Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What's Happened to Universities?

The latest issue of Academic Matters has a provocative article by Ken Coates on The Quiet Campus: The Anatomy of Dissent at Canadian Universities.
Here's the opening paragraphs ...
The remarkable—a word that can be read in many different ways—2012 student protests in Quebec have stirred memories of the activist campuses of yesteryear. For faculty members introduced to the academy in the era of student activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and general social unrest, the recent quietude of the Canadian university system has been disturbing. Universities had been transformed in the 1960s from comfortable retreats into agents of intellectual foment, social change, and political action. For a time, it appeared that the imperatives of the academy had aligned with a commitment to social justice to create a system almost ideally set to lead Canada’s transformation.

Universities had long stood apart intellectually from the Canadian mainstream, but finally, in the 1960s, began to reflect society at large. The humanities and social sciences expanded rapidly. Women, minorities, immigrants and working class Canadians came to campuses in record numbers and, later, showed up at the front of the classroom. They brought new perspectives on the issues of the day, challenging the patriarchal, middle-class hegemony that had dominated Canadian universities for generations. With some exceptions, faculty members and administrators stood behind student radicals and protestors. Many faculty members used the classroom and their writing to support hitherto unpopular causes. Universities were often at the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and in favour of the rights of women, Aboriginals, LGBT individuals, and minorities.
I was a student in the 1960s. Universities are no longer like that. What happened?
Canadian campuses have become distressingly quiet. It is not that the universities are without dissenters from all points on political and social spectrums. Many of the country’s most radical, creative, and outspoken commentators work or study at universities and use the campus as a pulpit. This is how it should be. But the preoccupation with practicalities—work, careers, salaries, and the commercialization of research—has transformed Canadian universities into calm, largely dissent-free places, with the greatest debates often saved for battles between faculty and students and the campus administrators. There are no structural or legal impediments to greater engagement. There is nothing stopping students and faculty from speaking out, no grand tribunals determined to impose punishments on those who challenge the status quo. We have self-regulated ourselves into near silence, and our students and the country suffer from the quiet as much as university faculty. It is more than nostalgia that brings one to yearn for days of activism and protest; it is, instead, the realization that the ideas, talent, energy and resources of the academic could and should be used to change our country and our world for the better.
Nostalgia, yes that describes my feelings exactly.


  1. Yes, the world has changed. When I got my PhD in 1974 the speaker at the graduation ceremony was Richard Feynman. (You'll remember him... Nobel Prize physicist.) Thirty years later at the same institution, the speaker at the graduation ceremony was Carly Fiorina. (You may or may not remember her... this was just before she was dumped as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.)

  2. "The remarkable—a word that can be read in many different ways..."
    Remarkable is a self-fulfilling word. If you call something remarkable, you have in fact remarked upon it.

  3. The student protest in Québec was for unindexed and even free tuition, Unfortunately, Québec being already heavily burdened with its generous social programs cannot afford what students want! The only ideology there is socialism or, what I like to call it, The Free Lunch!

    1. Speaking of that, we still need to steal the free lunches of all those K-12 kids. Oh, and also take away their education unless they pay up.

    2. Yes Pépé, this redistribution of the wealth towards things like job creation, infrastructure development, education, healthcare and other social programs really is so harmful to society...oops, did I say society? Man, that reeks of socialism! Where's a war when you need one to dispose of disposable income?

    3. Shawn, how would you like to pay 54% of income tax plus another 15% in sales tax on the 46% left in your pocket? In Québec, 40% of adults don't pay taxes and the rest are the most tax burdened in North America. What is happening in Europe, the PIIGS, is starting to occur in Québec with the difference that Québec gets money from the other provinces through perequation. These provinces are now considering seperation "from" Québec!

    4. Are you sure it is that high? by my calculations in quebec you would pay 31% federal and provincial taxes on first 40K and combined 42% on the second 40K if you are making 80k per year. But it is true taxes in Quebec are highest in Canada.
      As for perequation (equalization transfers), the economic fortunes of provinces wax and wane over time...even Ontario is now receiving transfers. It is still a very good idea, ensuring a relatively even standard of living across the country. Canada is doing fairly well and the alternative to employing a fair balance between capitalistic and socialistic principles is never pretty. Any province that speaks of separation from quebec or the rest of Canada must currently be doing quite well, but it may not always be that way. And in any case, resources in a given province should not wholly belong to that province due to some geographic accident...they belong to the country. This, in part, is manifested by the principle of transfer payments.

