CAUT's James Turk on Corporatized Universities

We want peace with justice. And justice includes academic freedom. James Turk and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) defend the right of researchers to create knowledge and add it to the storehouse of our civilization. That right is under siege, and we need to decide what to do about it.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); James Turk (interviewee) | 2014-04-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: You have been the executive director of CAUT for 16 years and I know you are worried. What changes have you seen in Canada during that time?

JAMES TURK: Many! One is the declining government support for universities. Twenty years ago, over 80 percent of the university operating revenue came from government sources. Now in Ontario it is less than 46 percent. Students have been forced to make up for lost revenue with dramatically higher tuition fees, and large numbers graduating with substantial debts. The prospect of incurring substantial debt deters lots of people from poorer families-especially professional programs. For example, in dentistry tuition fees can be as high as $30,000 per year. So the deciding factor is how wealthy you are or how willing you are to incur debt-not your ability and interest.

SPENCER: Why is that happening?

TURK: It is part of an ideological approach by successive governments. The right has successfully framed public expenditures as a waste. The government spends lots of money by giving tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals, as taxes not collected. The classic version of this came in 1978 in California with a proposition that prevented the increase of property taxes. It impoverished the state and has contributed to the undermining of the finest public post-secondary education system in North America. Such trends are occurring broadly. Even the NDP promises not to raise taxes. So the first issue is underfunding of post-secondary education.

SPENCER: What are other changes you see?

TURK: A second important change is “corporatization.” The university was built on self-governance-collegial governance. The notion was that academic decisions are best made by academics and that the university structure must let them do so. We are now moving to a hierarchical corporate model. University presidents used to think of themselves as the lead academic in their institution, but their reference group now is less their faculty colleagues than corporate CEOs. In fact, some of them call themselves CEOs and are receiving salaries that would be respectable for CEOs in the business world. They come to see committees and university senates-the collegial governance system-as inefficient because “that’s not how you run a corporation.” Boards of governance are losing interest in choosing first-rate academics to be presidents, preferring managers in tune with a narrower economic vision of the university’s role. We’re now seeing several university presidents with no academic background.

Even departmental chairs are in the crosshairs. Traditionally, departmental chairs are chosen by their colleagues and their job is to carry the concerns of their colleagues to the senior administration. Increasingly they are pressed to act as agents of the senior administration in managing their colleagues. The chair’s role is becoming more top-down. The president of one eastern university invited me to come and put on a day-long program in collegial governance. He said, “My problem is that my senior administrators don’t have academic backgrounds and don’t understand shared governance. I know it’s unusual to ask CAUT to do this but I’ll make it a command performance so they can understand the tradition that’s supposed to govern universities.” He’s unusual.

University presidents used to go back into the professoriate when their term was over. Now that’s the exception. Also, it used to be that the short list of candidates for the post of president would give public addresses so the faculty and students could decide which would be most suitable. Now in most cases, presidential selection is a secret process, where the faculty and students first learn the name the president after they’re has been appointed.

SPENCER: Are there other signs of corporatization?

TURK: Sure. In most universities today you’ll see classrooms named after corporations. In the business school at St. Mary’s Uni­versity in Halifax, every room is named for a private company. At Osgoode Hall Law School, classrooms are named after major law firms. Most universities have menus showing what you can get for a given donation. If you give X dollars you get a classroom named after you. If you give Y dollars you can have a building. If you give even more you can have a faculty named after you. The more prestigious the institution, the pricier the list. What would buy you a building at a less prestigious institution might only buy you a classroom at a more prestigious one. [We laugh.] Many of those changes are harmless. I’m not sure I care about naming classrooms. But I do care when links with the corporate sector compromise the academic integrity of the university. For example, many universities are entering into collaborations with industry and almost all of them are done in secret. Nobody in the institution knows the details until it’s approved, and often not even then.

SPENCER: Do you mean the funding of teaching or of research?

