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President’s message / The ‘shock of the new’ at Trinity College Dublin

President’s message / The ‘shock of the new’ at Trinity College Dublin

By James Compton

Here’s a headline grabber: “Corporate Canada Now Controls More Than One-Third of All Seats on University Boards Across Ontario.” The headline is from a report published in April by PressProgress, an activist website associated with the Broadbent Institute. According to the report, “corporate executives now outnumber academics and public administrators” on university boards in Ontario. “In total, more than half of all external members named to university boards (54.4%) had backgrounds as either corporate executives or directors while seven-in-10 (70.4%) were recruited from the private sector.” Given these numbers it’s not surprising our public universities are run more and more like private businesses and not as public institutions.

We’ve all seen the full-page newspaper ads taken out by university PR departments heralding their brand slogans. With the steep decline in government funding for post-secondary education, universities now compete for additional tuition revenue by constructing and selling a narrative of “best student experience.” New recreation faci­lities, and other student amenities and activities are used to make the pitch: come here, we have a history, we are unique, we are different. It’s the academic version of “New and Improved.”

The “best student experience” pitch is not exceptional. I found the very same message at Trinity College Dublin. Established in 1592, Trinity is a truly venerable institution, with a long pedigree of stellar acade­mic achievement. But if you visit their webpage today you’ll find the familiar narrative packaged, in their case, as the “Trinity experience.” A video celebrates the campus’s mix of traditional and modern architecture, alongside uplifting student testimonials. Sound familiar?

A year ago, I was given a personal tour of the campus by a colleague and Trinity senior fellow. I was overwhelmed by the splendor of the college’s library and by the Book of Kells exhibit — marvellously hand-decorated Latin texts dating from the Middle Ages. Trinity does have a his­tory, these spaces are unique, but at the same time something about the overt marketing, the packaging of these qualities was unsettling and all too familiar. Most of the people on campus that day were tourists, many of whom had to queue in a long line to buy tickets to visit the Old Library and the Book of Kells. I was lucky. I was able to skip the lines and see the library and exhibit for free because I was a guest of a Trinity fellow. The packed rooms reminded me of a bus tour. Even the venerable college has been forced to generate new revenue streams.

I found the contrast between old and new traditions fascinating. My guide and his library colleague shared their genuine shock that people were walking across the lawn of Fellows’ Square. Such behavior had been strictly forbidden for years, but now it was being conceded to accommodate the swarms of paying customers. Our Trinity friends were extremely proud of their campus and its traditions, and I was eager to hear more of their stories. In ad­dition to the innocent lawn trespassing tale, I learned that the institution’s provost is elected by full-time staff and students. I was stunned. In addition to being entitled to one pint (not two) of Guinness a day, Trinity faculty can elect the college’s top administrative officer. Some-how, in the flux of commercialized change Trinity has maintained a longstanding tradition of collegial governance. “Against the slow cancellation of the future,” to borrow Mark Fisher’s memorable phrase, Trinity faculty have a say in their collective governance.

In the grip of utilitarian managerialism, we begin to believe that there is no alternative, no future other than the endless repetition of the present — branded as “best student experience.” But another way is possible. And it’s happening in Dublin. I had found the “shock of the new” on a campus dating back to the 16th century.

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