this pervasive sense of multidirectional menace, Pocklington and Tupper are quite right to stress the remarkable capacity of universities to absorb external dollars under their own rules and to define the social and economic value of their operations in their own terms. Universities have, by and large, been successful in selling to the public and the private sectors alike the idea that universities are good for you, and that it is universities alone that can measure just how good they are for you. The uncomfortable question raised in No Place to Learn, by two insiders, is this: could this salesmanship be a bit of a con job?

The core of Pocklington and Tupper’s argument is that research has been progressively crowding out teaching on Canadian campuses. Earlier ideas of how universities should operate have been superseded by the American model of the “multiversity,” which is in fact rapidly becoming the global model, even impinging on ancient institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. They note ironically that despite Canadian sneers about Americanization, Canadian emulation has been generally uncritical, while in the United States itself a healthy debate has been taking place about the negative aspects of this development.

In the multiversity, research is pursued as the primary goal, both for the institution and for individual faculty; teaching becomes more of an afterthought. Little if any training is given to teachers, whose performance in the overcrowded classroom is given only spotty evaluation and counts for relatively little in achieving promotion. Universities propagate a myth to cover this gap, that of the mutual enrichment of research and teaching. According to this, professors who are also scholars bring their research into the classroom, thus connecting students to the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge. To those on the outside, this might bear some plausibility, until a closer examination is given to what passes for research in the multiversity. Pocklington and Tupper are acerbic in their critique of what they term “frontier research,” heavy specialization in smaller and smaller, and more esoteric, topics. They are right to indicate that this kind of narrow research does not enrich teaching, that it is actually the enemy of good teaching. They are also right to show how this kind of research, and the constant search for external funding for it, structures the multiversity in innumerable ways to downplay teaching. Take this devastating comment: “To our knowledge, no Canadian university in recent memory has hired a senior professor from another university because of his or her demonstrated teaching skills.”

Pocklington and Tupper are not enemies of research, as such. They advance another model of research, what they call “reflective inquiry.” This is research that asks big questions, relates specific findings to the larger society, and addresses questions that engage the attention of every thinking person. They wholly approve of this kind of research, and they show how reflective inquiry can enrich teaching, and does. As examples, they cite the work of Keynes, Darwin and Freud. They admit that there are not many who fit this bill, and their three examples are, of course, long dead.

The point is that almost everything in today’s university conspires against supporting reflective inquiry and conspires to advance narrow, specialized, quantitative research that avoids big questions. The effects of this are particularly apparent in younger academics who, even by contrast with their somewhat older colleagues, tend to be narrowly focused on small, doable bits and pieces of the larger subject of their discipline. This is not to criticize younger scholars, many of whom are extremely bright, able and energetic. It is to draw attention to their training in graduate school and the expectations imparted to them on how to succeed in the academic job market. Ironically, when older colleagues sometimes bemoan this specialization and the lack of a new generation of generalists, they have only themselves to blame, for it is they who trained the younger generation.

Pocklington and Tupper do not go into the social effects of this narrowing of research, but it is apparent in the divide that has opened up between the work of university researchers and the wider world of books, magazines, newspapers and informed commentary on social, political, economic, philosophical and cultural matters. Where are the university-based public intellectuals to illuminate debate and elevate it above the trivial and the ephemeral? There are a few such figures here and there, but the social base on which they operate is shrinking. The universities are hostile ground for producing intellectuals, as opposed to researchers.

Universities do nothing to foster reflective inquiry and much to discourage it. George Grant, in an earlier generation of university life, could hold an academic position and write books that made an impact on many Canadians, inside and outside the university. Grant’s philosophical research genuinely enriched his teaching, as generations of appreciative students testify. More recently, Michael Ignatieff struck out on his own without an academic position as an independent writer and intellectual and has succeeded admirably. If he had started as a junior academic, the pressures of tenure and promotion would almost certainly have driven him into narrower specialization.

