On Making the “Reality” of Our Own Choosing: President Samarasekera’s Town Hall (16 November 2012)

At her Town Hall in the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy’s L1-490 last Friday, President Samarasekera seemed to suggest that the University of Alberta must cede to the “new reality” that prevails elsewhere — the “reality” that public universities no longer receive significant or their primary funding from government. This striking aspect of President Samarasekera’s remarks last Friday has as yet received no public commentary. (Sheila Pratt’s article for the Edmonton Journal focuses on another important aspect of President Samarasekera’s presentation, the claim that the University needs to admit an increased number of foreign students in order to meet the province’s “labour market” demands.)

“Cash in the Door”

As it stands, as we all know and as President Samarasekera reiterated in her presentation, Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government has committed to furnishing us with only half of what we need by way of funding increases to sustain the University of Alberta over the next three years: a 2% increase rather than the 4% we require. And so the various faculties at the University are to be put through yet another round of cuts, and the Renaissance Committee is to go about its work of addressing the “current underlying academic compensation pressures” at the University, with its top mandate (in President Samarasekera’s view, as presented on Friday) the alteration of FEC processes (that is, the processes through which faculty receive their merit pay and tenure and promotion). At the Town Hall, President Samarasekera assured the University of Alberta community that she will keep “pounding away” for the remaining two years of her time in the University’s most important office to secure from the government what is needed by way of funding. But in the meantime she said we “must get cash in the door,” cash that will, she urged, make us “less dependent on the vagaries of government funding.” This “cash” is to come from what she called (in response to a question from me) “marginal resources”:

We have to look at marginal resources to build excellence that doesn’t come from government. Governments are not going to be in the long-term the sources of funding to do those kinds of things that provide our students with the best experience and our faculty with the best work environment. That’s the new reality. And I look at universities not across the country but around the world, for whom — particularly in the U.S. — for whom state funding is nowhere near 80%. They’re lucky if they get 10% from the state. This is a very rapidly changing global landscape. [A sound cloud of President Samarasekera’s remarks is here.]

The “New Reality”

The “new reality” to which President Samarasekera referred has been in the works for well over thirty years in places where University administrations and state or provincial electorates have not maintained their commitment to financing public universities from the public purse. It would, indeed, however, create a “new reality” for us, at an institution that is, as it stands, one of the best funded public universities in North America, to take any such “reality” as a reason to reduce our reliance upon the “vagaries” of “government funding.” 

Why would we want to make this “reality” our own? Surely the last thing we should do in a province that, as President Samarasekera noted in her Saturday Op-Ed in the Edmonton Journal, has one of the “fastest growing economies in the western world,” is cast our dependence on public funding as a problem in order to mould ourselves to an unfortunate state of affairs that prevails elsewhere, according to the premise that “governments are not going to be in the long-term the sources of the [necessary] funding.” (Why not?)

The degree of funding that we receive from the provincial government is a strength — a distinct benefit to our character as a public university — for it gives us a crucial autonomy from which to determine for ourselves our research agendas and how they might serve the public good. Let us not — on the assumption that we are existing in a state of “crisis” — transform this strength into a weakness. Our “excellence” must not be purchased at the expense of our autonomy, for then we risk the loss of a public university to private interests.

Are we in an unfortunate situation, with Alison Redford’s government having committed to giving us only half of what we require to sustain the University of Alberta at its current levels of operation for the next three years? Yes. Can we benefit from an infusion of funds from what President Samarasekera referred to as “marginal resources”? Sure — if we take care in ensuring that such funds come to us in a way that cannot affect the autonomy of our research agendas and — further to the concern that I raised at the Town Hall — that any such funds are managed as part of a vision of the institution that ensures an equitable distribution of resources across faculties. Should we, however, be willing to concede to the idea there is some “new reality” prevailing elsewhere that we should mirror by agreeing to reduce our dependence upon government funding? Absolutely not!

And at the very least if we are to turn to sources of private funding to “get cash in the door,” let this money be money that is in excess of what we need to sustain our operations. For when we concede to taking private or corporate funds to meet needs or ambitions that the provincial government will not fund we concede to letting forces other than the public in toto determine the character of the institution and the work that it does.