    5. Shawn, you're welcome to come live in Québec and contribute to our social programs.

  4. Here in Colombia it is the complete opposite, activism is so frequent among students that sometimes the continuous protests don't allow us to study. An undergrad program may take 6-7 years due to constant protests and strikes.

    1. The trend that there is less rebellion and protest on campuses seems true enough. I suppose the reasons for this social change are 1) greater materialism, as was implied, 2) protest fatigue, and 3) the internet. We can protest all we want for the causes we want over the wire, from our bedroom. We do not need to gather together to be heard.

    2. I was on a Colombian campus for a week in February giving classes. One day masked students came to all classrooms and ordered all classes suspended for the following day, in order to have a "revolutionary assembly." Access to classrooms were then blockaded with furniture, etc. My students did not take it seriously; it seemed to be rebellion for the sake of rebellion. But it turned out fine; my students and I took the day to go looking at birds and plants in the mountains around Cali.

  5. Here in the U.S., I see three things as contributing factors, all related:

    1. Adopt the "business model" for education (i.e. students are now education consumers, faculty now provide a service).

    2. Expand the power and number of administrative positions. Positions are filled largely based on political philosophy and cronisim.

    3. Increasingly shift the burden of funding on faculty (via grant IDC's to cover "overhead), and inact student tuition increases that outpace inflation by orders of magnitude.

    This creates a "widget" approach to education which faculty and students, no doubt, are quickly sucked into. No time for dissent for students. Keep your mouth shut and get in and get out as quickly as possible.

    (see pRick Scott's doings in the state of Florida as an example)

    1. should be "cronyism", my bad

    2. agree. The difference between the atmosphere on campuses now and forty five years ago is emblematic of the overall ascendancy of corporatism and commercialization that has stuck human society in a lesser paradigm.

  6. I couldn't insist more that this is a poor analysis of the quietude of universities.
    Back in the day they simply highjacked a mutually held institutions and used them to promote causes and peoples who couldn't get their promotion from democratic processes.
    The universities,then , were elites who simply fought the former elites.
    They have their way today and so its quiet on the university front.
    I know pro-life groups have all kinds of oppression and opposition for trivial presentations in universities on the pro-life stuff.
    Of coarse its famous about opposition to creationism(s) here and there .

    A nation and her people should be the ones who decide what is right and wrong.
    Not small numbers of kids and teachers saying they are smarter and since they will largely be in charge in the workworld then they should move the nation toward its future.
    Then sure enough the universities do not represent Canada as she really is and they become just a sample of whats wrong with Canada.

    If the universities are to rule, out of proportion to their numbers etc, then its means democratic processes and presumptions are not welcome.
    I never went to university but see them as silly folks who say they know better whats right and wrong and will get their way in undemocratic ways.

    It was immoral ,and still to be corrected, wrong for these kids to hijack higher learning institutions for social dominance stuff back in the '60's.
    They were just moral and intellectual mobs planning on high salaries.
    I know today the kids have no interest in anything then their professions and salaries.
    Their are great problems today with universities but at least the future of the nation is more likely to be in the hands of the nations and not spoiled upper middle class '60's students.

    Universities should only be for higher education for particular subjects and professions.
    Not for guiding the establishment/nation.
    The true patriotic student should stay out of the way of democratic processes which favour public opinion and will.

    The universities should not be representing , as a institution, causes and opinions.
    They should be neutral .
    They are a mess today and hold back Canadian progress and success.
    It started with those boring kids in the '60's.

    One way to open things up would be to allow full creationist teachings in science courses.
    Can anyone here get some signs !!

    1. Robert Byers says,

      I never went to university but see them as silly folks who say they know better whats right and wrong and will get their way in undemocratic ways.

      In other words, you know as much about universities as you do about biology.

    2. So in other words, tyranny of the majority ?

  7. It's really weird that you illustrate a quote on Quebec 2012 events with a picture of 1970 Kent State events.

    Have U Toronto students ever protested Canada's involvement in Afghanistan (more than 150 Canadians dead) to an extent similar to their protest against Vietnam war where no Canadian soldiers were killed? In your view, is it possible that the simple explanation is that students as a whole are stupid and will always believe the prevailing MSM propaganda?

    1. No, it's my view that today's students are much less concerned about such things than the students of the 1960s. Students in 2012 don't want to change the world, they want to adapt to it and survive.