Pocklington and Tupper go on to consider the ethical dilemmas created by the research culture, and the difficulties that university administration experiences in coping with them. Ethical dilemmas are compounded by the intrusion of business into academe and the growth of commercial research. Here, in some cases such as biotechnology, even the norms of academic inquiry break down as professors incorporate themselves to market the fruits of their research and turn ideas and concepts into jealously guarded competitive secrets. By this stage, the academy is well along the road to self-destruction, if not self-parody.

No Place to Learn is a polemic. Even though its authors strive for balance and fairness in their presentation, and generally succeed, there are times when even I, as an academic refugee, felt they were overstating their case. It is true that teaching is a generally neglected dimension that is not properly rewarded. But there is more attention paid to instructional methods and more thought put into improving teaching than they imply. They are not sympathetic enough to the difficulties facing professors in large, some- times huge, undergraduate classes. Faculty may not be putting enough into teaching, but teaching is an increasingly unsatisfying activity for faculty. Only in graduate courses and occasionally in smaller honours undergraduate seminars (where they still exist) can one still find the give and take of intellectual debate that can send the professor out of the classroom invigorated and the students stimulated. Listening again and again to your own voice floating over a class of hundreds is, except for narcissists and entertainers, a tedious and alienating experience. If this is the case for the professor, how must it seem to the students?

Behind this lie some deeper social changes outside the university that are somewhat neglected in Pocklington and Tupper’s account. As universities have become bigger, more ubiquitous, necessary extensions of high school before entering the labour market with the minimum qualifications, student culture has changed dramatically, and not at all for the better. When I arrived at first-year university at the beginning of the 1960s, my frame of reference was suburban high school life. Within days, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. A conformist, anti-intellectual atmosphere had suddenly given way to intellectual excitement. New ideas were being spun out in the classroom, but also among fellow students over late-night beer and pizza. Essays were not a burden—they were a chance to try out ideas, to make the first practice runs at entering into the great conversation of western civilization (well, okay, this was before multiculturalism). University days were then a valuable timeout from the real world, a chance to gain critical perspective before entering the world of work and family. Above all, it was a transformative cultural experience: received and unexamined ideas were challenged, and new horizons opened. Many who would never again return to university would remember these days with abiding fondness.

Perhaps I romanticize, but the contrast between the student experience then and now is sharp and cruel. In those days, we could afford to take a timeout from real life. We worked in the summer, between terms, and fees and costs were not crushing. We hardly gave a thought to what we would do after graduation. There would be jobs, of course, among which we could pick and choose. Today’s students face escalating fees and costs so high that fewer and fewer leave home to attend university in another location (the best situation to enhance the university experience). Today’s students face the prospect of a huge loan burden that looms over their early work life after graduation. The majority of undergraduates now work part time during the term, many putting in more hours at work than in the classroom. There are single parents and young immigrants struggling to better their job prospects. Typically, they commute to classes that they manage to fit into their harried schedule. For them, there is little or no university culture as a life experience. They are simply paying for better job qualifications. And as governments force universities to rely more and more on tuition fees, students are trained to think of themselves primarily as consumers of a product, not participants in a community of learning.

The university experience of old has a half-life today in graduate schools, where there is still some sense of intellectual excitement and shared experience. But graduate students are almost all looking themselves to an academic career, in an era that has seen considerable constriction in the academic job market. Intense competition and feverish preparation to pass the hurdles in the programs while trying to stake out employment opportunities all conspire to limit the sense of community here as well.

When students are consumers, professors begin to think of themselves as either entrepreneurs or workers. All these roles, when taken too seriously, destroy community. Pocklington and Tupper do discuss academic entrepreneurs and the commercialization of research, but they tend to pass over the emergence of academics as “workers,” and the effects of unionization. Perhaps as Albertans, they have not had first-hand experience of the Class(room) Struggle and the impact of barricades, both real and figurative, thrown up across campuses. My own career-ending experience of militant unionism at York is admittedly the worst-case scenario. But labour unrest is on the rise on campuses and has already spread from faculty to graduate students.

