No one wants to hear an argument for the “exceptional difficulties” or “special needs” of the Arts Faculty in the current budget crisis at the University of Alberta. Certainly not me. There is nothing “exceptional” about the role of the Arts disciplines in the university, or their needs for funding. On the contrary, the Arts disciplines, like Education, or natural sciences, are very clearly positioned within the core raison d’être of the university: to serve the public interest. What is “exceptional” is what has happened to the rest of the university – and possibly to the mindset of its chief administrators – in the last two decades.
Squeezed by government underfunding, universities – like other public services – have tried to raise revenue in two ways. The first is by increasing students’ fees. The negative consequences of this strategy (student indebtedness, inaccessibility of higher education for many) are well known. For some reason, the public seems to be more accepting of the privatization of education at the post-secondary level than it is of privatization of elementary and secondary levels, but they are all public goods that should be accessible to all citizens (with academic criteria for university admission).
A second means of generating revenue is to commodify what universities “produce.” University administrations and governments promote (with incentives and investment) academic partnerships with private business to “bring to market” the products of university research. If the professional schools (like engineering, forestry, pharmacy, or agriculture) are more “successful” than Arts programs in attracting corporate sponsors (and federal and provincial research and endowment funding) for their facilities and research, it is because their products and services are more marketable. Put another way, within the current model of privatization of university funding and of the interests that universities serve, the Arts programs are the most disadvantaged because they produce the least commodifiable goods. Our products are socially useful, but private market actors don’t want to buy them. Within this model, we are “exceptional,” but within the traditional understanding of what a university is for, we are the norm.
Researchers in the more marketable schools pay a cost for their increasing reliance upon corporate sponsorship and conformity with the market-driven logic of government grant funding, and that is loss of autonomy–lost opportunities to direct research according to knowledge-driven or social criteria. The public loses, too, as publicly-funded research becomes less accessible and less responsive to public interests. No sector of the university should be made beholden to private interests or charity in order to sustain its operating expenses or to fund its research. This undermines what universities are for, which is to serve the public good.
Particular governments have their own ideas, of course, about what constitutes the public good, and they hold the purse strings. Governments driven by neo-liberal agendas have worked hard, over several decades, to blur the boundary between public and private interests—to convince the public that whatever is good for business is good for society as a whole, and, moreover, that governments should subsidize corporate research while allowing the profits thereby generated to be privately accumulated. Some units of universities function today almost as publicly-subsidized research laboratories for the private sector.
University budgets have been restructured to prioritize investment in the infrastructure needed to support prestigious NSERC Chairs and other types of endowed positions. Those resources – along with the “market supplements” paid to faculty in the professional schools—are redirected from other areas of research or other sectors of the university. When governments don’t choose to “endow” all faculties equally, an environment of competition for those resources—a situation of winners and losers—is created.
The sectors of the university that are of little interest to corporations (e.g., because they do not train their professional workforces, develop technologies to advance resource exploitation, produce patentable products, or provide other corporate services) have been spared the ethical burdens that have been imposed upon researchers in the professional schools, and, to some extent, in the sciences. Simply put, large corporations (or even small ones) do not come knocking on our doors with offers to fund our research or to make donations to the construction of new buildings.
Conservative governments see little reason, really, to fund the Arts, since we don’t appear to advance the growth of the private sector of the economy. Moreover, we are often the critics of government policies, so why pay the salaries of one’s critics? For the most part, the Arts remain positioned squarely on the “public” side of the public/private boundary, and –even more irritatingly for neo-liberals—doggedly insist upon the existence and the importance of such a boundary.
That Conservative governments do not want to finance public goods–including the work of artists or philosophers or policy critics–should not surprise anyone. But those who believe in the importance of the public university certainly do expect their own representatives to comprehend the exceptional budgetary pressures facing the Arts. We expect them to defend the public university and the role of the Arts within it.
It is not what the Arts do that is “exceptional,” but the distortion of the functioning of other sectors of the university by market-driven criteria. The only way to defend the value of the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts is to make the case – unflinchingly and indefatigably—that the primary purpose of the research and teaching carried out in the university is to serve the public good. It is not the responsibility of governments to subsidize research that benefits only private interests, including those of large corporations that can fund their own research. And while students, professors, and the communities to which they are connected may argue about what kinds of research or curricula serve the public interest, directly or indirectly, immediately, or in the future, it is probably best that these debates take place free of the coercion and disciplining that are imposed by funding considerations.
The university’s top administrators seem to be saying (or rather, saying by their silence) that “Arts exceptionalism” is not an argument they can make to the provincial government (to secure more funding for the Arts) because of the government’s ideological orientation. But this should not mean acquiescing to the Arts becoming a ghettoized sector of the university whose existence is politely not mentioned when having cocktails with members of the provincial cabinet. Instead, it is time to say, clearly and publicly: “We are all the Arts.”
Our chief representatives need to make common cause with other educational institutions across the province. Internally, they need to mobilize other sectors of the university to express their solidarity with the Arts. Administrators and Deans need to do more to promote interdisciplinarity and dialogue among faculties. We all need to say no to government funding strategies that pit one sector of the university against another. We need to get out of our silos and learn about one another’s ways of thinking and working. All levels of governance at the university need to communicate actively, directly, and continually with the public about our raison d’être. The future of the university (and of much else) depends upon the choices we make now.