TURK: Both. There are research collaborations. For example, the University of Alberta entered into a collaboration with Imperial Oil for research on the oil sands. The acronym is COSI-“Center for Oil Sands Innovation.” There are also program collaborations. When we tried to identify all such collaborations in Canada, we had to spend two years just getting copies of the agreements that set up these collaborations. We identified twenty collaborations, but still we haven’t been able to get the governing document for eight of them. Of the 12 that we did get, in only two cases were the documents public. Those two were here at the University of Toronto. In all other cases we had to go through access to information requests to get them.

SPENCER: So freedom of information laws guarantee you the right to this information?

TURK: Freedom of information laws give you the right to request documents from public institutions and the institutions have to determine whether they can release them. Sometimes they can’t release financial or other details. Anyway, we were able to get twelve of them, to see if the university administration protected the integrity of the university. Do they assure academic freedom for the participating faculty? Do they protect the faculty member’s right to publish without being restricted by the corporate partner? Do they ensure that academics have control over all academic decisions-such as which students are admitted, who gets scholarships, and what the academic priorities are? In most cases, academic integrity was not protected.

SPENCER: Amazing!

TURK: A similar study was done in the US by the Center for American Progress in 2010. It looked at ten research collaborations between major American universities and energy companies, such as the agreement between the University of California at Berkeley and British Petroleum for half a billion dollars. In all of these agreements, there were serious problems. In most of them, the corporation could restrict publication rights of the faculty, and academic freedom wasn’t protected. In four of the ten agreements the university gave complete control over the running of the collaboration to the private corporate partner.

SPENCER: What recourse would a faculty member have if, say, her right to publish had been restricted?

TURK: The situation in Canada is different from the United States. In Canada about 90 percent of the faculty are unionized, and in collective agreements there are arbitration options available to them. But sometimes the agreement is drafted so that the faculty forego their rights. Then they don’t have recourse. The antidote to this is a policy that no secret agreements will be signed. All agreements should be available to the faculty in the department or institute to be involved in the collaboration. Universities should not be able to enter into collaborations without the knowledge and agreement of the faculty and the university community. And there should be no agreements that do fail to protect the integrity of the university, including the right to publish, academic freedom and academic control over academic decisions.

Inappropriate agreements have trouble surviving the light of public exposure. Sometimes they have to be scrapped and sometimes they are modified. In 1997 the University of Toronto entered into three agreements-one with the Joseph Rotman Foundation, which gave money to the business school, which was then named after Rotman. Another was with Peter Munk for the first Munk International Affairs Centre, and a third was with Nortel. All three agreements were secret. Fortun­ately, copies of each fell off the back of a truck and came to the attention of the faculty association. They led a public campaign and forced the university to revise all three of them.

SPENCER: How can the university’s integrity be protected?

TURK: Unfortunately, the sole remaining defenders of the university’s commitment to advancing knowledge and educating students are the faculty. If the faculty and faculty association don’t take the lead in protecting these things, they are going to be lost. In these sixteen years I have been at CAUT, the thing I’ve noticed is that we are less and less able to rely on the administration to defend the values of the universities.

SPENCER: How agitated are most faculty members? Do they get up in arms when they hear these things or do they nod and smile?

TURK: Pressures on faculty-especially junior faculty-have been increasing. Workload is affected because there are fewer resources-fewer teaching assistants and support services. More often faculty are doing things that formerly they would have sent assistants to do. They are teaching bigger courses. The student-faculty ratio has gotten worse. The pressures to do more in order to get tenure have increased. At the same time as there is more pressure on faculty, there’s less of a community among them. Partly it’s the result of new technologies. Often the person’s principal commitment is to the colleagues in their discipline. Now it’s easy to stay in touch with colleagues elsewhere through email and Skype, so interactions at the institutional level are diminished. That makes it harder to mobilize faculty around what is happening in their own institution.