I am of course not saying anything new. But it seems especially worth saying in light of Friday’s Town Hall. Especially when there are other “realities” to which we might turn for inspiration at the moment.

“Yes” on Proposition 30

On November 6th, the State of California voted “yes” on Proposition 30, which called for Californians to approve an “increase to personal income taxes on high-income taxpayers for seven years and sales taxes for four years.” As the official guide for the Proposition noted, “Prop. 30 ask[ed] the wealthiest to temporarily pay more to prevent deep school cuts, provide billions in new education funding, guarantee local public safety and help balance the state budget.”

When Californians voted “yes” on this Proposition, they took the decision that the funds for their public education system were to come from the wealthy but in such a way that they were routed through the public coffers. This is one way to get “cash in the door” of post-secondary education institutions without making them dependent upon the “vagaries” of private funding. This is also a development that will help alter the “reality” to which President Samarasekera was referring, at least in California (and as California goes, so goes the world).

Council for the Defence of British Universities

This last week also brought a powerful development in the UK, with the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

Led by the early modern historian Keith Thomas (All Souls College, Oxford) and astrophysicist Martin Rees (Trinity College, Cambridge), the Council for the Defence of British Universities aims to organize British academics to articulate for themselves the values that ought to be shaping the contemporary university in the UK. Their manifesto, published in the Times Higher Education Supplement last week, declares that to meet its “core principle” of advancing university education in the UK for “the public benefit,” the Council will “defend . . . British universities as places where students can develop their capacities to the full, where research and scholarship are pursued at the highest level, and where intellectual activity can be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit.” To this end it will (amongst other things) “maintain the principle of institutional autonomy, . . . encourage academic self-government and . . . ensure that the function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research.” The Council will certainly not accept the premise that funding for public universities is to come from sources other than the government; it aims, rather, to take back academic control over the academy, and, more specifically, to take back, as a matter of collegial governance, control over how government funds are to be spent.

If we are to look for models from elsewhere, then, why don’t we seek models that will permit the University of Alberta, barely a hundred years old, to seize the real opportunity before it: the opportunity to define itself as one of the world’s best public universities. We certainly need “cash in the door” — but that cash needs to flow to us primarily from one source, the government. Only then we will be in a position to shape our own reality, and make this institution a model for others to behold.

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One Response to On Making the “Reality” of Our Own Choosing: President Samarasekera’s Town Hall (16 November 2012)

  1. Thanks for your timely and eloquent commentary. The British academic group and manifesto seems promising. Here in Canada, the discontent in the Arts is matched by the scientists who have been so directly affected by targeted research funding and the destruction of research institutes etc. In response to federal initiatives and “the death of evidence,” Canadian scientists have been marching in the streets. Perhaps encouraging a multidisciplinary unified national response might be helpful? Otherwise what is to be done?

    A recent announcement about “branding” UofC with designer research areas is telling. Only one of five targeted subject area seems directly oriented to a Faculty of Arts: “Human dynamics in a changing world: Smart and Secure Cities, Societies and Cultures” – though “smart secure cities” smacks of a Taser Chair. http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/utoday/july12-2012/plan

    Historian Keith Thomas writes in the Times Higher Education article: “I think that their policies constitute a serious threat to some crucial academic values and believe that only an organisation such as the Council for the Defence of British Universities, drawing potentially on a mass membership, transcending party political loyalties and unencumbered by affiliation to any particular academic institution, can hope to reverse the trend.”

    And later Thomas comments on the compromised upper administrators of universities: “Vice-chancellors, whose concerns are overwhelmingly financial, are understandably nervous about alienating their paymasters by stepping out of line. Their usual reaction to any new measure, however damaging, is not to oppose it but to ask how it can best be turned to local advantage. The research excellence framework, for example, has some notoriously undesirable features. But because it seems likely to bring them more money, the heads of the leading “research universities” will support it, regardless of its intellectual consequences. The others, like unsuccessful football clubs, set about buying in scholarly “stars” from elsewhere to compete in the REF. They also encourage their academic staff to direct their energies away from teaching into cobbling together research projects, the main object of which is less to advance their subject than to secure outside funding. It is revealing that in recruiting its founding members, the council has found that current vice-chancellors are reluctant to get involved whereas former university leaders sign up with alacrity.”

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