A scandal can sometimes be like eating your broccoli — you may not like it, but it just might be good for you and for your university.
Sounds crazy, I know. How can a campus scandal possibly benefit the university? Let me explain.
Scandals are often the stuff of tabloid journalism, replete with screaming headlines and unflattering pictures. Think Mayor Rob Ford or the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner. But scandals may also bring moments of accountability to institutions that seek to keep their actions secret. “Sunlight,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, is “the best of disinfectants.”
The frequency of scandals in our media-saturated political, institutional, and social environments has increased over the years. Indeed, clever journalists have provided us a modern short form based on the iconic Watergate scandal. In the USA there’s been Monicagate, Bridgegate, and more recently Emailgate and Deflategate. At home in Canada, we’ve had: Shawinigate, Peppergate, Duffygate and in the university sector, what became known at Western University as Chakmagate.
Big or small, what all of these scandals did was to expose, in a very public way, failures of governance that those in power would have preferred to keep hidden.
And so too with recent scandals that have swept Canadian universities. University governance, and the question of who is fit to participate in it, is being debated on campuses across the country. At UBC, the sudden resignation of president Arvind Gupta was initially shrouded in secrecy, until faculty and local media started asking tough questions about the need for transparency and a collective desire for a renewed collegial governance. Ditto at Carleton University, where the board of governors voted to rewrite their code of conduct to ban governors from commenting on the public portions of their meetings. This, after professor Root Gorelick posted critical comments to his personal blog. Professor Gorelick no longer sits as a governor having been “invalidated” by the board for refusing to sign the revised code.
It’s ironic that university administrations keen to impose corporate tools of workplace surveillance and control in the name of transparency are not so keen when the spotlight is turned on them. A case in point: Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac was dismissed as president of the University of Saskatchewan during the so-called “Transform US” scandal after firing professor Robert Buckingham. The former dean of health sciences was “frog marched” off the campus by security personnel after writing a critical commentary entitled “Silence of the Deans.” Similar strong-arm tactics were deployed at Western University during an extraordinary meeting of senate held to conduct a non-confidence vote on president Amit Chakma’s leadership after his one-million-dollar double salary was disclosed. A photo of a large plain clothed security officer removing a protest sign with the message: “Administrators don’t Attract Research Funding: Researchers DO: #noConfidence UWO,” made the front page of The London Free Press Apr. 18, 2015.
What these scandals make public, and dramatically crystal clear, is how university boards and administrations are acting in contradiction to the core values held by members of the academy — academic freedom and collegial governance. The personal actions of individuals are, in my view, not the key issue. Vilifying individuals should not be the aim of activists. Instead, we should put the focus where it belongs, on the logic of corporatization. Universities are not private businesses; they are public institutions created to serve the broader public interest. Scandals make this contradiction visible.
University boards and administrations have enormous fiduciary power invested in them by provincial legislation. However, this power is not unlimited and is always subject to public scrutiny. Scandals are important precisely because they erode the symbolic capital of boards and administrations. When those administrations resort to strong-arm tactics to reinforce compliance and quell dissent, it’s a sure sign that their symbolic capital is in jeopardy, a serious problem for university managers who seeks to project and protect their corporate brand at all costs. The managed university needs broad public consent to function. It requires a social licence — a licence that can be withdrawn by a public informed about indiscretions and malfeasance.
That’s what is good about scandals.
They push — perhaps sensationally —wrongdoing into the harsh light of public scrutiny, for us all to see.