Deep breath. In the midst of the chaos and distress caused by the most recent budget, let us stop and ask, again: What is at stake? Who is the University for? And by “University” I mean, not just the University of Alberta, but universities in general. Let us reflect for a moment on the different actors trying to impose their answers to these questions.
The actor that has seized the initiative at present is a government that was elected thanks to an unrepresentative electoral system, and — within that system — by only about 24 per cent of the eligible electorate. Various remarks made by the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education in recent weeks suggest that this party’s agenda is not based on careful research and consultation about either the needs of the universities or the needs of Alberta’s people. Shall we, then, allow the government to dismantle programs that were painstakingly created, disregard the qualifications and experience of those who have shaped the province’s academic programs, and reallocate priorities in ways that run counter to the needs of future generations?
The University will always be about more than the ideologically-driven pipe dream of one politician, one management guru, or one political party. Instead of trying to respond to, or accommodate, irrational and short-sighted political agendas, perhaps we should draw in our energy and reflect upon our own vision of, and for, the University. This is what we, as citizens, need to define together, and protect, because we understand that the University is a resource — a gift — that we hold in trust for future generations. Post-secondary education is the foundation of what this province will become, and could become. It does not belong to one leader, one set of administrators, one Faculty, or one political party. It belongs to all the people, and future generations are going to need the very best research, education, deliberation, and citizenship that we can offer. Professors, given their roles in the institution, are the primary carriers of this long-term, societal vision. Notably, the professoriate is the one constituency that has been completely excluded from the government’s decision-making about post-secondary education.
We need to protect the conditions to do this important work. Those conditions include our independence from private, particular interests, however well-endowed they may be. They include our independence from political rule, difficult though this is to defend in a de facto one-party state. If the legal foundation for such independence does not exist, we must fight for it. If it is being abused, or eroded, we must defend it. Perhaps a formula for stable, predictable funding of post-secondary education needs to be constitutionalized, to prevent governments from using budgetary blackmail to achieve their short-term goals. We cannot allow governments to do to the universities what they have done to their own scientists and policy experts. This is a never-ending struggle, because governments and private sector actors will always want to reshape research and education to their liking. We must focus on what is critical to defend and take the initiative to defend it, because each of these battles paves the path of the future.
Here is a point that we can, and should turn around: The current PC government wishes to depict the professoriate as defenders of the status quo because of self-interest and inertia. On the contrary, it is the government’s agenda that seeks to entrench us in a socially and environmentally unsustainable status quo that privileges particular interests over the public good — that indeed confuses the two. We are the defenders of an institution built to serve the public good, even if diverse views exist about what that means and how we should best allocate our resources. Every voice in the University must insist upon our autonomy, as a community, to have that conversation and to set our goals free of political coercion. And every voice should defend the value and necessity of including every other member of the community equally in that conversation. We will be united on this, or we will be defeated.