“What did Indira say?”: The President’s Town Hall, 19 April 2013

I am going to keep this short. Last Friday’s Presidential Town Hall was too depressing to report on at length.

In the face of devastating cuts to the University we are told to cling to “Excellence” for comfort. I really must send the President a copy of Bill Readings’ 1996 book The University in Ruins (Harvard UP) so that she may read there his thoughts — published posthumously — on how the rhetoric of “Excellence” was going to kill the contemporary university.

Here are the other 7 points that I can bear to share.

#1: The Board and Administration had to go to Banff because they have to choose the next President. They must be able to have their conversations “in an appropriate setting.” (Who knew that altitudes higher than that of the high-level bridge are necessary to the taking of “high-level” decisions? And isn’t the choosing of the University’s president a process in which the entire University community is supposed to be involved? And not after the fact?)

#2: At the Banff retreat, Dean Jonathan Schaeffer, who has publicly declared his idea of which faculties constitute the “strengths” of the University and should therefore be spared from cuts, was permitted to give a presentation to the Board of Governors on how MOOCs (massive open on-line courses) will “enrich” postsecondary education. There was no indication that the Board of Governors had any opportunity to hear other sides of this complex issue, or, indeed, that any other Dean had the privilege of making a presentation. Let us hope that the Board has the wisdom not to make the mistake of listening to only one party on this question — especially one on public record with his commitment to a divisive approach to the challenges before the University.

#3: Stephen Toope, President of the University of British Columbia, who has UBC striding confidently towards the goal that President Samarasekera declared for the University of Alberta — “Top 20 by 2020” — has told the President that she should be hopeful that the University of Alberta will remain, despite the province’s cuts, a world-class institution. We are to be comforted by the fact that the President is comforted by President Toope’s remarks. I wonder if anyone reminded Toope of the underfunding to which the University of Alberta has already been subject for the last several years, and the effects this has had on the University’s place in the world rankings. 

#4: At the meeting with Lukaszuk on April 11th, the presidents of the province’s postsecondary institutions learned that the Government wishes to reopen the Postsecondary Learning Act. We were given no further information about this. Presumably, the Government wishes to reopen the Act for reasons other than to give faculty in the province the right to strike. Look for it to seek ways to legislate control over the salaries of academic staff. Or perhaps the Government is fantasizing about following the state legislature of California in certain fantastical legislative propositions involving the so-called “enrichments” of education through MOOCs.

#5: Last year, the President informed us that we were to leave everything to her “quiet advocacy” and all would be well. This year, we were informed that we are not allowed to talk about “administrative bloat.” There is no fat in the system. If we keep talking about this, it encourages the Minister to cut us. In the question period, a colleague suggested that the President consider that it was her own talk of making the University “stronger” through “vertical cuts” that may have led and continue to lead the Minister to believe that he can deliver devastating cuts to Alberta’s postsecondary educations without doing any harm. Our colleague then pressed: Were academic staff at the University of Alberta free to say what they wanted on the various difficulties before the University? Yes, of course.

#6: In one of the first decisions that the Administration has taken to protect the Excellence of the institution it has chosen to cut the budget for the library’s collections. Last year, Provost Carl Amrhein characterized the library as the “laboratory” of the Humanities and the Arts in his attempt to assure the Faculty of Arts that it receives funding comparable to STEM faculties.

#7: In response to the question of whether the Humanities were going to survive at the University of Alberta, or whether this is an institution that will be reduced to schools of Science, Engineering, and Business, President Samarasekera responded that the Administration will be looking at “programs where enrolment is low,” and “there is no question we have to look at Quality and Excellence.” It is the Deans, however, who will have to declare what is Excellent and what is not.

#8: The President of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) reminded the President that the Government has been consistently decreasing its support for us, and that we have had years of zero increases to our funding. She noted that we are a public university for the public good, and wanted to know how the Administration planned to consult with the Academic Staff as its decision-making processes unfolded. The answer: “We have good processes, Donna.” It seems the President has not been informed about the concerns about the current processes of collegial governance brought forward to the Board of Governors by the Association of Academic Staff at a meeting earlier this semester. As Donna Wilson went on to suggest, these are “extraordinary times”; with the threat of academic reorganization under Article 32 of the Collective Agreement, processes of consultation and collegial governance should be intensified and enhanced.

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3 Responses to “What did Indira say?”: The President’s Town Hall, 19 April 2013

  1. Julie Rak says:

    Siggggghhhhh. Thanks Faithful Reporter.

  2. MOOCmania is probably still a small part…we’ll need a mixture of forms of learning,

  3. Laurie Adkin says:

    What Julie said. Thank-you, Carolyn.

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