On the “clientèle-based” logic in redefining academic units

Are we just a service department?

I doubt that Princeton’s Mathematics department thinks it is, neither does any Chemistry department on this continent. Yet, a Vice-President of the Canadian Mathematical Society wants us “to come to the realization that in almost every university in the country, the department of mathematics is a service department.” My friend and colleague, François Bergeron, from the Université du Québec à Montréal begs to differ. He wrote:

“Le récent “éditorial” du Vice-Président de la CMS m’est particulièrement indigeste. Je suis outré qu’on laisse passer dans les Notes de tels propos qui acceptent, sans se questionner, d’instrumentaliser le rôle et la mission des universités. Les Notes laissent peu de place aux réponses des lecteurs, mais (dans ce cas) il vaut peut-être la peine de répondre vigoureusement.

I also found the editorial “indigeste.” At best, the simplistic article was making light of an ongoing existential dilemma that several core departments are currently being forced into: Should they continue to hire research faculty working at the cutting edge of knowledge and discovery, or simply recruit instructors and professors of teaching in order to “service” their natural customers. In the case of mathematics, these are the thousands of undergraduates looking for their first “student experience”… in calculus.

I am currently preparing for the funding renewal of BIRS by NSERC, NSF, CONACyT and Alberta IAE (Come join the fun at the joint site visit on April 16/17!). So I asked François to “do the responding” in a post for “Piece of Mind”. Here it is. Merci François.

Refusing the pseudo-logic of prioritization

By François Bergeron, Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal

According to a recent “editorial” in the Canadian Mathematical Society Notes (March-April 2015), our community should accept to adhere to a process described in a book entitled “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance”, by Robert C. Dickeson. According to this line of thought, universities should “… ascertain which programs should be enhanced, and which need to be revised to achieve a sustainable future”.

The editorial goes on to describe how this leads naturally to re-evaluate the way in which decisions on resource allocations should be made. Seemingly in agreement with the premise that this point of view is normal and acceptable, the author then discusses the expected impact that this should have on most mathematical departments.

Among the (many) surprising statements presented therein as entirely evident is that “our undergrad major and graduate programs may not be sustainable”, but that they could survive “when taken together with the value of our immense service programming”. The author of said editorial adds that “we must come to the realization that in almost every university in the country, the department of mathematics is a service department”, and that we should strive to become the best department at this.

It appears to me that this whole reasoning is built around the concept that universities should simply follow the law of demands, and be reduced to simple teaching institutions (with research as a somewhat bizarre sideline). Once on this track, why not fully adopt a real “clientèle-based” logic, and simply eliminate traditional but out-subjects such as Philosophy (as a whole), Theoretical Physics, or Medieval Studies; in favour of developing further more fashionable in-subjects such as Administration, Economics, or even Financial Mathematics.

Maybe I am outdated in thinking that this is not what I wish for my society. Maybe I am a dinosaur if I keep considering that contributions to scientific culture, artistic culture, and literature are among the most interesting outputs of humanity. Maybe I am wrong to keep believing that universities should continue to be main players in these endeavours. Maybe I should stop passing this message along to my students.

But no, I will not bend to this particular fad, and I hope that the majority of our community will not either.

For me, an intellectually honest and genuinely sustainable future is one in which mathematics keeps on flourishing in breadth and scope in my society, one that does not reduce the function of mathematics departments to another ancillary service for the university. In short, I totally disagree with the editorial in question.

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4 Responses to On the “clientèle-based” logic in redefining academic units

  1. anthonyquas says:

    Interesting comments. In my University, which in common with many others feels itself under budgetary pressure, I don’t feel that Platonic ideals will cut much ice. If we don’t justify our existence as a service department, we need to do so in some other way. Or suffer the consequences. I’d be very interested in a discussion of how we can collectively better explain our value to budget-conscious University administrators.

  2. It is interesting that the article starts with a reference to Princeton. The CMS V-P’s article is NOT referring to Princeton, but to Math departments in Canadian universities. Believe me: an increasing number of university VPAs and VPs Finance could care less about how great the mathematician are if their department (in which research counts for 40% of duty) is not financially sustainable. Perhaps ego and the good old sense of entitlement ought to be played down. The last thing we want is to have other faculties and schools repatriating Math and Stat courses home. That would surely be the signal for the end for many Math & Stat departments across Canada.

  3. Brian Merchant says:

    My advisor recently shared an article with me that is highly relevant: The elephant in the room: Advertising science as a driver of economic growth is a long-term losing strategy (DOI: 10.15252/embr.201439824)

    I am not sure if it answers any questions, but perhaps just provides some further food for thought. Anyway, I’d like to point out the contrast between how “sustainability” as used in the article I linked to, vs. “sustainability” as Dickeson uses it.

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