    2. I just cared more about molecular genetics than politics.

  8. And the people in the houses
    All went to the university,
    Where they were put in boxes
    And they came out all the same,
    And there's doctors and lawyers,
    And business executives,
    And they're all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.

    - Malvina Reynolds, 'Little Boxes'

  9. Protests are not anti-democratic, andyb. They are not usually attempts to bully but opportunities to show politicians how people feel about important issues. How else to keep a politician honest and responsive to the people's will once he is in power? Protests are also important educational tools directed at the general populace and the people in power. Most of today's students simply do not care about the world, except when an issue directly affects their pocketbooks. It is a sad time, a maddening time, because the world is headed in such a dangerous direction yet people are mostly silent.

    1. Lou, I think you don't mean me. If so, please let me know what I wrote that gave you the impression I think protests are 'anti-democratic'.

    2. Absolutely right Andy, sorry. I was responding to Robert Byers' post; I thought the song you put up was from the same author as the earlier (Byers) post, and that's what led to my slip. Many apologies and thanks for the correction.

    3. Lou Jost
      Its not the protest but the motive behind it.
      University activism was all about trumping democratic processes.
      Voting didn't get results quick enough. It was about causing trouble to pressure decision makers. Nothing to do with the common people.
      It never would work with regular people or anyways they had to work.
      University kids were not working and lots of time.

      The only reason what a small number of people in the universities think , would matter is because they matter more then the common people.
      LIkewise it was the teachers, read establishment, who were quite active.
      The reason the '60's protests were unjust and wrong was because they were about issues that normal democratic processes could not change.
      It really was a new and rising elite fighting a older elite.
      They have their way today and so its peaceful and controled.
      They do believe the universities matter more then the common people and so censorship and all kinds of laws and rules govern the modern universities.
      Nothing that would allow aggressive or gentle protest of unwelcome ideas.

      If university activism was just regular civilian activism then it would not be singled out by species or have its thread here.
      Nope. Its about the kids who plan to rule and gain society and who didn't care about what the people thought or democratic processes.

    4. Robert B says:
      The reason the '60's protests were unjust and wrong was because they were about issues that normal democratic processes could not change.

      Interesting comment, aren't you the one claiming freedom of speech is the highest good in a society, a democratic right so to speak?
      Now you're saying these students shouldn't have been allowed to use their right to freedom of speech, because that's undemocratic?

      Its about the kids who plan to rule and gain society and who didn't care about what the people thought or democratic processes.

      It's democratic processes and laws as product of a democratic process, the right to vote, which ban teaching YEC and ID in science classes. Since you seem to care so much about democratic processes, you can only agree that banning YEC and ID from science curriculum is just and above all democratic.

    5. ED
      Democratic processes would always gain creationists, here a little, there a lot more, access to the students who are being given just one side of a famous and popular contention.

      I didn't say any students should be denied free speech but said their freedom of speech was just a methodology for overriding democratic process.
      Riots are done to bring change without popular consent or popular refection through democratic means. Having free speech for rioters is fine but thats not their motivation to freely discuss.

  10. These days nobody wants to upset their chances of getting that all-precious MBA so that they can work for a corporate overlord. As a result the university campuses are rampant hotbeds of unbridled complacency. The 18-24 year-old turnout in our last federal election was pitiful, and it's been declining for a while.

    1. I have a simple explanation: 1970s USA/Canada were prosperous places with plenty of jobs available for an educated class. So one could well afford to be a fuck up skipping classes and marching with banners all day long. Almost anyone who could get intro college knew that one way or another he will find a job that pays enough to survive, have wife and children. Protesting carried virtually zero risk!

      Everything is very different now. Jobs are scarce and college graduates are like dirt - everywhere and cheap. Not a lot of second chances now! One either makes it or is fucked for life. Not fun, not fun at all. Might as well suppress that bleeding heart feeling and go on with the program...

    2. Most of my university friends in the 1960s didn't give a damn about having a ticky tacky house and a menial job.

      Many of them wanted to "turn on, tune in, drop out." Some of them actually did and are still living on a commune.

    3. Most of my university friends in the 1960s didn't give a damn about having a ticky tacky house and a menial job.

      Of course. Not many do in their youth. But most still ended up with a ticky tacky house and a menial job, right? Such is the nature of things. Proves my point. 1960s-1970s were low risk.