Shock headline: Professor advocates increasing university salaries.
One doesn’t have to be a confirmed cynic to question the self-serving nature of partisan advocacy. Should anyone take seriously a professor’s plea for higher salaries? Do professors really deserve more money?
Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don’t. But that’s not the issue I wish to address.
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is currently bargaining with the university’s administration. A strike vote is imminent. UMFA argues provincial austerity policies have pulled down salaries at the U of M virtually to the bottom of the league table of Canadian research universities. No one contests this point. It’s incontestable.
Even the U of M administration admits academic salaries are embarrassingly low compared to other medical/doctoral research universities. Administrators are not dummies. They understand as well as anyone that the U of M is no longer competitive. Nevertheless, passively, helplessly, reluctantly, they decline to take the bold steps necessary to improve a worsening situation.
In effect, they shrug their collective shoulders and plead their hands are tied.
Imagine if the Winnipeg Jets were offering their players something close to the lowest wages in the National Hockey League. Would the Jets be able to attract and retain star players? Would the team be competitive? The answer to both of those questions is obviously "no."
Having competitive professional sports teams is important to our province. It matters, a lot, even to those who aren’t sports fans and couldn’t tell you the difference between a blue line and an end zone. It matters because the Jets and the Bombers are part of what makes Winnipeg an attractive place to live. They give a large number of Winnipeggers, and indeed Manitobans, a sense of pride in our community.
The same is true of our extraordinarily rich cultural scene: our first-rate theatres, symphony and chamber orchestras, ballet, opera, folk music and jazz, our extraordinary museums and galleries, our parks, libraries and our public art program.
Who would want to move to a province with a failing health-care system? Who would want to stay in a province with crappy schools?
And, to cut to the chase, who would want to live in a province whose major research university is second-rate (or, worse, third-rate)?
Does this story sound alarmist? The U of M still has many world-class academics teaching and doing research in its professional faculties: for example, medicine, agriculture, architecture, law, engineering. But those faculties, which bring very large research grants into the province and which train future generations of doctors, lawyers, agronomists, etc., are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain talented young researchers and teachers.
Faculty members, both new and established, are leaving for much better-paying jobs in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
What is true for the university’s professional faculties is equally true for the core faculties of arts and sciences. Vibrant departments of literature and history, psychology and sociology, economics and philosophy, mathematics and biology are not only important to the future of our provincial economy; they are vital to the lives of our students and to everything that makes life worthwhile in our province.
In 1958, the Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a best-selling work of economics, The Affluent Society. Galbraith recognized that despite its massive economic prosperity, North American society was structurally unsound. The stockpile of consumer goods was increasing rapidly, but the stockpile of public goods — schools, affordable housing, health care, critical infrastructure (roads, bridges and ports) — was deteriorating.
Galbraith encapsulated this phenomenon in the phrase "private affluence and public squalor."
When public schools are poor, the wealthy will happily send their children to private schools and universities. First-rate health care can be purchased from private clinics and hospitals. Gated communities and private security guards will provide protection against the dangerous rabble. Private libraries, private swimming pools and private transportation make public amenities unnecessary, at least for the affluent.
Americans are now living with the fallout of a fundamentalist free-market ideology which valorizes privatization while devaluing the importance of high-quality public goods and services. But the shibboleth of balanced budgets combined with tax cuts, leading inevitably to public sector cutbacks, has been discredited by the pandemic and the escalating climate crisis.
Perhaps it’s time to recall Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famous observation: "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."
COVID-19 has forcibly driven home the lesson that a transcendent responsibility of government is to protect our public health-care system. The pandemic is also teaching us that society needs powerful collective action to protect the education of our children, our cultural and sporting amenities and everything that contributes to a decent quality of life for every member of our community.
If we passively watch our once-vibrant university system fall into disrepair, all Manitobans will be the poorer.
Arthur Schafer teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Manitoba. He is founding director of the U of M’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.