Science Exceptionalism: “Don’t Cut the Strengths” (Dean of Science Jonathan Schaeffer, Town Hall, 27 March 2013)

At yesterday’s Town Hall for the Faculty of Science, Dean Jonathan Schaeffer declared that in light of the Government of Alberta’s declarations that it wants a 7.2% cut to the budget of the University of Alberta for 2013-2014 “there’s a cut-throat competition between Deans right now.” There are three faculties in his view that need not, however, worry about the bloodbath about to take place if the Government of Alberta is not compelled, over the next two weeks, to see the irrationality of its decisions in regard to the funding of the public sector, including postsecondary education. Shall we all guess which of the faculties Schaeffer would have safeguarded against the bloodletting? “Medicine, Engineering, and Science,” Schaeffer declared, “though not in that order.”

Last year, those of us standing up against the devastating cuts to the Faculty of Arts that saw us lose so many of our support staff were told repeatedly that we were not to speak of the virtues of the Faculty of Arts for this was to indulge in “Arts Exceptionalism.” Well, look where that got us. And where is it going to get us now when the Dean of Science can so blithely say “what may be politically incorrect”: that the exceptional Science is to be spared from the vertical cuts imposed on other faculties? Hear him make this declaration for yourself at about the 48-minute mark on the Science Town Hall video, which is here: “If you’re going to cut, don’t cut the strengths, don’t hurt the faculties that are making the University of Alberta’s reputation what it is.”

Apparently, Dean Schaeffer thinks it is perfectly acceptable to ask other faculties to offer up their throats to the butcher’s knife — and declaring that “across the board cuts are not acceptable,” yesterday he urged the Central Administration to proceed to that slaughter as soon as possible. 

The charge of “Arts exceptionalism” was totally unjust when it was levelled at those of us defending the Arts last year. All we were doing was explaining what those of us in the Faculty of Arts do, and why it is of such immense cultural value. The charge of “exceptionalism” sticks fairly and firmly, however, to what Dean Schaeffer did — without apologies — so publicly yesterday.  If Central Administration heeds his argument, look to see other Faculties carved up. For about a minute later in the Town Hall, Schaeffer explained what has been asked of the Deans: “We’ve been tasked to come up with scenarios that involve cuts of 20%.” Now things could not be clearer. Deans have been “tasked” to work within such a scenario, in what President Samarasekera has declared a “thought challenge,” so that some faculties can be put through cuts of that magnitude while the other, exceptional ones, are — as Schaeffer urges — spared.

The gauntlet could not have been more dramatically thrown. Can our Dean pick it up — without indulging in the same divisive activities? Why is there any need for the throat-cutting of our fellow Faculties here? We should all be standing up for the University as a public good — and standing up for all parts of it without arguing that we must wrest “opportunity” from “crisis” around notions of “excellence.” Has none of our Central Administration read Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996)? Yes, the University is quite clearly, as Schaeffer declared yesterday, at a crossroads. But there is no need for us to turn that crossroads into a site at which siblings murder one another. The Government of Alberta has made a decision that will devastate Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. Let us compel them to reverse it.

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7 Responses to Science Exceptionalism: “Don’t Cut the Strengths” (Dean of Science Jonathan Schaeffer, Town Hall, 27 March 2013)

  1. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Thanks for this. The approach which Cressida in her earlier post so grimly but aptly labeled the “do it to Julia!” reaction, is not just disheartening but bound to fail. It makes me think of boaters trying to scoop water out from under others’ boats and pour it under their own in a frantic effort to get a lift at low tide!

  2. Laurie Adkin says:

    Yes, it is distressing to hear this, especially when some of us in the Arts have made repeated overtures to our colleagues in Sciences, appreciating and trying to build interdisciplinarity, offering and asking for solidarity. We share a great deal, including our defence of intellectually-and socially-driven research and the importance of sharing of our research with the public.

    I cannot understand why the Deans don’t consult one another, instead of leaping on their horses and riding off in all directions like cowboys defending their branded herds. (Sorry for that analogy–obviously I’ve been living in Alberta too long.) Why don’t they see that each would have stronger leverage vis-a-vis the government if all joined together to produce a common response? When we have department v. department, faculty v. faculty, students v. faculty, school v. school, who wins? Tell me, Dean Schaeffer, who wins?

    I can tell you who “won” in the 1990s, when academic leaders fell for the government’s divide and conquer politics. We must work together, and, this time, we must call their bluff.

    The Provincial government funds about 60 per cent of our budget, and that is its leverage over the universities. What would happen if we (all of us) said “No” to the chaotic, irrational restructuring the government is now ‘proposing’? (The government doesn’t even know what it is proposing; it is asking the presidents to come up with the proposals!) What will they do? De-fund the PSE sector? Really? And what will they do if we say “Yes, we’ll try to figure out what you want and do it for you”? Reward us with substantial budget increases? Really?

    There is nothing for it, Dean Schaeffer; we must work together — all of us who are willing to identify the values we share, and the future post-secondary system we want to build. No bolting from the stables. Pick up the phones, Deans. Talk to each other. We’re counting on you.

  3. Laurie Adkin says:

    One further thought: PSE funding is not the private booty of the Conservative Party to bestow or withhold as it sees fit. This is the public’s money, collected to finance public goods.

  4. Makere Stewart-Harawira says:

    The point is, though, that at least according to the Dean of Education, the Deans HAVE been meeting collectively. How then to make sense of this? Then again is this not the same Dean who immediately began asking his faculty members to identify which of their colleagues they considered ‘excellent’? or so the story goes? The over-riding tragedy is the loss of collegiality and solidarity. I do believe, as stated above, that compelling the Govt of Alberta to reverse their decision is the only sane action.

  5. Shelagh campbell says:

    It’s hard to believe that this is not a “feature”, encouraging us to go at each others throats. This is indeed the same Dean, who asked us to identify who was “excellent” among us. Also hard to believe that they haven’t already made up their minds about who will and won’t be voted off the island – it would just be easier for them if we helped do the dirty work. Daddy knows best, after all.

    • Makere Stewart-Harawira says:

      @shelagh, I’m sure that they have made up their minds.. A a recent meeting of another group altogether where this was not, in fact, under discussion, the VP research stated that whole programs would be going. What else to make of that?

  6. Laurie Adkin says:

    Thinking about Dean Schaeffer’s comments further, one wonders what his ranking of excellent faculties means for ALES, which also positions itself as a sciences faculty. Perhaps ALES is protected in this funding environment by its ties to forestry, agribusiness, and the resource sector in general. I wonder if there is talk of a merger here. (I wonder about a lot of things!)

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