CALGARY — Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is correct in saying that universities need changing, but he is dead wrong in suggesting that a government minister should direct such change.
Lukaszuk recently issued mandate letters for universities in Alberta, confusedly suggesting that universities should share more resources, become subject to greater administrative centralization, produce a better trained workforce, and conform more readily to markets and the directive power of the state — all of which should be done with less money.
The minister is not without support in believing that universities should better serve the communities that support them. Nearly everyone who has been associated with a university may have come to the conclusion that they badly need reform.
They have economic problems, but money is the least malignant of the plagues that visit them. They are also said to be unresponsive to public or market needs, irrelevant nests of professional students, preachers of disjointed visions disconnected from reality, overflowing with administrators, sausage factories of information, elitist and wasteful, dislocated from their origins and goals, and the list goes on.
But for all their problems, the greatest threat to universities today is their servility to four masters: to the tyranny of changing fads, to the eroding whims of students demanding satisfaction as clients, to the brutish dictates of those in power, and to the cancerous ambitions of self-serving administrators. None of these tolerate variety, and the freedom to have and promote variety of views is oxygen to universities.
As self-ruling entities, universities alone must discern and chart the best direction they wish to follow. When universities submit to external rulers, they surrender their autonomy.
Under the guises of social justice, environmentalism, globalization, sustainability, or whatever the catchy flavour of the decade happens to be, faddish values are corroding post-secondary curricula and academic activity.
Lately, universities also surrender into a service-provider/client relationship, ironically calling it student-centred, while services to students decay and mega classes in lecture theatres grow larger. Students demand more interesting courses, less text and more multimedia, less boring theory and more fun-filled, craft-like activity, usually described by an "ism," but rarely do they ask for better education.
As variety producing, none of these tendencies are necessarily against education, except that they always push away from education’s true aims by demanding total adherence to their core ideas.
Making it worse, such fads are often twisted in the hands of a growing administrative class, always willing to enhance their power by offering more courses in vogue programs, hiring more junior administrators, peddling a favoured "strategic vision," or getting rid of the autonomous faculty members who might be indifferent to their advance in power. The mounting power of self-serving administrators has the most corrosive effects on universities, and Lukaszuk is adding to it while also enhancing the fourth layer of destructive forces on universities, centralization.
Pushing centralization will hurt universities, even when cutting the number of administrators. Without a change in the culture, the surviving administrators will see their power multiplied. Having greater domains and less competitive resistance in other administrators’ ambitions will facilitate doing the government’s bidding and push a singular mandate.
The top-down approach will push more conformity and uniformity, enhancing the power of those who are already corroding the fundamental principles of university — the independent pursuit of truth and beauty through excellence, and the reflective examination of society and of one’s self.
The community already benefits when universities do well, and universities do best when faculty members and students can dedicate their attention, free from power or political interference, to their chosen pursuits in the service of knowledge, which is a service to all.
The principal purpose of universities has never been to produce better employees for the market, but to pass down knowledge to future generations.
An erosion of university autonomy achieves the opposite of what Lukaszuk claims to seek. And by reducing meaningful choice and push against the liberty to decide what to study, it will likely reduce creativity and muffle innovation. It will yield followers instead of forming leaders. The minister’s proposal, however well-intended, is half-baked and dangerous to universities.
Boards of governors ought to know that the key to improving universities is to promote excellent but autonomous faculty who will not be servile to misguided administrators. While there is need for excellent students and competent administrators, no one chooses a university for its president’s position on water or children’s issues.
No university worth its salt can ever achieve the excellence that Lukaszuk and Premier Alison Redford claim to support by paying lip service to student centeredness, giving more centralizing power to administrators, or submitting to the directive power of a government minister.
Marco Navarro-Genie is vice-president of research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.