The Stanford Challenge for Doug Goss

In an article by Sheila Pratt published in today’s Journal, “No challenge too big for new U of A board of governors chairman,” the University’s new Board chair Doug Goss defines the University of Alberta as an institution that must prove to its “stakeholders” — “taxpayers, industry, and students” — that their investment in it is worth it.

Mr. Goss is reported as saying that he won’t be asking the government to increase the funding for the University because that would be the “easy” solution. He prefers to pursue the “best” solution in the form of private funding. 

Surely the members of our Administration can confirm that there is nothing “easy” about securing funding from the Government of Alberta. But even if it were easy — and would that it were! — on what basis does Mr. Goss believe that the “best” solution lies elsewhere? Where is the understanding of the public university as a public good that should — for vital reasons — be funded from the public purse? And where the evidence of the capacity to defend and nurture it as such? 

In the course of his reported remarks, Mr. Goss says that he takes Stanford as a model to emulate.

Here are two ironies worth noting in regard to Mr. Goss’s invoking of Stanford as a model. The first is especially ironic given the University’s pursuit of models in which to bring down faculty salaries.

First, if you take a look at Stanford’s budget documents for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, you will find clear statements in them about the university’s commitment to increasing its expenditures on salaries.

The 2011-2012 budget plan specifies the commitment of Stanford’s administration to the enhancement of the university’s merit scheme.

Stanford, a private university, understands something vital: that the key investment of a university, whose core work is teaching and research, is in those who do that work, its faculty, and moreover the faculty — all of them! — are of value whether or not their research proves of immediate value to “stakeholders.” In the latest world university rankings, Stanford ranked #1 in the world for Arts.

Second, Stanford has not only managed its way successfully through the crisis of the last few years it is now in the position of being able to declare itself in possession of a surplus. How has it managed this? Well, it has been immensely successful in “The Stanford Challenge” of the last few years in raising money from alumni and private sources. But it may very well have been so successful in this regard because of the way it defines itself as an institution, which is not as “a top-flight campus surrounded by businesses attracted by the highly trained, globally competitive workforce coming out of the university” — though it is certainly true that Stanford is that — but as one that by standing up for public universities, and public funding of academic research, stands up for the Academy as a whole.

Consider these statements, for example, from Stanford’s President John Hennessy, in the spring of 2010, after the university had taken the key decisions from which it is currently reaping the benefits:

“Higher education in this country has been fortunate since the end of the Second World War to get a great deal of support for its research mission from the federal government,” he said. “It’s been a mission that has shown a particularly enlightened and largely bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle over the years. And obviously the U.S. leads in many fields of research directly because of this support.”

The report of Hennessy’s remarks in The Stanford Daily (2 July 2010) continues:

If and when decreases occur in the United States’ discretionary spending to reduce the country’s long-term deficits, Hennessy said he believed that “there will be more pressure on higher education than ever” to protect and preserve research funding. He also warned of wider negative effects than those faced by institutions like Stanford.

“Should that happen, not only would it damage the research leadership we have had in U.S. universities, but also in the long term, it will damage economic growth in this country and put us into a spiral that will be quite unfortunate.”

 . . .

 Economic pressures will also come to bear on public universities in upcoming years through cuts to many state budgets, and Hennessy said that negative effects on institutions like UC-Berkeley will have wide detrimental effects.

“The U.S. will be poorer, California will be poorer, the Bay Area will be poorer, institutions like Stanford will be poorer if the long-term health of a great public system like the UC system continues to be assailed and the quality of that institution goes down,” Hennessy said. “It will hurt all of us in the long term.”

There we go: the president of a university that is unquestionably one of the best in the world construing the Academy as an integrated system in which it behoves even the leaders of private universities to stand up for public funding of public universities. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Mr. Goss insisted that the Board of Governors and the Administration take that as the “challenge” that is neither “too big” for him nor too “easy” for the University?


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2 Responses to The Stanford Challenge for Doug Goss

  1. Brad Bucknell says:

    Has this letter been sent to the Journal in response to its article? It should be.

  2. Carolyn Sale says:

    My guess is the Journal would not publish it, as it’s too long for their purposes and quotes material from elsewhere at length. But thanks for the thought!

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