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President’s message / Through the looking glass

President’s message / Through the looking glass

By James Compton

Sometimes while reading the newspaper, I stop and ask myself: “Did he really say that?” One such moment came in February 2015 when the London Free Press broke the story about the “double-dipping” salary scandal at the University of Western Ontario. “The board is very happy … We’re paying a fair and appropriate salary,” board of governors chair Chirag Shah told the Free Press. Shah did have one complaint, however: “Unfortunately, administrative salary is frozen.” Ontario legislation had capped public sector senior administrative salaries since 2009.

The release of Ontario’s Sunshine List had revealed that Western president Amit Chakma had forgone a one-year paid leave to receive a double payment totaling nearly $1 million while he continued his administrative duties. How, I asked myself, could Shah think his first public comment should be: I wish we could pay more? How to make sense of this profound disconnect? It really did feel as if I had gone through the looking glass.

But when I stop to think about it, I really shouldn’t have been shocked. Shah was speaking the language of corporate competitive advantage. And from that narrow perspective what he said was not surprising. It’s the same logic used to justify sky-high CEO salaries in the private sector. Corporate “leaders” routinely receive extraordinarily generous compensation packages. To recruit the best talent — so the argument goes — corporations and universities must pony up.

How was it that this corporate administrative logic became so deeply entrenched as common sense within our public universities? The pressures of economic globali­zation certainly played an important role. As austerity policies gripped provincial and federal governments beginning in the 1980s, state subsidies for post-secondary education plummeted. This prompted universities to compete in a global market for students and a worldwide “reputation” economy. Corporate values of goal-centered profit maximization, entrepreneurialism and efficiency began to crowd out broader social commitments and the non-instrumental pursuit of knowledge.

Internally, the push for a more technocratic approach to university administration had its cheerleaders. As far back as 1968, the then provost of Columbia University made an unabashed pitch for more professionalism among the administrative classes. Jacques Barzun argued for a “second layer” of young administrators in his book The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going. It’s worth quoting at length.

“If caught young, such men can become top civil-servants and be accepted as professionals without being scholars; they can enjoy a prestige of their own and share fully in the amenities that are widely believed to adorn campus life; and they can do more than any other agency, human or electronic, to render efficient the workings of the great machine. The only hazard is making them acceptable to the faculty. The best way is to let them emerge gradually, Cheshire cats in reverse, from behind the figure whom their work is to support.”

Where Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat slowly faded until all that remained was his grin, Barzun’s Cheshire-Cat-in-Reverse model of university governance begins with the pleasant smile, but over time the administrative feline appears in its full form. Barzun was aware of the skepticism academics had for the “managerial revolution” and that is why he preferred a revolution by stealth. It appears to have worked. Utili­tarian managerialism wasn’t imposed in a midnight coup d’état. It slowly emerged with the helpful promise that the professoriate would be relieved of their more tedious administrative chores. Many faculty have embraced it, choosing to leave matters to the dean’s office and collegial governance has been the main casualty. This, I would argue, has contri­buted to the common sense divide between our administration and faculty.

Over the past few years Canadian universities have witnessed significant push back. Most university governance structures are bicameral. Fiduciary matters are handled by the board of governors and academic matters by senates. In each of these venues battles are being fought across Canada to reassert faculty participation against top-down hierarchical models. Attempts to silence contrarians continue, as always in the name of common sense, efficiency and, ironically, collegiality, but no one ever said it would be easy. It’s work.

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