(This article has been translated from French.)
May 15, 2021, marked my last day of work at Laurentian University of Sudbury as professor and departmental chair of political science. Like me, around 100 professors lost their jobs after the restructuring proceedings begun on Feb. 1, 2021, under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). The process is still ongoing, but the damage done is already extensive: the university has closed more than 75 programs (out of a total of around 210), and downsized remaining departments. The Faculty of Arts was particularly depleted, its faculty numbers dropping from 85 to 38 (according to figures provided by human resources to the university senate). Agreements with federated universities have been unilaterally terminated, and hundreds of students are now unable to complete their degree in the discipline of their choice.
In such circumstances, it is not unusual to point fingers and assign blame. From year to year, deficits and financial failures have been underestimated or disguised. In this regard, the audit proposed by provincial authorities is most welcome. The organizational culture has been degraded for a while, due to administrative red tape and blockages, tendencies toward clientelism and nepotism, strained relations between administration and unions and so on. Add to the mix an unpredictable and devastating pandemic and a critical situation quickly becomes a desperate one.
What we have here is an exceptional procedure dealing with exceptional circumstances and –hopefully – an isolated case that will remain so. Yet Laurentian University also plays the role of the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” a particularly apt phrase in the Sudbury mining region. Its setbacks are symptomatic of a much deeper affliction, common to all post-secondary education in Ontario and beyond.
The useful and the profitable
In many ways, universities can be seen as institutions inherited from another era – with their old-fashioned values, such as classics education and a taste for dusty books, the preservation of ancient and sacred knowledge, the respect for hierarchies and status, and a quasi-religious devotion to knowledge. They are struggling to find their place in our modern and capitalist societies, only able to recognize what is quantifiable, measurable, sellable, consumable, and where all value, all action, is reduced to its usefulness.
Laurentian University’s current predicament highlights the disconnect between university values and financial capitalism and displays the devastating effects brought about by contempt for the “vocation” of professor on one hand, and the reign of profitability on the other.
Indeed, many of us considered our jobs secure and stable: personally, like many other colleagues, I even considered myself lucky to have reached the “holy grail” of tenure, after many years of post-graduate studies and more or less precarious academic work. One of the reasons tenured professors have access to greater job security than employees in other industries is academic freedom. We teach according to our own conscience, and neither the ideological climate nor the profitability of our knowledge should change this. Today, in western democracies, controversies over political correctness, “cancel culture” and freedom of speech on campuses often attract media attention, but I fear that the real danger is less original and much more pernicious: its name is profitability at all costs.
By making the survival of programs and the hiring of professors dependent on student appeal, we reinforce the idea that only “the useful” and “the profitable” are valued in our societies and post-secondary institutions. This leads to quite a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, profitability is king and managerial jargon omnipresent: in strategic plans and governance meetings, course offerings are made “optimal,” “human capital” is “mobilized” at its fullest and “efficiencies” are “maximized.”
On the other hand, universities and colleges, large and small, are struggling to prepare graduates for the job market. Employers remain dissatisfied, training remains inadequate, positions in high need remain vacant. The short-term financial arguments of our leaders and the unique demands of the CCAA process in terms of financial sustainability are therefore misleading. The watchword is not just “financial sustainability,” but also “growth” and “financial success.”
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In an affidavit given on April 21, 2021, the president of the university, Robert Haché, stated that one of the principles guiding the restructuring of study programs and course offerings was that : “LU must be positioned for both financial sustainability in the short term and financial success in the longer term, whereby LU is able to invest in growth areas and create cash reserves to provide a necessary financial buffer.”
Balancing the budget is therefore no longer enough, even for universities, despite their not-for-profit mandates: one must be profitable today, and even more so tomorrow. This explains why financially neutral or self-financed programs, such as midwifery, have been closed. Highly specialized and with student caps, such programs meet a community and professional demand. They are not costing the institution anything yet commit the supreme sin of not making money either. The terms used are, once again, revealing that the university justifies the closures with “limited growth prospects.”
The “educational exception”
In contrast, the university tells us, via a president’s email sent on April 17, that “to be successful” requires “vibrant curricula that match what students want to learn.” This position flouts educational common sense and amounts to behaving like parents who would feed their children exclusively on sweets. We should not, of course, overcorrect and fall into the other extreme, a paternalistic option, which would consist of teaching only the most intellectually demanding disciplines, against the will of students.
A good educator seeks rather to provide diversity and teaches students to make the right choices on their own. Those who play the market’s game, of competitiveness and profit, by giving – sorry, by “selling” – young students what they want, know neither their product nor their customer base. Young students are the first to recognize they don’t know what they want to do or study, or at least that they didn’t know when they started their university studies.
This situation illustrates only too well how limited financial and profit-driven logics can be when applied to the educational and cultural milieus. Education is not a good or a service like any other, and education professionals are not workers like any other. Teaching is not a simple job; it is a vocation. When it comes to market logic and competition, we often speak of a “cultural exception,” but we should also insist on the “educational exception.” In learning, relationships are more personal than business. You don’t buy a diploma like you would buy a smartphone. The role of universities is not to propose an attractive array of choices to an uninformed public, but rather to provide students with the tools and intellectual material necessary for them to build the future of their choice.
The Laurentian debacle will at least have shown this: capitalist pressures may succeed in destroying the traditional values and standards of academia, yet they often fail to fulfill their own financial and utilitarian objectives. In other words, selling one’s soul without the worldly rewards expected. The novel and high-risk procedure of the CCAA – normally reserved for private companies – only exacerbates the contradictions common to all post-secondary institutions.
As in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, our management team summoned the magical forces of the CCAA to close programs and to lay off tenured professors more easily, avoiding long and cumbersome procedures. But these same forces can very quickly become dangerous and uncontrollable, and, I fear, still risk bringing down the whole edifice. A gentle, common-sense, reminder to our leaders and managers is in order. To win in the knowledge industry, it would be prudent not to belittle knowledge itself nor to disrespect those who produce and transmit it.