There are a number of ironies in this labour militancy, not the least of which is the bottomless capacity of academics for high-sounding but delusionary rhetoric. Despite pseudo-Marxist slogans, universities are not capitalist enterprises generating surplus value from the labour of their workers. Faculty are not a professorate or proletariat. Relatively speaking, professors are well paid and enjoy benefits and working conditions that would be the envy of many less fortunate. Appearances to the contrary, labour negotiations on campuses are not actually about such mundane matters as salaries, benefits or working conditions; instead, they are posed as struggles against corporate globalization, neoliberalism, racism, patriarchy, workplace alienation, dehumanizing technology, etc., etc. Academics spend their lives dealing in ideas, so perhaps it is not surprising that when they find themselves on a picket line, they are highly inventive at literally rationalizing the experience.

Not compromising one’s principles through grubby negotiation may be an admirable stand in the clash of ideas in the seminar room, but it does not work very well in contract negotiations. Worse is the deep polarization that these conflicts generate and their nasty impact on the academic community. Academic administrators, themselves drawn from the ranks of faculty, are identified as the enemy, and universities, with little or no financial resources of their own, become stand-in targets for frustration about the cutbacks imposed by neoliberal provincial governments.

There is another spectre that stalks the halls of academe today, about which Pocklington and Tupper say little. They do not wish to give ammunition to the right-wing cultural warriors who have targeted U.S. campuses as infested with left-wing political correctness. But they are somewhat reticent about challenging the excesses of the “equity seekers,” as the ideologists of anti- sexism and anti-racism tend to style themselves. Like Pocklington and Tupper and almost all of my former colleagues, I have no quarrel with the goals of equity—who would? But the equity ideologists do not accept good intentions. They insist that academic human nature is irredeemably sexist and racist and can only be kept in check through intensive regulation and control. Moreover, if those controls are allowed to relax for a moment, the old reflexes will snap right back into place. Everything that goes on must be monitored and policed.

Equity seekers typically begin from an anti-liberal premise: gender- or colour-blindness is not enough; positive action is needed to get results. Ironically, the practice of equity amounts to liberalism run amuck. Since results can be challenged only by targeting violations of process, proceduralism becomes obsessive. Hiring has, for instance, become a bureaucratic nightmare, in which every step is accompanied by elaborate motions to cover your ass, so that when the equity police review a hiring that does not go to a woman or a minority, they can find no procedural misstep to overturn the result. Add to this the propensity of departments to turn new hirings into the reproduction of disciplinary and ideological factions, all clothed, of course, in the now threadbare language of merit, and you have a prescription for hypocrisy. I count it as one of the greatest benefits of my retirement that I will never have to participate in an academic hiring again.

As some equity advocates tell it, one would think that universities are among the worst sexist and racist offenders in Canadian society. The reality is quite the reverse. Universities happen to be the sites where the most vocal equity advocates flourish, and which present some of the softest targets in the country for equity demands. Activists grow tired of butting their heads against harder targets when pushing at university walls usually results in their collapse.

Yet victories are rarely declared, but perversely seem only to whet the sense of grievance and victimhood. Conceptions of discrimination are brandished that defy empirical verification—like “chilly climate,” “glass ceiling” and definitions of “sexual harassment,” so broad as to include behaviour that no reasonable person outside the febrile hothouse of the university would consider remotely related to sexuality. “Equity officers,” officials who have sprung up on campuses across North America, often play a dual role as advocates and arbiters, and when they confuse these two in judging cases, serious injustices can and have resulted. In my own discipline of political science, two departments (at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria) have fallen victim to exaggerated and unjustified charges of racism, sexism and maintaining a chilly climate. After having its graduate program temporarily suspended by a panicked administration, the UBC department was ultimately vindicated and recently received an abject apology. There is, however, every reason to expect that more such conflicts will occur in the future, and that no one is any better prepared to handle them.

