Administration and trust at the U of C

By Dr. Barry Cooper

Until recently professors were engaged in teaching and the search for truth about reality. Under the pressure of practical concerns and various political ideologies, most of which deny that either truth or reality mean anything, the old purposes seem quaintly archaic.

In our practical city, where the most respectable families are but a generation or two off the land, the old witticism: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has intuitive appeal. Among academics who actually do the teaching at the University of Calgary, a corollary has been making the rounds: “those who can’t teach, administer.” Followed by: “those who can’t administer, ruin.”

A lot of ink has been spilled over the generous pension awarded a president departing his post early. Much less attention has been directed at those hard-nosed people who exemplify the can-do perspectives so contemptuous of teaching on a board of governors that somehow overlooked the tidy sum of $4.5 million.

Less attention still has been directed toward the increasing numbers of those who don’t or can’t teach.

A decade ago, when we awarded about 5,300 degrees annually, we had 18 senior administrators. Today, when graduation numbers have advanced to around 6,000, we require 47. More interesting, they are the focus of more discontent than I have seen in over 25 years here.

Two recent changes have rendered the normal tension between faculty and administration downright toxic. To be less metaphorical, the distrust of senior administration by faculty and support staff, those who actually make the organization hum, is unprecedented.

The first change is described in the “Strategic Research Plan” (draft version 9). The title, as of so many documents produced by administrators, is a cliche. Every effort must be “strategic.” Filled with such terms as “interdisciplinarity” and “commercializable research,” its execrable language is made worse by its premises.

The university is said to be in the business of stating and describing research objectives, as if that occurred independently of the individuals who freely conduct a life of scholarship. “Excellent research,” we are told, is first published and “then applied to the benefit of the natural world and humanity.” If this means anything at all, it is equivalent to having governments pick economic winners.

The choices of these strategic administrators reveal their real purposes. Consider two. First, we must turn “commercializable research into commercialization opportunities.” Second we are to “increase opportunities for university research to have meaningful impact on communities.” Apart from indicating an imperfect command of English, this opaque statement aims to turn the university into a technical school, despite the existence of SAIT down the road. They call it “engaged scholarship” that is “civic minded.”

When the “research priorities” are actually listed, they simply reflect the anxieties of the moment, not reflection on the permanent questions about which students seeking to be educated (rather than merely to be trained) still hunger. The thought-clogging cliches describing such genuine oddities as carbon capture and biomedical engineering far transcend my modest ability for satire.

A second “strategic choice” was addressed, or rather, exposed, last week in a series of “employee town hall” meetings where unctuous bookkeepers tried to explain why the university was changing the dates when employees were paid. Today around 5,000 of us are paid monthly; about 3,000 support staff are paid at the middle and the end of the month, and a smaller number on “casual payroll” are paid on the 10th and 25th. After the New Year everyone will be paid the way casual employees are paid now.

The bookkeepers admitted to such poor oversight that some casual employees had been overpaid. Their solution is, in effect, a compulsory loan to hold 8,000 employees’ interest-bearing salaries an extra 10 days twice a month. These employees then are compelled to bear the inconvenience of changing mortgage payments, for example. This is called externalizing costs. When this is pointed out to the bookkeepers, they smile and agree.

A decade hence we can expect a hundred senior administrators to be required to preside over even greater deficits in what will have become a techie school with a speed-skating oval attached.

With luck Calgarians will still have one university in town, Mount Royal.

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