Different Pipers, Different Tunes

In tough financial times, how do we pay the bill for free inquiry?

Canadian scholars have written several thoughtful books in the last decade that deal with the tension between academic freedom and market forces. These include Michiel Horn’s Academic Freedom in Canada: A History, Paul Axelrod’s Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace and the Trials of Liberal Education, Thomas Pocklington and Allan Tupper’s No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working and George Fallis’s Multiversities, Ideas and Democracy. What could another author add to this subject?

What Howard Woodhouse, professor of educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan, adds are detailed he-said-she-said case studies with clear identification of who the bad guys are. The villains include some of Canada’s most celebrated university leaders who, according to the author, have “acclaimed the corporate market as the ruling principle governing the university’s every activity.” The case studies of acrimonious campus disputes give us a flavour of the kinds of public accusations and grievance processes that may lie ahead as Canadian governments and universities come to grips with budget deficits.

Although most observers agree that traditional university norms are under strain, they differ about the reasons. For Woodhouse, the root cause is that market values are antithetical to education values and that too many university administrators and government officials are in the thrall of “the market model as a value program” whose “own assumptions about what constitutes worth rule out any thought that goes beyond it.” He provides his analytical frame in the first chapter, “The Market Model of Education and the Threat to Academic Freedom,” and the sixth chapter, “The Value Program in Theory and Practice.”

But not everyone would agree with Woodhouse’s essential premise. Before looking at his case studies, I would like to suggest a more prosaic, public finance analysis of the source of the strain on traditional university values and structures. The activities associated with free inquiry are expensive and, as with all public and private goods, there is a limit to how much Canadians are willing and able to pay for them.

To see why universities are under stress we only have to look at how much more they are now expected to do in relation to the resources and structures with which they have to work. Governments have called on Canadian universities to enrol more students and to conduct more research. Universities try to meet these increased demands with lower per-student government funding, with internal costs that are growing much faster than general inflation and with internal procedures that are becoming ever more process-heavy in response to demands from government and faculty for equity, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability.

Perhaps the only proposition supported by everyone within the academy—senior administrators, faculty associations, student unions and even contrarian professors—is that, whatever the source of the stress, the solution will require more government funding. So it is worth asking why governments have not been persuaded to spend more on universities. It is not for want of sustained, articulate advocacy.

The public finance answer is simple. At the margin, additional expenditures in other areas—health care, income assistance, aboriginal support, national defence, economic development and the like—are believed to have greater public benefit than more money for university teaching and research. Many in the academy would say that the problem is a general shortage of government revenue, which could be solved by higher taxes. Indeed, there is a good public finance argument that as Canadians become wealthier they may prefer to devote a higher fraction of their income to the kinds of services that are provided publicly, particularly if they believe that the resources are efficiently deployed by the service providers.

But are Canadians and their elected representatives likely to be persuaded that universities are deploying resources as efficiently as they can? Outside the academy there is substantial scepticism that higher education institutions in each region work together as an efficient system, that faculty devote an appropriate amount of time to teaching, and that personnel costs are being prudently managed.

Some awkward facts support this scepticism. For example, in Canada’s largest province, all universities have adopted the most expensive model for providing undergraduate education. The research university model of time allocation has faculty spending 40 percent of their time on teaching responsibilities, 40 percent of their time on scholarship and research, and 20 percent of their time on service. No other large jurisdiction in the world tries to do all of its undergraduate education this way. Another awkward fact is the overwhelming international evidence that there is essentially no correlation between research productivity and teaching effectiveness, which suggests that it should be possible to design less expensive arrangements to get more teaching effort per faculty dollar. And then there is the fact that faculty compensation at most Canadian universities has been increasing much faster than the incomes of most other Canadians.

Other jurisdictions are looking hard at university costs. Barack Obama used his first State of the Union Address to declare that “it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs—because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.” States in fiscal crisis have begun taking drastic action. In the University of California system, for example, every professor, administrator and clerical worker has been put on furlough amounting to an average pay cut of 8 percent. Across the ten campuses, instructional budgets are being reduced by US$139 million, with 1,900 employees laid off, 3,800 positions eliminated and hiring deferred for nearly 1,600 positions, most of them faculty.

Given the fiscal situation facing all governments in Canada, it would be prudent for universities to plan for even more constrained transfers from government. This outlook increases the pressure on administrators to look for non-government funding and to demonstrate the university’s relevance to external funders. And this is just the kind of public finance pressure that contributed to some of the controversies outlined in the Woodhouse case studies.

The case in his second chapter, “A Marketing Professor Meets the Market,” is a dispute that began in 1988 when the recently appointed dean at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Management sent a confidential memorandum to a faculty member admonishing him for his behaviour at a faculty event where representatives of a major company made a presentation. The note said, “the Faculty is working very hard to cultivate positive relationships with the business community and your remarks were counterproductive.” The faculty association believed the professor’s academic freedom was infringed and lodged an association grievance.

This case brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s quip that the reason academic politics are so fierce is that the stakes are so low. But for many of the aggrieved professor’s supporters in the Faculty of Management, the stakes were not low. The dean’s strategic plan to make the institution relevant to the business community would give higher priority to some disciplines than others. His plan attracted strong faculty resistance and, although the grievance was rejected by an adjudicator after hearing from many witnesses, including several flown in from outside the province, the case study ends with the dean’s appointment not being renewed. From a public finance perspective, the case illustrates how legalistic and costly personnel management issues can be in institutions with strong employee organizations and formal dispute resolution mechanisms.

