Decolonizing FrackedU: Ed Finlay on academic freedom and university governance

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on November 20, 2017

Ed Finlay delivered the annual Jon Thompson Lecture at the University of New Brunswick on Nov. 14. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Visiting professor Ed Finlay believes universities should protect themselves from “corporate creep” by returning to genuine shared governance. In a recent talk at UNB, he advocated a decolonization of what he terms a ‘uberized university.’

The University of Saskatchewan prof delivered the annual Jon Thompson Lecture on Academic Freedom at the University of New Brunswick on Nov. 14, hosted by the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers (AUNBT). AUNBT President Sue Blair underlined that Finlay’s talk was significant in light of the April 2017 KPMG report produced for UNB that recommended the centralization of its administrative services.

Finlay’s presentation, “Collegial Governance in the 21st Century: Serving the Curious Collegium or an Obedience Machine,” underlined that universities prefer scientific management because it destroys the collegium. Ultimately, in the universities, resentment replaces collaboration. This meaningful shift from gentility to a rigid ideology and “a new academic sociability” means that university administrators work with their team and their fellow CEOs and “collegiality is reduced to congeniality-and-compliance-or-else,” often bordering on intimidation.

Finlay served a decade on the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and is a past president of the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association. In her introduction, Blair noted his strong advocacy for academic humanities and making the connection between “scholarly activating and union activity.” Finlay is working to decolonize and “re-politicize” universities. By his own admission, he was called his university’s “greatest enemy” for his activism and unrelenting questioning of academic freedom and university governance.

Broad trends in academic governance in Canada

In 1966, the Duff-Berdahl report on universities in Canada, University Government in Canada, found that shared governance and relative autonomy in the service of academic freedom were established in Canadian universities. However, since then, managerialism, bureaucratic bloat, the consultancy paradox (outsourcing expertise and responsibility at a great cost and to little, and mostly damaging, effect) and the marketing imperative (termed “Big Brander” by Finlay) has led to an effort to unilaterally govern and claim to speak for ‘the university.’ For Finlay, this has meant a decline in the faculty ‘share’ of shared governance and the consequent turn to unionization as a sure way to regain a faculty role in university governance.

Finlay locates the moment of change in 1983 with George Keller’s book, Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education, a “bible of sorts” that helped to accelerate the shift from human reason and imagination to scientific management. However, 30 years later, in 2014, even Keller and Peter MacKinnon, in University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective, advocated for academic decisions to be made in individual disciplines.

Remarkably, said Finlay, in recent statements about the recent strike by the Ontario College unions, the CEO of the College Employer Council assumed that universities still function through their Senates, even though this body increasingly has less autonomy. For Finlay, “internally autocratic and externally supine¨ is the seemingly perfect university governance balance.

Furthermore, planning, which has become an epidemic on university campuses, “keeps faculty off balance.” For Finlay, planning means compliance instead of a set of goals and subtly identified needs. Planning is part of what Finlay terms the “obedience machine.” As a result, unions’ collective agreements are aspirational and operational while faculty members are deemed “tired and entitled” by their higher-ups.

During the Harper decade of cuts to post-secondary education, faculty unions continued their resistance while university presidents were entirely silent. In 2011, a new statement on academic freedom from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) was diminished when even David Naylor, President of CAUT, refused to sign it.

Finlay was personally accused of “apprehension of bias” as chair of an investigatory Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee for CAUT, and he described this move as “bold pre-emptive strike” against the independent investigation. However, despite the personal criticism, Finlay is a senior faculty member with job security and clout. He doubts that many would be willing to take the CAUT position knowing the problems it could entail.

Universities have become what Finlay terms, “FrackedU.” “Discreetly directive donors,” are specific monied interests who influence the university’s governance. Finlay displayed a 1947 cartoon that worried about the influence of corporate interests in that time, an image that he said is “as relevant today as it was then, or perhaps more relevant” because of neoliberalism. Finlay pointed to the University of Calgary’s “Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability” as an example. Given his experience, in the West, Finlay says that “Big oil has its own antennae, board members, and academic apologists. Big oil governs to get its way. Big oil thinks its donations are buying academic alibis and a social license for its projects.”

Finlay also discussed the pretext for growth in academic management. “Institutional size, institutional complexity, and the onus of accountability” are all used as reasons to move resources away from university’s core mission (teaching). Most international, national and local students can no longer be attracted by “old growth internationalism” (exploring other regions and cultures) so the model is supplanted by targeted and competitive recruitment.

Interpellating in a good way

Finlay mentioned UNB Professor Peter Kent’s 2012 book about a case at UNB that established the principles of academic freedom. He renamed it “ReInventing Academic Freedom: The 1968 Strax Affair at the University of New Brunswick” since academic freedom existed well before 1968. The UNB motto, a quote from the Greek writer, Horace, reads: “Sapere aude” or “Dare to know!” but students are more likely to know slogans from big box stores than their university’s mottos. Finlay urged the public to ask: “Does the university motto matter? Do we live up to it? Do we empty it of its historical nuances?”

Finlay pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 Calls to Action as a good model for making decisions. The Calls to Action are a collective reimagining, emanating from evidence and from the critical internationalism of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that has been given a lukewarm adoption by the federal government. This document calls for resources, research and rethinking, without prescribing outcomes. The TRC Calls to Action are an example of “human aspiration, not branding hype,” according to Finlay.

Parties to Academic Governance at all levels have something to say: the province, managers, faculty, and students all need to work together to avoid the “path dependencies of market ‘logic.’” Finlay ended by saying “university governance must be actively decolonizing and committed to giving students the tools of critical citizenship to use as they choose for their own benefit and the public good.” All involved should be making a case for an “invaluably public institution.”

Finlay also recognized Jon Thompson, retired UNB Math and Statistics professor and past AUNBT executive member, as “a national treasure,” a man “far too humble to make that claim” but who is recognized “by students and scholars throughout the country.”

The talk was recorded and the video can be viewed from the AUNBT website. 

 Sophie M. Lavoie is an editor with the NB Media Co-op and Chair of the Department of Culture and Media Studies at the University of New Brunswick.  






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