A Columnist’s Response to McGuinty’s Circumlocutions

Columnist Margarent Wente responded in the Globe and Mail last week to McGuinty’s previous verbal meanderings with the Globe Editorial Board.

The article is reprinted below, after which I’ll try to tease out some points where I interpret the situation similarly to and differently form Wente (who, to oversimpify, bats from the right).

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Universities are sitting ducks for reform

Margaret Wente

According to one 2008 survey, Canadian faculty were the highest-paid among 15 countries studied.

What is the most pressing problem facing Canadian universities today?

If you ask the professoriate, the answer is likely to be: massive underfunding, combined with creeping corporatization and growing threats to academic independence.

If you ask Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s Premier, the answer is: poor accountability, and not enough bang for the buck. Last week, he fired a warning shot, saying he plans to have “honest conversations” in the coming months about what universities and colleges can expect in return for the extra money they’re getting to educate another 30,000 students. Translation: You folks are in the service business.

The trouble is that universities aren’t set up for that. The principal job of today’s university and college system is not to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, but to efficiently deliver mass undergraduate education to 30 or 40 per cent of the population.

Universities now do this job in the most expensive way possible, argues Ian D. Clark, whose recent book, Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario, should be a wake-up call to everyone in academia. That’s because universities are still based on the research model of higher education, which adheres to the view that students should be taught only by faculty members who are “actively engaged in original research.” Nearly every university, no matter how small and obscure, aspires to this model. At many universities, professors are required to spend no more than 40 per cent of their time teaching. That often means just two courses per term, in a two-term academic year that totals eight months.

Yet the benefits of all this research are often remarkably obscure. What the market really needs is a lot less marginal research, and better ways to deliver utility courses such as Introduction to Thermodynamics. Ultimately, this means a two-tier university system, with a few elite research-intensive universities, and more teaching-centred ones. (The colleges are more efficient.)

As you might expect, all of this is anathema to the powerful faculty unions, which are among the biggest barriers to reform. They like things pretty much the way they are (if only there were more funding). So far, academic leaders haven’t had the power or the will to push for productivity improvements, and they haven’t got any help from spineless provincial governments (including Mr. McGuinty’s). Given the dire straits of public finances throughout North America, the coming showdown is inevitable.

Prof. Clark, who’s on the faculty of the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, rightly thinks taxpayers are not going to be on the unions’ side. Academic salaries are far higher than most people’s, and have been rising faster. Professors also have good pensions and job security. In the 2006-7 year at the University of Toronto (the latest for which Statscan figures are available), the median salary for a full professor without senior administrative duties was $144,059; for an assistant professor it was $88,330. According to one 2008 survey, Canadian faculty were the highest-paid among 15 countries studied.

A brutal restructuring of U.S. higher education has begun. Every employee in California’s state university system has taken what amounts to a 10 per cent pay cut. Canadian universities will probably escape more lightly. But as the research model becomes more unaffordable, the future will look far different. Tenure will become much rarer and teaching loads will increasingly be handled by non-PhDs trained to handle a particular group of courses. Natural sciences will fare better than the humanities because, as U.S. commentator Walter Russell Mead remarks, taxpayers are not going to subsidize research in critical literary theory much longer. Faculty unions will kick up a fuss about academic independence. But their members don’t work for themselves. They work for us.

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Okay, let’s start with some of the conclusions on which Wente and I agree

1. McGuinty’s comments are exclusively directed towards universities.  They largely seek to justify removing something that currently distinguishes Ontario’s Universities from its Colleges: Academic Freedom

2. Yes, threats to academic freedom probably would be anathema to faculty unions.  It would result in their being paid to do what exactly what the government thought was beneficial (which would effectively spell the end of funded research in the Humanities — note Wente’s comment about “marginal research”).  University professors would now become state employees; universities would become exist to serve — not knowledge — but the state.  Ultimately (and indirectly), 905 residents — not experts — would get to decide what research is or is not worthy of funding.  (Think of Texas school boards, if you want a good example of this in practice.)  To put it bluntly, not even Mike Harris touched that particular third rail.

3. Yes, a “brutal restructuring” of Universities in California has begun.  Wente notes the reduced salaries that faculty will make there.  She is, I assume, ignorant of the number of California professors who went on the job market last year, as a response, and the likely effects of that restructuring on the California postsecondary system, and the state’s larger economy as a whole.

Wente and I probably disagree on faculty salaries, but I get tired of arguing this issue — let’s just say that the academic job market is terrible right now, so probably the majority of professors in Ontario’s Universities are permatemp adjuncts working for the vicinity of $60,000, despite the fact that their jobs require as more years of training than Ontario’s doctors, if you count post-doctoral fellowships.

But Wente’s real point of ignorance, in my opinion, is not her thoughts on the uselessness of advanced research,  it’s the real workload of University profs.  It’s university adminstrators (acting on government demands for the “accountability” that McGuinty and Wente cherish) that have obliged all professors to pursue research relentlessly, for the sake of performance reviews and salary increases.  Think about it seriously — does “publish or perish” sound like a model that university professors would invite?

Yes, research allegedly accounts for 40% of a university prof’s work (with teaching being another 40% and adminsitrative work the remaining 20%), but that statistic ignores the fact that the time requirements of each of these three tasks has increased dramatically in the last twenty years:

  • Publication  demands on profs have increased so much that the American Library Association actually asked U.S. universities to stop publishing so many journals (since they were growing exponentially, in order to provide a forum for the number of publications that all North American professors — and aspiring professors — were obliged to produce each year)
  • Teaching demands on professors have increased with increased class sizes and the reduced amount of funding for research or teaching assistants
  • Administrative demands on professors have increased with the rise of contract faculty (who are contracted to do nothing but teach, Ms. Wente), and hence the reduced number of Full or Assistant Professors to mentor theses, approve applicants to the program, conduct job interviews, allocate scholarships, and run events.

My estimation is that — between reading, teaching, researching, corresponding, administrating, applying, organizing and grading —  tenured or tenure-track university profs work something in the vicinity of 64 hours a week.  (And their alleged summer vacation is spent writing articles for publication.)

While I’m sympathetic to the claim that Ontario’s schools need to prioritize undergraduate teaching first and foremost (but not exclusively), I’ll devote an upcoming post to discussing ways of accomplishing that without threatening Academic Freedom and infuriating the entire professorate.  I’ll also consider some of the potential side effects of removing tenure or reducing academics to the simple civil servants that McGuinty or Wente imagine them to be.

Do me a favour, and invite a university prof to e-mail me (at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com) with any clarifications or corrections.

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