“the fracked university” and other necessary nonfictions: notes on a talk by Len Findlay

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image from Gasland, the movie

About fifty AAS:UA members (Association of Academic Staff  University of Alberta) attended Dr. Len Findlay’s “piss and vinegar” talk (his words) on a recent May afternoon. This fraction of the four thousand plus membership didn’t fill the large theatre, but my appeal to attendance is no more than an ironic pause to reflect not only on our frantic disciplined pace but on our collective demoralization, topics investigated by our speaker.  Findlay, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Chair of the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT),  ended his talk by inviting us to consider the contributions of the indigenous Idle No More and Quebec student’s Red Square free-tuition movements.

“The anxious academy means the death of pleasure,” announced Findlay reminding us about the changing university and the tendency to encounter bitter competition over collegial well-being in a new world of academic stars and scarce resources. He voiced the collective “metastatic self-loathing and performance anxiety across the faculty” and the extraordinary demands for increased productivity where nothing is ever enough. He spoke of the discourse of marketplace. And today’s model of student consumer shopping for grades and credentials came to mind. He also advised the faculty members vulnerable to corporate expectations to not confuse filling out the ever-changing SSHRC electronic cv with living a life. “We need a life as well as a cv,” he urged us.”Recover your swagger.”

When Findlay tracked the growth of the neoliberal university and Canadian state,  I became a time traveller reflecting on how dystopian the academy would appear to my earlier academic self who remembers Findlay’s talks from thirty years ago, experienced first as a graduate student and then as a faculty member always uplifted by his eloquent hilarity, piercing wit, and spirited critiques. Upon reflection, I feel most distressed that my junior colleagues, the diminishing numbers on tenure-track and the increasing contingent of limited-term and temporary intellectual labourers, will never experience a university workplace that, while not ideal, offered possibilities of genuine collaboration and collective engagement beyond today’s idealized and individualized competitive trajectories in our increasingly corporatized education machine. The “fracked university”

The violence and resource economy of Findlay’s image of  “the fracked university” seemed especially fitting here in Petrostate Alberta where the government sucked post-secondary funds out of twenty-six institutions across the province only to reinject money on their terms under the homogenizing umbrella of a master narrative called “Campus Alberta” that intentionally confused varieties of education from technical training to liberal studies. Findlay described “The Lukaszuk” as a magic sleight of hand that makes theft look like a gift. Remember that long winter, spring, and summer of our discontent when the government eviscerated post-secondary education of $147 million – almost a third of it from the University of Alberta – only to advocate skills training and cherry pick where to reinsert the money: first $42 million was allocated for a new University of Calgary Engineering building along with other targeted reinvestment that challenged the autonomy of post-secondary institutions. Shortly thereafter, UofA’s fundraising began for a Leadership Institute named after a PC Premier, an initiative that has become the mysterious legacy of our university President.

Recent conversations by the Provost about the possibility of creating American-style autonomous colleges (Read: the Leadership Institute) point to how corporate funding can be funnelled into specialized areas in lieu of generalized operating grants, once again leaving many key areas of the university like the Faculty of Arts struggling in our educational work. Note here also how corporate rather than public interest shapes our educational priorities.

It is no small irony that this high-flying North Saskatchewan River-side Leadership Institute residence results in the destruction of the charming shabby heritage home that housed the Faculty of Arts Parkland Institute, the productive critical space inspired by engaged political economy and the Alberta-wide research network that “exists because of wide-spread concern about rapid changes within Alberta’s and Canada’s political and economic culture…. The language and assumptions of the marketplace have expanded corporate power and challenged the role and ethos of the public sector and the commons.” Director Trevor Harrison explores”Who Controls Knowledge” here. The Parkland Institute, long known to have been a thorn in the side of our President, lost a home and gained two sub-first floor rooms in the Humanities Centre next door.

Our Dream Queen President has for some time been one of the most highly paid university administrators in Canada, moonlighting for years on the board of a Canadian bank and recently appointed to the board of the Canadian corporation Magna International Inc. No matter, the higher she flies, the more money she costs, the more advantageous her reflected glory as we hang onto her gilt coattails. Oxygen thins up here.

The appeal of high salaries in the neoliberal scheme of things was underscored by Findlay. And later while writing this, I looked up Canadian university president salaries. In 2011, the Canadian university administrator with the highest base salary at $1,041,88 went to David Johnson who would be plucked from the University of Western Ontario by the Harper government to the ether heights of the Governor General of Canada. Aside from GG Johnson’s many other excellent qualities, was his top-dog extraordinary salary a decisive prestige factor in the eyes of our federal Prime Minister who operates our country like a CEO managing consumers not citizens?

Drawing on comparative data from the long course of his career, the now retiring CAUT head James Turk concludes that the collective abilities of the Canadian university presidents at this moment of inflated financial compensation add up to less talent.  And in this era of corporatized market inflation, Findlay provides an accounting of the exorbitant costs of internal university senior administrators and the parallel sky-rocketing costs for their external consultants. Reading from one of the consultant publications – a small thin $75 booklet – Findlay illustrated the expensive transformation of snake oil  into banal bullet-points of Canadian-Tire-like “tools” and how-to lists for university improvement. The account reminded me of the way the neoliberal project infects institutions on many continents. Last year Tarak Barkawi wrote a short Al Jazeera article that outlined some effects:

The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic “leaders” to be drawn up into the recurrent task of “reinventing” the university.

Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources – since austerity is always the order of the day – but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under.

One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above.

Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing.

When I posted an earlier version of this article, news broke about the scandalous firing of the University of Saskatchewan Dean Robert Buckingham  Executive Director of the School of Public Health for criticizing the academic plans of senior administrators. Frustrated by months of fruitless internal debate and muzzled Dean Buckingham dared to write a letter to the government “The Silence of the Deans” to protest his muzzling: “Her [the University of Saskatchewan President’s] remarks were to the point: she expected her senior leaders to not ’publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS’; she added that if we did our ‘tenure would be short’.” His concern was the University of Saskatchewan’s new administrative shuffling that reorganized his highly regarded and accredited programme into an administrative area without accreditation. Buckingham’s critiques make good sense and point to Turk’s point that more money poured into costly and expanding senior administration along with their expensive external consultants isn’t reflected in superior decision makers.

But Findlay’s address to the AAS:UA before the Buckingham affair occurred identified some of the problems: “the sad coercions of strategic planning; the venality of internationalization; and imminent intellectual desertification…in non-compliant and/or unprofitable places.” He pointed to the limits of recommendations by the Univeristy of Saskatchewan consultant Robert Dickeson “and his ilk”: “Academic economism and “program prioritization…eat academic value hitherto preserved and producesd as diverse, independent inquiry, distinctive teaching, dissemination and outreach.” And he ended this part of his commentary with the University of Alberta biblical motto  Quaecumque vera “Whatsoever things are true.”

Suffocation. When we ask our administrators how to reallocate funds to support our programs that don’t have Petrostate street cred, our corporate overseers respond with the arrogance of late night TV hucksters. Findlay outlines how university collegial governance has been replaced by presidential declarations that “emanate by fiat.” Here at UofA, we were invited to drift on for a few years into the fantasy world our President where our sacrifices in the pursuit of “excellence” would be worthwhile when we assumed our rightful position as a top-twenty world university by 2020. Sloganeering like “Top 20 in 20/20” endlessly proliferates, in Findlay’s words, “mediating hype and cosmic aspirations.” Nowadays interchangeable publicity brands “insult our intelligence.” Rather than “punching above our weight” as the remarkably strong Canadian prairie public university we have been, the rhetoric of hubris steered us into the shoals of international ranking and we plummeted on some scales.

Though for what it is worth, my Department of English & Film Studies is one of two University of Alberta departments to score very high on some international rankings: #22 of the best of all international university English departments as determined by our peers in one influential ranking system. And we are the second or third top English department in Canada. But even if you succeed as top dog, you may fall prey to the limits of this competitive model of academic ranking, and substitute “culture” in the illusory road race of excellence, a strategy condemned by the late Université de Montréal comparative literature professor Bill Readings in his posthumously published The University in Ruins that published almost two decades ago.

A few months ago, at a sparsely attended public address by the UofA President, the incoming chair of our department Peter Sinnema reminded her that while EFS had done what the UofA proposed and edged towards that 20/20 cosmic height in ranking, we have been decimated in the recent budget cuts that especially harmed the Arts Faculty that includes humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Peter asked how she accounted for the shifting fate of our department. According to the script of competitive excellence we should be on a winning streak. But paradoxically in the recent round of endless cuts, we lost the most faculty of any department in the improvised shock doctrine of Voluntary Severance retirements last year. In response, the cash-strapped Faculty of Arts promised us one new replacement appointment leaving significant holes.

In response to the incoming EFS chair’s question,the UofA President raised her hand, flicked her wrist, and gestured to the Provost to respond about the mechanics of education. The UofA Provost described his last year of travel to three continents investigating how to reply to just such a query. Then he said with a flourish more or less the following: Dream on. Find the funds yourself.

Always ready to take up an imaginative challenge, I conjure up fundraising plots and plans. Imagine Coleridge’s Cave in the fourth floor Humanities Lounge in our English and Film Studies department – once a rare and ideal classroom for informal educational seminars and writing workshops – now redeployed as a meeting room for administrators in their ever-expanding need for space. After-hours after-class Coleridge Cave absinthe could be sold to visitors so stoned that while reclining on repurposed Value Village floor cushions they won’t notice we’ve sold the desks and chairs. Or we might float the idea of a William Burrough’s shooting gallery to appeal to gun-champion Albertan hunters. Or a new “Day and Night” in-house factory commemorating the great almost-forgotten Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay. From midnight to eight in the morning cultural labour could be supplanted by the made-in-Canada manufacture of loot suits for the carefully appointed university president to enhance the 1% status of University of Calgary President recently given a raise. Or why not transform our faculty and departmental offices and those spaces vacated by the budget-cut evacuation of key support staff? Or we might design a literary puppy mill, naming the poodles, the beagles, and mutts we raise after lost authors. Every pooch purchase arrives with a rare first edition or popular bestseller according to your cultural inclinations.