The case in the third chapter, “Taking on Big Pharma,” is the very public and litigious dispute about the release of research findings involving Apotex, one of Canada’s largest drug manufacturers; Dr. Nancy Olivieri, a hematologist at the Hospital for Sick Children; some of Dr. Olivieri’s colleagues; and the University of Toronto, with which medical researchers at the hospital are affiliated. This case is full of conflicting testimony, expensive lawsuits (which are still continuing) and profound issues of medical ethics. It has been the subject of several internal and external reviews, and purportedly the inspiration for a John le Carré novel. While academic and hospital administrators need not agree with Woodhouse’s conclusion that the case demonstrates the need to establish “socialized medical research as an epistemic norm,” they would likely agree that it contains cautionary reminders about the need for careful rules and judgement in dealing with arrangements between researchers and drug companies.

The case in the fourth chapter, “Commercializing Research and Losing Autonomy,” involves the Canadian Light Source, a $176 million synchrotron facility at the University of Saskatchewan that was described in a joint university-government press release on April 1, 1999, as the “largest scientific project ever to be built in Canada.” According to the 1999 press release, the capital cost was to come primarily from governments and the University of Saskatchewan, with lesser contributions from other universities and industry. Federal agencies were to pay 55 percent of its ongoing operating expenses with the remainder to come from “user fees, the U of S and other sources as required.” Given that the university seemed to be on the hook to secure 45 percent of the operating costs, faculty critics feared this would divert resources from other parts of the university. Woodhouse sees this as market forces undermining academic decision making and institutional autonomy and he develops a broad critique of the research university model as practised in Canada today.

The latest Canadian Light Source annual report suggests that the critics may have been right to worry about the impact of the facility on the university’s resource allocation decisions. By 2008–09, the contracted research and contractor revenue was only $0.8 million of the $19.1 million operating revenues, with $3.0 million coming from the university and the rest from government. It is unlikely that the facility has generated the “$35 million annually in commercial research and development spending” that the optimistic press release in 1999 had cited. The public finance lesson from the synchrotron case is that governments and universities should be realistic about the objectives, costs and expected short-term results of so-called big science projects, and that they should include adequate ongoing operating funds as part of the go/no-go decision in the first place. Contrary to the fears invoked by Woodhouse, the dangers in such projects are likely to arise more from the under-involvement than the over-involvement of the private sector.

The case in the fifth chapter, “Going Beyond the Market: Evaluating Teaching by Evaluating Learning,” is that of Woodhouse’s personal experience with student evaluations of teaching and his analysis of interviews on the subject with students and faculty at the University of Saskatchewan. He concludes that student evaluations of teaching “undermine the goal of education as the advancement of dissemination of shared knowledge by treating it as a private good” and that they “undermine academic freedom to the extent that faculty feel constrained not to challenge students’ assumptions.” After reading this chapter, it is hard to imagine any approach to performance assessment of faculty teaching that could not be criticized on academic freedom grounds.

The final chapter, “The People’s Free University as an Alternative Model,” describes an admirable initiative in 2002 involving Woodhouse and colleagues in the Department of Educational Foundations, where University of Saskatchewan faculty and other volunteers were to offer free classes in a low-income Saskatoon neighbourhood. The chapter describes the objectives and philosophical foundations of the initiative—including an environment where “everyone can learn; everyone can teach”—and reports that in the first year “two hundred students between the ages of twelve and eighty-two from different social classes and backgrounds enrolled in six courses.” The chapter describes the plans for expansion in the second year, but leaves one wondering why there was, apparently, no third year.

By the end of the book, this reader is left questioning the extent to which the case studies really have to do with academic freedom. For me, the University of Manitoba case has mostly to do with the perception by some faculty that any strategic planning that appears to favour some departments over others is an infringement on their rights. The Hospital for Sick Children case has mostly to do with the difficulties of deciding when there is sufficient data from experimental testing of a new drug to conclude that the experiment should be aborted because the drug is likely to do more harm than good. The University of Saskatchewan case has mostly to do with pressures on university administrators to win capital grants while leaving operating cost arrangements for another day. The student evaluation of teaching case has mostly to do with the complexity and discomfort of faculty performance assessment.

The book provides readers with insights that Woodhouse may not have intended. For example, the case studies illustrate the potential for individuals within the academy to misuse adjudicative processes to torment anyone they do not like. They also suggest that the defence of core principles of academic freedom is not helped by those who define the term broadly enough to cover almost any administrative decision with which they disagree and then use adjudicative processes to revisit the decision. Finally, the book raises the question of why university governance processes that involve so many faculty representatives seem to produce outcomes perceived to be so inimical to faculty rights.

I am glad Howard Woodhouse has written this book. His political philosophy may seem other-worldly to those who have to manage real people in real institutions. His naming and blaming may seem unhelpful to those expected to persuade governments to spend more on universities. But Woodhouse deserves credit for taking advantage of his academic freedom to offer an earnest critique of established ways of doing things in a format that is reasonably accessible to the general reader.

His case studies provide a salutary reminder of the interests at play as government officials and university administrators face the public finance decisions needed to put our higher education systems onto a fiscally sustainable path.