On the other hand, when we can show faculty what is being done, they do respond. I’ll give you one example. Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion, offered $30 million to York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School to enter into collaboration for a joint program in international law in cooperation with his private think tank, the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). This was negotiated with York University’s administration, signed by them, and when its content became known, the faculty became deeply concerned because it gave CIGI a voice over a lot of academic matters-such as who taught and what was taught. After the document was made public, about a quarter of all faculty at York University signed a petition calling for this to be changed. The university’s administration was unbending. Finally, after about four months of deliberation, the faculty announced that they would not participate.

SPENCER: Did Balsillie rewrite his offer?

TURK: No, the project died. He had tried this earlier in an agreement with the University of Ottawa Law School and the administration there wouldn’t sign it.

SPENCER: What does that say about CIGI then?

TURK: Well, Balsillie is very generous with his money. He set up the think tank and chaired its board for many years. He had made donations to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier to start the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The terms of that were worrisome. That document became public before it was finalized and the faculty association of those universities intervened effectively, in conjunction with CAUT, to get the terms changed so it did not compromise university integrity.

SPENCER: You are also defending librarians and scientists who work for the federal government. You’re taking the lead in supporting freedom of research. How did you come to do that? Did they come and ask for your help? I see a link, of course, between the restrictions on government science and the trends in universities. Presumably there are similar trends in other countries. When I go abroad, I hear similar stories-though maybe not as drastic as what we hear in Canada-about the increasingly instrumental and commercial view of knowledge.

TURK: Yes, the kinds of things that happen here are certainly happening elsewhere, When we talk to colleagues in most countries, they are facing similar, if not more serious, challenges. A lot of the worst initiatives to corporatize universities are being actively promoted by the Organization of Economic Co­op­eration and Development (OECD).

SPENCER: Really!

TURK: The OECD has a whole series of seminars and papers pushing its view of the proper priorities for universities. In the United Kingdom, for example, the work load is quantified. As a full professor you’re allocated, say, 39 hours for each Ph.D. student over the course of a year, as if one were a factory worker, in an attempt to use the human resources in ways that might be appropriate in the factory or the retail sector. That has been slowed down in Canada because every university has a faculty association that deals with those issues. So there’s more effective defence of fundamental values here than in some other countries.

Another aspect of corporatization that I haven’t talked about is the growing reliance on contingent labor for ordinary academic programs. We don’t know what percentage of the faculty are on limited-term, part-time contracts. Statistics Canada stopped collecting those data in 1991 because a number of universities, including the University of Toronto, said they couldn’t complete the forms. They couldn’t tell Statistic Canada how many part-time faculty they had.

SPENCER: Why didn’t they know?

TURK: I have no idea. But in the United States we do have reasonably good data. More than 70 percent of the faculty teaching in degree-granting institutions are neither tenured nor tenure-track.

SPENCER: One speaker in a series of lectures that I run called this group of people the “precariate.”

TURK: Yes, in Europe that term is used. So now in the US less than 30 percent of the faculty are regular tenure-track or tenured. Most instructors are in insecure jobs, badly paid. In Canada, we only have anecdotes but we know of some institutions where 75 percent of the faculty are “contract” academic staff. We don’t call them all “part- time” because some of them are full-time. So a significant number of our colleagues would have to teach more than double a full-time load in order to earn 60 percent of what a regular academic staff person earns. By teaching a course, they earn less than many of their students might make in a summer job at McDonald’s. They’re only paid for time in the classrooms. They aren’t provided any support or pay for any research. They often don’t know what they’re teaching until a few weeks or months before the classes start. As many as 50 percent of our colleagues may be in that terrible situation. Corporatization is applying the human resources policies of Walmart to the university. That’s growing, if anything, and it’s partly a response to under-funding, and partly a response to a corporate desire to have a flexible work force.

SPENCER: I think it’s an ideological shift toward assuming that the ultimate defining factor should be the market. Stiglitz calls it “market fundamentalism.”

