Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game

Eric Newstadt argues that we should worry about the way that Universities are being transformed from institutions of higher learning into corporate training grounds that produce flexible workers and forms of knowledge that can be packaged, sold, and used to generate profit.

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The chorus of voices that rapidly condemned the University of Saskatchewan decision to fire Robert Buckingham, the now (and still) former Dean of the University’s School of Public Health, was in many ways terrifically encouraging. There is a big community of people who see tenure as it needs to be seen –a fundamentally important part of institutions that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, as well as a civilized and democratic society.

But if we are serious about preserving tenure, then we need to also understand that tenure is only one small part of the picture, albeit an important one. Think of it this way: tenure is a shield against undue influence and intervention. It is only effective if it is used. And even when it is used, tenure is not any kind of an inoculation against base and instrumental forms of reason. In fact, tenure can be used to protect the very worst forms of academe imaginable. My point is not that tenure is both cancer and cure, but rather that tenure is hardly the only thing that needs protecting in and around the contemporary university.

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As David Noble has brilliantly documented, about 100 years ago America’s captains of industry organized the takeover and complete overhaul of America’s system of higher education. This takeover not only involved a system of “strategic philanthropy” that lent terrific financial advantage to America’s wealthiest institutions, it also entailed the imposition of strict ideological boundaries. These boundaries, though seriously tested in the 1960s and 1970s, remain shockingly intact. What’s more, in moving corporate training from the corporation school to the university, those who remade American higher education on behalf of the Fords, the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, also gave birth to the Management Sciences. And, the Management Sciences have since coughed up the work of Corporate Men like Robert Dickenson. Dickenson is the contemporary guru of university management and “efficiency” that the University of Saskatchewan turned to when it found itself mired in a well-crafted financial crisis. His approach to “program prioritization” has been well detailed by Craig Heron, a now retired historian from York University.

This history is relevant because what so upset Buckingham – the University’s TransformUS cost-saving program of Dicksenson inspired cuts—is in fact a widespread trend. Buckingham’s letter (and the manner in which it was received) is indicative of how higher education is being remade according to the strictures of efficiency experts whose contempt for knowledge and its pursuit, at least where such does not involve potential profit, is well known and hardly a departure from the logic that ruled America’s corporation schools 100 years ago.

Senior administrators at the University of Saskatchewan have likely learned something of a lesson from the recent debacle. In first demanding total obedience and then responding so brazenly when they did not get it, the University’s senior administrators showed themselves to be rash, contemptuous of criticism, and fundamentally at odds with the purpose and role of the organization they manage – an institution of higher learning. These are not qualities often prized in decision-makers. Notably, TransformUS was roundly – and openly – criticised before Buckingham spoke out. Only with Buckingham’s termination, however, did the issue become a national topic of conversation. My bet is that the university now better understands that with time, a little more tolerance, and the proper redirection of funding, the academics who enjoy the protection that tenure provides will have little interest in objecting.

So now what? That is the question we all should be asking. The threat that plans like TransformUS holds are both serious and ubiquitous. As it goes, the TransformUS brand is so deeply ironic that it offers an indication of what lies ahead. TransformUS is, at once, an incantation for complacency, as though self-transformation is impossible or inefficient (i.e. Please, Transform US!), and an unacknowledged reference to the transformations that helped to engineer America’s system of higher education. Indeed, TransformUS intones the rise of the market as a transformative agent, and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption.

Or, is there nothing ironic about TransformUS at all? Canada is increasingly described by the kind and level of inequality that has long described the US. Perhaps if we are to accept our new oligarchs, who are clearly not willing to rest on their considerable laurels, then it would be best to simply surrender the University and bask in the ignorant bliss that plans like TransformUS will almost certainly deliver. Or, perhaps we should not be sated when, after much objection, tenure is maintained and the academic mission nonetheless redirected, undermined, and turned into corporate fodder.

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Eric Newstadt is a political economist, itinerant academic labourer, and Research Associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Nova Scotia.

 

2 comments

  1. […] and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption. (Eric Newstadt, “Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game”. Impact Ethics. May 16, […]

  2. I want to suggest that this episode may have a hopeful side, as it indicates that the Academy can, has, and will speak back to the all-administrative, corporate action of which Eric Newstadt writes in his carefully considered, cautionary remarks.

    The very idea of the Academy is that there is just that, an Academy of learned people who understand as a collective the academic direction the University ought to be moving. The role of a Dean ought to be to facilitate the conveying of that learned sensibility to the Sr. administration so that the administration will not err in its judgement and decision making on behalf of the Academy and the vital work done by the academy in training students. Buckingham acted appropriately here, with great fervour and courage and moral conviction — and a measured dose of acerbic writing, understandable given the authoritarian position taken by the Sr. Administration. Here the administration, by all accounts, defied the Academy, and sought to intimidate the Dean and the trust relation held with the Academy by their actions. We need to return the authority back to the entire academic system: the Academy itself, supported by Deans and the Sr. Administration, in order to support the fullest academic mission of the University (We should all recall: the Administration is not “the university”). The top-down, command and control model may be appropriate for the military, for certain top-down management style corporations, but not for a public, academic organization. We have to reclaim the academy. Dr. Buckingham has simply stood up for that principle. I applaud him, as do many across the Canadian Academy.

    The honourable thing for the President and the Provost to do is resign, and for the University of Saskatchewan Board to find a replacement who supports transparent academic conversation and decision making that is responsive, rather than adversarial, to the Academy. I suggest we rekindle the Academy in this broader sense, and its authority, in every quarter we can, as active members of such an important socially, environmentally responsive institution.

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