Mandate Letters Will Increase Universities’ Troubles

Commentary, Education, Marco Navarro-Genie

Alberta’s Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is correct in saying that universities need changing, but is wrong in suggesting that a government minister should direct such change.

Lukaszuk recently issued mandate letters for Alberta universities, 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 alone in believing that universities should do better. Nearly everyone who has been associated with them thinks that they badly need reform.

Universities’ money problems are the least malignant of the plagues that visit them. They are accused of being slow in responding to public or market needs, irrelevant nests of professional students, preachers of disjointed visions disconnected from reality, sausage factories of information, elitist and wasteful, and the list goes on.

But for all their problems, the greatest threat to universities today is their servility to four masters: servility to the tyranny of changing fads, to the whims of students demanding satisfaction as clients, to the brutish dictates of government, 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 for themselves. 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, fads are corroding post-secondary curricula and academic activity. None of these tendencies are necessarily against education, except that they act against education’s true goals by demanding total adherence to their core beliefs.

Lately, universities also surrender into a service-provider/client relationship, ironically calling it student-centred, while services to students worsen and mega classes in lecture theatres grow larger. Student-clients demand more entertaining courses, less text and more multimedia, less theory and more practical activity, and high-paying jobs at the end of their studies. While undergraduate students participate in governing universities, they rarely ask for better education.

Making it worse, such fads and client demands are often twisted in the hands of a growing administrative class, never shy to enhance their power by offering more courses in vogue programs, peddling a favoured “strategic vision,” hiring more junior administrators, or getting rid of autonomous faculty members for being indifferent to bureaucratic muscle.

The mounting power of self-serving administrators has the most poisoning effect on universities, and Lukaszuk is adding to it by enhancing the fourth layer of destructive forces on universities, centralization.

His push to centralise will hurt universities, even when cutting the number of administrators. Without a change in the culture, the surviving administrators will multiply their power with wider domains and less resistance in the competing ambitions of other administrators.

The top-down approach will push more conformity and uniformity, increasing the power of those who already erode 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 and political interference, to self-rule and their chosen pursuits in the service of knowledge, which in turn benefits all.

The goal of universities has never been to find people jobs or produce better employees for the market. The minister seems to confuse university education with polytechnic or professional training.

Ultimately, undermining university autonomy achieves the opposite of what Lukaszuk claims to be after. And by reducing meaningful choice and work 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 plan, however well-intended, is half-baked and dangerous to universities.

Boards of governors should know that the key to improving universities is to support excellent, autonomous faculty who will not be servile to misguided administrators. Surely, universities want excellent students and competent administrators, but no student chooses a university for its president’s position on water or children’s issues.

No university can ever achieve the excellence that Lukaszuk and Premier Alison Redford claim to support by jumping from fad to fad, paying lip service to student centeredness, giving more centralizing power to administrators, or submitting to the marching orders of any government minister.

One might agree that the government’s inability to balance budgets may justify reducing university funding, but does not justify Lukaszuk’s interference with their operations.