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President's Message / Ode on an academic urn

President's Message / Ode on an academic urn

By James Compton

I can date when I first started to learn how to think independently. I was an undergraduate student in my second year at Simon Fraser University. It was 1982 — yes, I’m that old — and the professor in the English Romantic Literature course had given an assignment that stumped me. We were asked to write a short critical essay on the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. My first response was panic. After all, I knew nothing about poetry, never mind urns.

We weren’t allowed to cite secondary sources and Coles Notes were verboten. Instead, we were given the task of engaging with the text. In other words, we had to think for ourselves. I don’t recall the grade I received, but I do remember the satisfaction I felt after my critical struggle with the poem. With the hindsight of years, and two careers under my belt — reporter and now, professor — I’m in a better position to appreciate the full value of the liberal arts education I received. “The power of poetry,” according to Samuel Coleridge, “is by a single word perhaps, to instil that energy into the mind, which compels the imagination to produce the picture.” Passivity is the enemy of thinking, and I began to learn this valuable lesson reading Keats, Shelly and Byron.

I was reminded of this recently while reading, of all things, the minutes of senate at the University of Western Ontario. It wasn’t the quality of the prose. Senate minutes aren’t known for their poetic voice. No, it was news that the arts and humanities faculty was facing a $1 million cut to its limited-duties budget that will mean certain subjects in writing and languages will no longer be taught at Western. The faculty will offer between 450–500 courses next year, down from 577.

This is a hard blow, but one, according to the dean’s report to senate, that is a “North America wide phenomenon.” And while it is certainly true that arts and humanities faculties are facing cuts across the continent along with enrolment pressures, I’m at a loss as to why this fact should be passively accepted. It is not an inevitability that courses that go to the heart of a quality university education need to be scrapped.

The language used to explain these cuts is eerily familiar. It is the bloodless language of austerity: “The principal concern is the growing deficit that we have incurred as our expenses outstrip revenues,” wrote Western’s dean of arts. Or take this example from Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system: “In an effort to strategically align the bud­get with university priorities, and increase the transparency of budget development, we are revamping our campus budget preparation process. This new budget process strives to integrate key principles from the work of the Project 50 Forward Finance and Budget Committee (accountability and transparency) within the framework of the current fiscal environment while strate­gically aligning our resources with the campus’s strategic priorities.” Translation? Recent budget cuts at Stony Brook mean undergraduates will no longer be able to major in comparative literature, cinema and cultural studies, or theater arts.

Similar cuts to core arts and humanities programs have occurred at the University of Manchester, SUNY Albany and the University of Pittsburgh. What we are witnessing, argues Francine Prose, writing in The Guardian, is a “hidden ideology.” In each case the dry calculus of utilitarianism is offered to suggest nothing can be done, except encourage troubled academic units to reimagine themselves in ways that might make themselves more competitive. This is the language of Responsibility Centered Management, a popular form of managerialism, taken from the Harvard playbook, that overlays a utilitarian cost-benefit framework over all problems and discussions. It’s catch phrase is “Every tub must have its own bottom.” Tubs are faculties and schools responsible for their own bottom line, defined exclusively in monetary terms. Conspicuous by its absence is the academy’s core dual-mission of teaching and research.

We must reject utilitarianism’s “hedonic calculus” of pain and pleasure, and the “psychological egoism” that it fosters within the academy. This is a tougher task than we might think, because the neo-liberal reorganization of the university rewards individual competition and punishes failure to comply. Younger faculty members and contract academic staff know this calculus all too well.

We would do well to remember that the Latin root of university is univeritas, meaning “a whole.” We are not a collection of isolated “tubs.” We are members of a broader community. The problems facing arts and humanities are our problems. And they derive from a shared political economy that has seen state financial support for post-secondary education diminished. Tuition now accounts for 50.2 per cent of Western’s projected 2017–2018 operating revenues. A public commitment to higher education has been replaced with the self-promotion of empty branding strategies and the competition for dollars.

Allowing arts and humanities programs to cannibalize themselves is not the answer. Without their wisdom we cease to be a university. I learned that reading Keats too.

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