TURK: You’re absolutely right-in every aspect of life, whether it be health care or education or child care. Another part of corporatization is to see our students as customers and ourselves as service providers-as if the university should offer programs determined by the preferences of 18- and 19-year olds. Face it-students aren’t customers. If I worked in the Gap clothing store and a guy came in and held up a sweater, I’d say “Oh, that’s great!” because my objective would be to get him to buy it. As a faculty member, my objective is to get students to think of the world in broader terms-to challenge them, which can make them uncomfortable. That’s not what you do with a customer. The understanding of our relationship with students is getting distorted by this rationale: “Well, they’re paying higher tuition fees. Therefore, they’re customers and if they don’t want to do something, the university shouldn’t be doing it.” And increasingly the whole objective is for students to come out job-ready.

SPENCER: I went to an event at the Faculty Club for retired academics. Meric Gertler spoke, replaying his recent inaugural address as president of University of Toronto. I liked him very much personally. He’s a nice guy, but I didn’t like what he said. He kept praising this university as outstanding because of the number of partnerships between corporations and faculty, and the number of patents that come out of U of T research. During the Q and A period, I lunged for the mike to challenge him. He did backpedal a bit because he could see that most of the audience was not impressed. Some people were from the humanities and didn’t appreciate this instrumental attitude toward education and research. It’s troubling when the president of the most prominent university in Canada reflects this market orientation-just assumes it.

I believe that when communism collapsed, there wasn’t any comprehensive theoretical system anymore to provide a coherent doctrinal alternative to capitalism. So the market rules. I’m pro-capitalist myself, but not that much!

TURK: True. Universities have always been a reflection of the society. And in our society at this moment, the market is the deity. “Serving the market” is reflected in who’s on boards of governors. It’s reflected in what those boards of governors want in a president. So no matter how nice the person is, if they seriously challenge those values, they’re unlikely to be selected president. So it’s not abnormal that the University of Toronto is articulating those values, even though Gertler’s a very serious, internationally respected academic. That’s what boards want. Governments set up funding structures to make universities dependent on corporate money. The problem is, they don’t realize that it erodes the very nature and value of the university as a public good. John Polanyi, talking about this embrace of the corporate sector, once said that at some point universities simply become outposts of industry and lose the very reason that industry comes to them in the first place. That’s the danger, and what’s really disturbing is that our senior administrative colleagues are not advocates for the university as it should be.

You asked a question earlier about librarians and government scientists. Historically in Canada, the private sector has done very little research because of high levels of foreign ownership. It’s the major transnationals that do the most research, and they do it primarily in their home country. Our high level of foreign ownership has always meant that disproportionately litte private sector research is done in Canada. For us, it is the government sector and the academic sector that have been particularly important in advancing research and the quest for knowledge. Insofar as those two sectors get compromised by corporate values, by a focus on short-term, practical research projects as opposed to basic research, we lose the centres for fundamental research. And that research underpins everything else. The government is attacking the important research that’s done in the government sector, such as the geneticists and oceanographers in the department of fisheries and oceans, or the medical researchers in Health Canada, who often go back and forth between academia and their government science jobs. When we see them under attack, being muzzled, their research being ended, we speak out. We have an identity with our government, public science colleagues.

The same with librarians. Academic librarians are professional academics. The people who shelve books are technicians, whereas the academic librarians make decisions about the collections and guide research. They play a vital role, as do librarians and archivists who work for government. So we’ve been equally concerned with what’s happening in Library and Archives Canada (LAC). We became aware of the problem there because some of our historian colleagues came to us and said, “Gosh, we go to LAC and there are no specialist ar­ch­ivists who know the collection and can help us. Access to the material is diminished. It’s often located far away. It’s being spread far across the country. The hours of accessibility to LAC are getting more and more limited. It’s hard to do our work. It’s hard to get the material.”

SPENCER: I met a librarian on a train who said that formerly scholars could have documents or photocopies sent to them all over Canada from the national library, but now they have to go to Ottawa to look at the document.