Why not multi-faceted representations and mappings of the indigenous sites and stories that lie buried beneath our institutional cellars as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation meetings held in Edmonton last month? This is a collaborative multi-media teaching project I’ve just begun with a colleague. But unfortunately for my department’s economy, my entrepreneurial imagination specializes in educational engagement best constructed beyond simple market terms. We are a public institution.

Over and over we are told how our universities vacillate between market forces and corporate models and metaphors.  On the promise of high-paying international student as funding sources, Findlay notes that universities promote and students target only certain disciplines and professional programs making recruitment “a homogenizing revenue stream used to remake priorities, redistribute resources.” All business and no time to play with social science, humanities, and arts ideas. “Consumer sovereignty and market logic as the new chronotype in the global present where institutional memory and collegial governance used to be,” says Findlay.

And what is more important to our future than an educated youth? Our students, impoverished by tuition costs in a rich country, should be supported by the state. Findlay points to the way Danish left and right political parties see their country’s free university tuition as sacred. Elsewhere University of Saskatchewan anthropologist (Sandy) M. Ervin also makes an eloquent argument about student debt and, “the elephant in the room….Solidarity with the young is needed more than ever. We have unloaded enough on them with climate change and toxic wastes without adding debt feudalism that only benefits the banks further restraining our young people.” 

And Findlay reminds us we’re watching the reinvention of a public university as the site of bifurcation: privileged spaces for corporate funding and other thinking spaces as expendable dumping sites. Findlay spoke of a recent University of Saskatchewan event where corporate donors from a mining company shunned an indigenous woman who queried the ethics of their mining practices. How do we insist on genuine philanthropy beyond the corporate strings that demand too much of public institutions?

Findlay reminded us of UofA’s first motto Lux and Lex – light and law – and the centrality of knowledge and its shaping. He might also have addressed the University of Alberta’s most recent university “promise,” a phrase lifted from a speech by the university’s first president Henry Marshall Tory. “Uplifting the whole people” is abbreviated from the sentence: “The people demand the uplifting of the whole people.” Note the change trajectory in the truncated slogan: the phrase transforms the public agency of “the people demand” to an act of charity in the “uplifting” university. The university website insists this “promise” “is not a temporary marketing slogan but an enduring expression of who we were are, and aspire to become” but its origins might be just that. In searching for the institutional promise, one stumbles across the work of former Procter and Gamble “top brand builders” Edward Burghard whose goal is to be the “spark that reignites the passion in the global business community for Brand America.” He goes: “In simplest terms, a brand is a promise, it sets an expectation of a benefit. The dynamics of the brand promise are charted by the promise gap: Brands with positive promise gaps exceed their customers’ expectations, while those with negative promise gaps let customers down.” The UofA promise gap may be negative as the impulse to “uplift the whole people” – an appeal to Albertans – occured around the intensification of the rhetoric of internationalization that tended to undervalue domestic international students. 

Nowadays “the people” – the public citizens who fund us find little reflection of themselves here at the University of Alberta. Canadian Studies erased. Canadian historians disappeared – 3 or 4 of them gone. Canadian literary scholars in my department decimated over the years and more recently by the mismanagement caused by voluntary retirements, a program that pretends ravaging the curriculum at the university stands in for management and planning. And almost no hirings in sight. Nowadays our department doesn’t define  all-American Studies symposiums as “American Studies” – the specification seems redundant in the absence of much curricular or faculty exploration of our Canadian  location.

At this AAS:UA gathering, we ate together, we listened, we laughed, we talked. Then I went to my office to finish some thinking work on a presentation about women public intellectuals in Canada. I wanted to scream for more public rabble rousing among faculty. Findlay insists on the importance of the “non-binarism” at the heart of activism and excellence and reminds us that if the university can be an object of study, the work we perform about the university in our professional associations and elsewhere also constitutes intellectual work that matters.

A collective of sometimes competing interests, the AAS:UA represents a university transformed into tenured academic faculty, academic librarians, contract teaching-focused staff, sessionals and other temporary employees, research academic officers, and faculty service officers – seven groups in total.  Findlay exhorted all of us to “intergenerational politics” wherein we “make allies of our students” and find common cause to make change. The bifurcation of the university into competing interests – exploited consumer students, expensive indulged faculty and the exploited untenured – eliminates the contribution  of intellectual labour to the university, the , the critical engagement of students, and the centrality of education to the mission of the university. Look how infrequently “education” appears in the public documents produced by universities, Findlay advises.

I could expand these notes by recounting how the speaker linked the university to the values of the neoliberal Harper government, but my note-taking stopped at this point as details of this sorry revelation are too familiar. So I conclude by reading a poem that begins: “Hurled his roadster straight through the great books / of his country….” right through to its end…”He was no bean-shooter, no dope fiend, / no bindle-punk. Just a hep cat with healthy hungers. Regular citizen with dreams of berries and bim.”

Thank you Len Findlay for your insightful rabble-rousing. Thank you for your poem Jeannette Lynes. And thank you Carolyn Sale for engineering this talk.

 – Janice Williamson

 

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