Great Class, Dr. Samarasekera! (Guest Post by John Considine, Professor, English & Film Studies)

The scandal of overpaid administrators does not only affect the University of Alberta. There are university presidents across North America whose salary and benefits come to a million dollars a year and more. How might the University of Alberta show leadership in this sorry situation? Now that “Leadership College” has become Dr Samarasekera’s favourite fantasy rather than “Top Twenty by 2020,” perhaps her colleagues might be allowed to fantasize about what leadership means too. Let’s make this a two-part fantasy.

Part One is obvious: this university is crying out for a rule that no member of university staff be paid more than the premier of the province of Alberta. Nobody believes that running the university is more demanding than running the province. Is the presidency of the university so repulsive a job that it has to be sweetened with yearly millions? If a person has to be paid a million dollars a year to overcome his revulsion at the thought of running a university, then he had better not do it.

Part Two is less obvious, but it starts from an obvious point: that there are two kinds of people in a university. There are people who teach and learn (all learners are also at work teaching their peers, which is why we ask them to meet with each other in classrooms, and all teachers are also at work learning, which is what makes the difference between a teacher and a television set). There are also support staff, who are there to facilitate teaching and learning. Our support staff do a great job, and we need them very much, but teaching and learning are the vital part of the university.

Now, is Dr. Samarasekera a teacher? She has a teaching qualification, which is why she has the title Dr., and she used to teach before she came here. But I don’t see her name on the list of professors in the Faculty of Engineering, and I don’t see her Friday messages beginning with a report of the week’s teaching. Could she combine teaching and the presidency? Yes of course; Shirley Tilghman did at Princeton. She was a university president and also a professor of biology (likewise, her provost, now her successor, was a professor, active in teaching). She didn’t settle for a job on the support staff of her university: and her university didn’t have to put up with a member of the support staff in the top job. So, Part Two of my fantasy: every administrative position which is held by a qualified teacher must be so designed that it permits, and requires, teaching. A president who was an active teacher, and as such a member of a community of teachers, might find it easier to understand that her income should be in line with that of her colleagues in that community; she might find it easier to understand that at a healthy university, the most important leadership happens in the classroom; she might even notice that the leadership happening in her classroom is often coming from her students.

So, will we advertise for our next president with the stipulation that she or he should be paid no more than the premier of the province, and that she or he should be a professor who continues to teach during the presidency? No, probably not, and that’s a pity. Because if we did, we might find ourselves with a president of whom we could be rather proud.

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5 Responses to Great Class, Dr. Samarasekera! (Guest Post by John Considine, Professor, English & Film Studies)

  1. Brad Bucknell says:

    John makes some very valid points here. I was thinking that perhaps we should be assured that a future president would be able to at least RETURN to the classroom after his/ her tenure in the job. So, this would require some real, ongoing sense of what the university is, or should be.

    This would, of course, be a crucial change in the life of the professional administrative class. However, as John suggests, such a change might be a very good thing.

  2. Julie Rak says:

    Another example is Seha Tinic, currently President of Koc University in Turkey, formerly of the University of Alberta and many other universities. He is a major researcher in the area of Business and Finance. Before going to Koc, he held high administrative posts at the U. of Texas at Austin, and he always insisted on teaching a class, so that he would remain connected to the core concerns of his institution. He still does.

  3. Arts Squared says:

    The problem about which John writes is dramatically exemplified for me in a statement of President Samarasekera’s in one of her Friday bulletins. As she announced that Colleen Skidmore, one of several Vice-Provosts, would be leaving her position in the Administration, President Samarasekera declared that Dr. Skidmore had expressed her desire to “return to the academy.” In the Provost’s related announcement on Colloquy, the phrase “returning to the academy” is in bold. A week later, the University of Alberta Press announced that Dr. Skidmore would be joining them as “Scholar-in-Residence.”

    How striking that both the President and the Provost should imagine the “academy” as an entity or place apart from that occupied by those in “Central.” Do *any* of the academics in “Central” continue to teach? Where did this moniker, “Central,” come from, anyway? And how is it that those in “Central,” who may no longer be active researchers and teachers and perhaps never be so again, are taking all of the key decisions for “the academy” at the University of Alberta?

  4. Paul Martin says:

    Those at the U of A might be interested to know that at MacEwan our president, David Atkinson, insists on teaching a course every year. In his first semester at MacEwan he taught a first-year Intro to Literature course. This year, he’s teaching a course on the Victorian novel. U of A is a bigger institution, but I don’t see why the president there couldn’t teach a course from time to time.

    • Brad Bucknell says:

      It might also end the fantasies of administrators if they knew going in to their appointments that their terms would be limited: four years a term, and no more than two terms. This would be a tough gap in terms of research perhaps, but likely not for teaching. One eye would always have to be kept on the place which is “back” there in the “academy.”

      The argument against this, made my administrators, would be that such a policy would not be attractive to “the best people.”

      Perhaps. Or it might actually be a way of keeping the best researchers and teachers in the “academy,” instead of on the road to the next administrative job.

      It’s a thought.

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