Lessons emerge from such sorry tales, and none of them speaks well of the university. The structures of university governance seem singularly ill prepared to handle divisive issues, and generally make a hash of them. Democratization has placed severe strains upon institutions that were designed to be collegial in an era when the social base was smaller and more homogeneous. People outside the university, who generally work in hierarchical organizations, have some difficulty in understanding the university ethos. There are ranks among faculty, of course, and there are chairs or heads of departments. Yet there is a myth of “collegiality” that is quite powerful, saying in effect that all colleagues are equal. Professors do not have formal supervisors or bosses to whom they report. Even the administrative positions—deans, vice-presidents, and so on—are drawn from the ranks of faculty, and there are collegial decision-making bodies such as committees, faculty councils and senates that are usually elected. There are, of course, invisible lines of prestige and influence, and the ubiquitous pressures from outside, financial and ideological, that have an impact on collegial decisions.

In most public and private sector organizations, there are authoritative hierarchical decision-making mechanisms. Debate is followed by closure, with winners clearly distinguished from losers: everyone knows at least where he or she stands. In universities, collegiality and the weakness of formal hierarchy means pervasive insecurity. When egalitarian ideology is on the table, this insecurity often rises to the level of paranoia. When equity advocates do not get their way, or think they do not get their way, it is collegiality itself that is blamed. A supposed old (white) boys network is seen lurking behind the framework of self-governance. Militant equity advocates, like militant academic unionists, are so convinced that their agenda is the only valid one that they are willing to undermine the very institutions that have permitted the remarkable degree of participatory self-government that distinguishes the university from other, more hierarchical workplaces. They are fouling their own nests, ironically invoking democracy as they go.

No doubt universities have connived in the political process that has made a degree a virtual requirement for almost any decent job in society, thus introducing a host of problems into the system. There was a vast expansion of the university system that began in the 1960s, with institutions of higher learning transformed from elite train- ing into virtual extensions of high school. The democratization of higher education is a double-edged sword. No one who teaches in a Canadian university today can plausibly deny that many of the students who swell the undergraduate ranks ought not to be there. They are simply out of place, as is all too evident in the semi-literate, substandard essays and exams they turn in, and the time-serving apathy with which they address their studies. Not all people are cut out for academic study. In many cases, technical or vocational training is much more appropriate, and these requirements are better met by community colleges.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to maintain the university degree as the “A stream” qualification even where it is unnecessary and to treat community college programs as second-best alternatives for those who fail in university. Instead of building up the resources and prestige of community colleges, the answer to this misfit between student and curriculum is too often to dumb down university requirements, lower academic standards, inflate grades and stress the technical and narrow aspects of knowledge. Democratization can become a vicious circle. It need not be thus, but universities’ desire to maintain their leading position at the government funding trough, typically based on enrollments, encourages a downward spiral in quality.

There is a profound contradiction at the heart of the contemporary self-justification of the university when it speaks to Canadian society. On the one hand, it extols excellence, while on the other it claims to satisfy the egalitarian goals of democracy. Equity, especially with regard to gender, ethnicity and culture, now ranks high as a value in multicultural Canada—as it should. All decent people will applaud the elimination of discriminatory barriers within the university system and unreservedly welcome the greatly expanded presence of women and visible minorities in both the student body and faculty. But equality as an end in itself is at odds with the fundamental raison d’être of the university. If everyone attends university and everyone graduates, the university degree loses its meaning.

