“As any contemporary academic will tell you, thanks to a double whammy of drastic cuts in public funding for and creeping privatisation of higher education, universities have become businesses — and not particularly good ones. Conversely, businesses, and particularly those at the leading edge of innovation, have taken over universities’ former role as society’s prime sites of knowledge generation.”
— Tom McCarthy
The stereotypical curmudgeon lives in memory: ideas with dates attached, and always, always, resistance to change. But when change, inevitably, slowly erases what a university once looked like, how it once operated, it’s worth asking: should we use our breath to talk about the way things used to be, or should we realize the clock is moving, hardly anyone really cares about what we leave behind, and that there are bigger things (like, for instance, the end of the semester! and the world outside!) to contemplate.
It’s hardly visible, but one of those incremental changes has already begun: the process to hire a new president of UFV. And some professors, some staff, perhaps even some students, if they know about it, are not thrilled that the process is going to be conducted in private. Oh, the process, that’s “transparent,” but there will be no knowledge of who the candidates are until the choice has already been made by a committee of 13. Want to serve on it? The deadline’s already passed.
This is, at its core, a matter of perspective — of what a university is. On the one hand, we might say a university is an academic community; in order to properly enter it, a figure as important as president should have to meet with members of the community, show what they would bring if they were hired, prove they can listen and meet and be present, face-to-face, with people before a five-year contract is drawn up (the president is one of the few who lives on campus, after all).
On the other hand, we might say this is just a job, and the hiring process is not weak, and the standards are already set, and the completely open process is something that hasn’t happened here in over a decade, and the reasons given for why this is confidential are, if not convincing, well, they’re inevitable.
UFV is not special: no matter how much learning is made “student-centred,” students are looked at as users of a service, and they will not, even if they become graduate students or teaching assistants or residents in UFV’s future to come, be considered equals who need to be brought into an academic community — we can have classrooms, and we can have a committee seat or two, but the majority will never lead, or even know, of what happens here.
A student will find it very hard to care about something if they do not even know it exists. For example, the two student positions on the committee were not well promoted — one was decided among the members of the Student Union Society board, and the broader call to potentially interested students was made, again online, three days before the deadline. The presidential search, conducted in private, announced by an online post at a university where online services are outdated and inconvenient, or on the periphery, is something that is very easy to keep in the backs of a very select group of minds until, a few months from now, a name is declared, and their very many credentials are listed.
“My concern is the cost of conducting this search in secret is that the faculty members I have been talking to, and presumably many others as well will become somewhat suspicious of the process, and that has the potential to damage their relationship with the incoming president to the detriment, I think, of the entire institution,” said Sven van de Wetering, the head of the psychology department, speaking at this month’s Senate meeting.
I mean, before we even get into the questions of where this president will come from, how they will understand UFV, what it has been doing, what it is capable of, how the firm conducting the search draws in candidates, how it narrows them down, what, if any, blind spots might come from this process, how to avoid the problems seen elsewhere in the province when it comes to presidential searches, what, if anything, it means that the same search firm is conducting a search at Capilano University for their next president, the thing that’s worth emphasizing, to students that aren’t following this, or don’t have the time to, is that the president of this institution has a remarkable impact — they are not merely the public face, but are directly involved in how the university looks at academic and business matters. The president is there at every behind-closed-doors Board of Governors meeting, chairs Senate, when the public asks questions at a budget forum, he responds — universities, whether ideal or corrupted, are hierarchical, and so the office of the president has enormous implications for the direction of where this place goes. And who will decide where that is? As it stands now, a few.
At Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland, a new president, hired from the finance sector, lacking understanding of the culture of the campus, bringing in external advisors, ignoring consultative processes and how the worlds of academia and business differ, now resigned from the position, is the extreme poster example of how this model of leadership can go wrong. Nothing ever happens the same way twice — just to start, that was a private, not public institution. But the same idea is at the core of what happened there: not enough people with different viewpoints were there when the decision was made, no one called bullshit on hiring a Wall Street guy for a religious university’s president — no one influenced the room at the right time to talk about responsibility and, yes, history, rather than the way a particular style of experience connects to profit.
Will that happen here? No one will really know until it’s too late — and that, not the quality of standards and the quality of members on the committee, is why people are worried, or thinking about ways this could be not the best method.
A survey, taken last year, of 134 faculty at UFV, delivered these results: only 18 per cent thought the president was leading the university in a good direction (32 per cent were neutral). The same survey, of 98 staff members, had 42 per cent thinking the same thing (another 35 per cent neutral). While there is certainly time for things to change or communication to improve (and the outcome of that Senate meeting may be part of this), as a beginning, the Board, who formed the committee, and others involved in the process, are doing little to improve things for the future — and that has nothing to do with nostalgia.