The President of the University of Alberta asked us to think twice, and we have!

Back in 2009, a dozen faculty members from 10 different Canadian universities initiated an open letter to the Prime Minister imploring him to “not leave Canada behind.” The federal “stimulus” budget had just announced a substantial cut to the three federal granting councils, and more than 2800 senior researchers across the country had signed against it in protest, causing a major stir on Parliament hill. Two of the letter initiators were summoned by the presidents of their respective universities for “questioning” and for a piece of unsolicited “advice”. The idea of doing so never crossed the mind of the president of UBC, Stephen Toope, who happened to both understand and uphold the principles of academic freedom and free speech. The actions around the latest events at the University of Saskatchewan made me appreciate more than ever his principled stand.

“It has been a miserable two weeks for the University of Saskatchewan, and everyone involved in its recent crisis,” wrote the president of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, in a recent op-ed for the Globe and Mail. What she wrote there had the unfortunate effect of extending the “misery” for several more weeks.

An alarming siege mentality oozes out of that op-ed’s opening paragraph: “Many people have rushed to judgment at University of Saskatchewan. Unfortunately some appear to be crowing about a victory over administration – but such victories may prove pyrrhic.”

Is there really a collective state of mind whereby administrators throughout this country are constantly maligned, attacked, and oppressed by the rest of the academic world? It shouldn’t be the case. More often than not, university administrators are hard working, honorable people and serious academics who are committed to jobs that are challenging, and to academic ideals that they live by. But what happened at the University of Saskatchewan? 

In a nutshell, the Board there, faced with huge reputational damage to the university caused by the firing of a tenured professor without due process, a visceral public reaction to such a hasty and irresponsible act, and having endured several months of campus upheaval caused by the mishandling of a so-called TransformUS initiative, decided to act by removing the president.

Why then was this framed by the president of the University of Alberta as a case of people crowing about a victory over the whole administration class? And why did she describe the victory as pyrrhic?

The victory is indeed one, but only because the Board of the University of Saskatchewan re-iterated its commitmentto the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression. It would also like to stress that it believes that tenure is a sacrosanct principle within this university.”  The only Pyrrhus here seems to be a president who has fallen on her sword trying to vanquish a subordinate by firing him without due process.

The president of the University of Alberta doesn’t see it this way. She not only takes issue with this decision, but goes on to imply that the recent decisions of that Board lacked the all-important institutional autonomy, which normally enables university leaders (to) chart their institution’s course according to its mission and make strategic decisions – even when those decisions are unpopular with the government of the day.”

On the surface, the president’s article looks like a commendable defense of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and of institutional autonomy from government. In reality, it is such a warped interpretation of these principles that the article qualifies more as a frontal attack on the basics of academic life, as only certain Globe columnists are capable of.

Among many of Samarasekera’s debatable theses are her own definitions of academic freedom, of the freedom of speech, and how they should be delineated. “Academic freedom must be based on rigorous enquiry and reasoned discourse. And it comes with responsibilities. Academics must be willing to submit their ideas to the critical lens of peer review, where their views and discoveries will be debated, their data examined, and their assumptions questioned.”

So for the UA president, academic freedom only concerns the faculty’s own research topics, protects exclusively their findings within their area of expertise, and applies strictly to ideas and work that have passed peer review. Hence, academic freedom does not apply to their opinions on program relevance, academic priorities, and institutional restructuring. These fall in the domain of senior administrators, who are empowered to make academic decisions while being exempt from the requirements of expertise, peer review, and the critical lens of their subordinates.

The UA president recognizes, however, the right of the faculty to the freedom of speech, though … in a restrained, qualified, with appropriate limits, sort of way. “Academic freedom is so hopelessly misunderstood,” she said to the CBC. “Academic freedom is there for you to be able to speak about things you absolutely are an expert on. We’re talking about free speech, here.”

For the UA president, freedom of speech, and not academic freedom, is the one right that allows faculty to debate issues and questions strategic directions at a university. She stopped short of reminding us that the freedom of speech, which is a citizen’s right and not only an academic privilege, falls short of protecting, let alone empowering, employees of corporations and private companies, who speak out against and question their managers’ decision making.