When universities speak of the pursuit of excellence, they are in fact recognizing that they are there to distinguish an intellectual elite. They cannot always serve both excellence and equality without degenerating into incoherence. American universities attempt to do this by bifurcation of the system: just about anyone can acquire a “degree” from some state U, degree mill or bible college, but there is also an elite echelon of degrees (Ivy League et al.) that count for much more. Canada democratized its system from the 1960s on, but has failed by and large to establish an elite echelon that stands out from the rest (the pretensions of the University of Toronto notwithstanding). Some might think this admirable. It is rather a sign of an unresolved identity crisis that has persisted well past adolescence and into middle age.

Given the prevalence of egalitarian ideology on Canadian campuses, it is important not to be misunderstood on this point. Of course, gender, race and—let us not forget—class should never be the criteria to distinguish who has the opportunity to qualify for this elite. Nor should it be a question of the rewards doled out by the economic system to the positions occupied by those who acquire degrees. That is a separate issue. The important point is that universities are based, or ought to be based, on a hierarchy of achievement. Students are graded, professors are judged on the merits of their teaching and research, universities are ranked on a scale of quality. Instead of mouthing egalitarian platitudes while claiming excellence, Canadian universities should frankly acknowledge their elitist nature. Call it equal opportunity elitism if you will, but it is elitism none the less.

If elitism were openly acknowledged and placed front and centre in the universities’ mission, it would necessarily involve some major changes. Universities would be smaller, but better. For those whose aptitude is not academic, there would be expanded and more appropriate technical and vocational training. Some research, including much of the so-called frontier variety excoriated by Pocklington and Tupper, would be moved out of the university altogether into more congenial commercial research facilities. Students who do qualify for university should be well enough funded that they can attend to their studies full time and immerse themselves in an intellectual culture that offers a temporary time-out from the real world. Here reflective inquiry can take place that does enrich teaching, and the teaching can enrich inquiry.

Pocklington and Tupper offer two concluding chapters in which they discuss “pseudo-problems and pseudo-solutions,” followed by “real problems, real solutions.” Abolition of tenure is one popular pseudo-solution to a pseudo-problem— academics as lazy and unproductive. As Pocklington and Tupper rightly make clear, academics are not, by and large, lazy. My own observation over many years is that most of my colleagues were, if anything, workaholics, putting in hours long enough to put many in the corporate rat race to shame. Outsiders sometimes profess to be scandalized by the relatively few hours academics appear in the classroom. This is beside the point, as it ignores the heavy stress laid on research and publication. Tenure does little to dampen the drive to publish and excel in the eyes of one’s peers. The problem is not lack of productivity, but rather what academics are expected to be productive at.

The authors advance a number of real solutions to real problems, including restructuring graduate education to include specific focus on teaching as well as broadening research horizons, inter-university agreements banning secrecy in commercial research and more public space for students to converse as opposed to consume. These are all exemplary suggestions, but they admit that “within universities there is at present no significant support for the reforms we propose. Furthermore, no politically weighty calls for reform emanate from outside. This array of forces will not change in the near future.”

They are somewhat more optimistic about the “more distant future.” Perhaps as more people pass through the university system, there will be a larger constituency of citizens ready to demystify the university, but as more pass through as consumers rather than students, the reforms they may demand will not necessarily be good ones. The prognosis, frankly, is not optimistic. Good academics, Pocklington and Tupper are finally reduced to appealing to reason, convincing influential university people of the logic of their proposals. I, too, share the sense that the university is indeed an ideal that needs preserving, even against an increasingly depressing reality. There are no alternatives available for the role that universities can and should play. But they need des- perately to be recalled to their genuine mission as privileged places where the life of the mind can be pursued, by teachers and students alike, and there is faint hope of this.

Those of us who have devoted their careers to academe inevitably have conflicting feelings. I recall once attending a faculty union meeting many years ago with my teacher, colleague and friend, the late Donald Smiley, one of the great Canadian political scientists. After the rhetoric and complaint, as we filed out, Don turned to me and said, “You know, I have spent my life among academics. All my best friends are academics. Individually, I like academics. But put them together in a room, and collectively they can be a horse’s ass.”