TURK: Right. The national library, by statute, has to receive two copies of every document or book published in Canada, so they have the most comprehensive collection. When an academic library or local public library doesn’t have a book, they can get it from the national library. As a result of decisions by the current federal government, the national library ended its inter-library loan service. So now if the Toronto library needs a book that’s only in the national library, they are out of luck unless they want to drive to Ottawa. It’s appalling. Each federal department had its own library with skilled librarians-a very limited, focused technical collection to service the needs of researchers in science-based departments and policy analysts. Those are being closed.

SPENCER: Is the underlying intention simply to discourage investigation?

TURK: In some ways it’s worse than that. It’s a failure to appreciate the importance of these things. So what if you can’t get a book! So what if we close the Department of Transport Library! You’ll just have to do without!

When a government is driven by ideology, it doesn’t need good policy advice because the reports may question their ideological direction. It’s convenient not to have access to scientific information. Look at our current government’s policy of punishing crime. All criminological research overwhelmingly shows that it’s exactly the wrong direction to go. So if it’s harder for criminologists to get access to data, so much the better! Or climate change! Defunding the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science is convenient. Canada is pursuing an absolutely crazy approach to climate change. All of the work that’s been done by 99 percent of the climate change scientists in the world says that what we’re doing is disastrous. So if you defund them and make it harder for them to do their work, so what? Because all they’re going to do is find things that tell the government they are doing the wrong thing.

SPENCER: How do you fight it?

TURK: The most important thing is to raise these issues publicly. Private lobbying by itself doesn’t work. If politicians don’t feel that the public is concerned about an issue, they’ll just see you as a talking head they can ignore. We have to talk about what is happening in universities, starting with our colleagues and our students, who are often oppressed. With their nose to the grindstone they may ignore such things. We need to make them aware of the pernicious long-term consequences. So we start with them. If we can get our students and colleagues, we have them talk with others in a variety of networks in their communities. We try to raise these issues through the media. That’s why I was so happy with CBC’s Fifth Estate and their program, “The Silence of the Labs.” That brought these issues to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, who were rightly appalled by what they saw. We’re organizing Town Halls across the country in cities to allow researchers and scientists to come together and talk to the public about what it means. That mobilization is necessary and then we develop alternatives.

SPENCER: There are so many negative consequences! Obviously, society needs people who follow their curiosity, and not only look for practical, immediate, instrumental answers.

TURK: Yes, the advancement of knowledge occurs best when you create a place-and the university is one of those places-where you allow people to pursue inquiry that they believe will be productive. A scientist maybe working on some interesting molecule, not knowing where her work may lead but just thinking we’ll learn more about molecular structure by doing this. What pays off is allowing bright people the freedom to pursue promising lines of inquiry. It’s more than just curiosity. It’s based on their prior experience, or sometimes it’s serendipitous. You have to create a space for that, and the university is, in Canada, the principal space for that. So if you cut that fundamental research off because the corporation is focused on the short-term bottom line, you’re going to lose it. And that’s the basis for almost all the advances.

We’re also losing the focus of the university as producing educated people. That may or may not result in jobs. Almost nobody today has a job for life in any case. People have six or eight different jobs over the course of their lives. So if you produce educated people, you position them to do a variety of different things. If you think the task is to make someone ready to walk into a specific job, you’re diminishing the responsibility of the university. That’s short-sighted. Universities have played professional training functions from the earliest days, training clerics, physicians, and so on. We’ve always had a vocational side but we’re also educating people to be citizens in a democracy, to be parents, community members. That all gets ignored with this single-minded focus on the market. In fulfilling that narrow mandate, the university is actually failing to fulfill its larger public purpose.

SPENCER: Absolutely. Thanks, Jim.

James Turk will be completing his final term this summer as executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Metta Spencer is editor of Peace Magazine and president of Science for Peace. They were both formerly sociology professors at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2014

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2014, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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