This is because the president of the University of Alberta got it all wrong. Academic freedom pertains both to the protection of scholarship and teaching, as well as the delivery of that scholarship in terms of academic programs.

As for the issue of institutional autonomy and independence from government, we all agree that it is an important aspect of academic life. But the real litmus test on this front is what is happening lately at the University of Manitoba. We can only hope that Canadian university presidents will be writing op-eds about that.

The decision of the Board of the U. of Saskatchewan was perfectly legitimate from a governance point of view. Faced by huge reputational damage to the university, the Board had to act. Whether the decision was influenced by the political class or not is irrelevant. Plus, there is no shame in siding with politicians who are asserting “that tenure is a sacrosanct principle within the university,” when the alternative are administrators referencing laws about libel, slander and hate crimes,” to mitigate the right of a faculty to speak out against a president’s academic restructuring.

As problematic is the assertion that deans should not be permitted to publicly condemn the decisions of the senior leadership or board at all times after a decision has been made. Yes it would have been a much more clear-cut situation if Buckingham had submitted his resignation as Dean in conjunction with him pointing the finger at the administration.  He was wrong in not doing so, and there are recent claims about other wrongdoings, but this shouldn’t muddy the picture.

Quoting a faculty member at the University of Alberta, “The issue was not just about a single individual. It was about administrative over-reach and systemic failure that sent a chilling message to all universities. And it didn’t help that our Pres. chose to quickly jump into the fray in support of that failure.”

The president of the University of Alberta challenged us to think twice. We did so, and we find it quite alarming that she, of all people, is trying to justify suppressing debate in the bastion of free speech that is the academy in an open society such as Canada.

And here is another comment to which I personally relate: “I have always had the utmost respect for Prof. Samarasekera dating back to her days at UBC, which makes her shocking views all the more surprising.”

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4 Responses to The President of the University of Alberta asked us to think twice, and we have!

  1. Phil Hultin says:

    The concept of “an administrative class” is interesting. Certainly most of the senior administrators I have dealt with appear to be part of a more exalted “class” than I, to judge by the perks, luxurious offices, secretarial support, junkets and deference they enjoy, which are not to be seen in the haunts of a mere professor.
    In the course of all this discussion I have really begun to wonder just why universities actually NEED Presidents, Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents and their attendant assistants, interns, secretaries, factotums and the like? It seems axiomatic that the purpose of a university is to discover new knowledge and to pass on knowledge. If all of those “senior administrators” just suddenly vanished, I cannot imagine that anyone who actually performs research, scholarship or teaching would even notice. The only reason I can think of that we need these people is because the legal frameworks in which our universities exist demands them. If we reframed these enabling Acts, we could almost certainly keep on with barely a ripple.
    Universities like any organization, need administrators. I just don’t think we need “Administrators” who see their role in terms of making a mark, reshaping the institution, changing its directions, or whatever. Universities need people to manage their finances, disburse payroll, keep their records, handle their legal affairs, make purchases, and the like. Much of the turmoil in the Academy today arises because administrators want to be Leaders, but very few real academics really want to be led in the direction they are marching.
    I have an idea: let’s abolish all positions above (there’s that class thing again) Dean. Then, let the Deans be elected from their respective faculties, and let the council of Deans vote one of their colleagues to chair the executive for the University for 1 or 2 years. Let the university Senate act as the legislative body with representation from academic faculty and support staff (managers and the like). And, make everyone answerable to the Board of Governors, but do not let the BoG initiate anything. Truly Collegial governance? Couldn’t be worse than what we see in so many places today.

  2. Frank says:

    I agree with the comment above completely. Here, in the UK and more so in Australia, the population of administrators of all kinds has grown gradually over the years. In the 80’s the average number of administrators (in total) was about half as many as academic staff. Now there are twice as many. What has happened is that the administrators have gradually found ways to make themselves more important than they actually are and, in the end, they have found ways to make themselves indispensable. They, having gained more control over the running of the university have also attempted to make academic positions more and more tenuous while their own become more and more solid. This has eroded the quality of academic life.

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