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Friday, May 23, 2014

The faculty is the university

An old high school friend1 added a comment on a previous post where he alerted me to a new (for me) blog called "Piece of Mind." The author is Nassif Ghoussoub, a Professor of Mathematics at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and a member of the Board of Governors of that university.

His blog post is: Return on investment in faculty rarely captured by university CFOs and it makes three important points.
  1. The faculty is the university.
  2. Budget models that invest in things like $140-million in online learning while cutting normal teaching and research are unlikely to work.
  3. Cutting normal faculty positions while advocating an increase in "professional programs" and an increase in enrollment seems illogical.
I like the opening and the closing ....
"Mr. President, We are not employees of the university. We are the university."

With these words, Isidore Rabi, a distinguished faculty member at Columbia University, interrupted Dwight Eisenhower, who had started off a speech by addressing the faculty as "employees of the university." [At the time, Eisenhower was President of Columbia University.] Generation after generation of faculty members has repeated this inspirational anecdote from the early 1950s, though they know very well that their universities are increasingly becoming about everything other than the faculty. And the situation appears to be worsening. To the professional managerial class that nowadays run the neoliberal version of post-secondary education, the faculty is often seen as merely the source of the university’s problems. So, before too many of my colleagues get used to being seen as a cost, not something that provides net positive value to the university, I would like to use charter accountants’ speak to argue that investment in university research excellence could be and should be viewed as a possible driver of future revenue.


As to the end of the Eisenhower tale, people assumed he might have taken offense by the somewhat confrontational remark of Rabi. Instead, the latter became his closest friend on the faculty – "and when Eisenhower became President of a somewhat larger organization than Columbia, he appointed Rabi to a number of influential positions."

1. It was Bob Woodham, and I mean a high school friend from a long time ago not a high school friend who is old. None of us are "old" yet.


  1. Small typo: the link's broken. Add a ":" after "http".

  2. Historically, it is quite literally true that the faculty IS the university. Administrators, like the now-fired president of US, serve the faculty, not the other way around. The truly disgusting thing about what happened at US (now rectified, but the damage is done) is that an administrator (i.e. NOT a member of the faculty) had the gall to fire a tenured member of the faculty. The administrators serve at the behest of (and are rightly subordinate to) the faculty, not the other way around. Unfortunately, as universities drift closer and closer to the "corporate" model, we are slowly getting to the point that tenured members of the faculty can be terminated, but administrators can't. This must STOP, or the only people left at the "universities" will be the administration, and the historical character and mission of universities will cease to exist.

  3. OMG!!!

    What happened...? Did anybody die... or something... This blog used to be so vibrant... so alive... What's happened to it... I'm sorry I've been on vacation... I'm choosing my retirement place... my wife wants to retire but I.................... don't....

    So... Who died ...?

  4. Larry. I agree that the faculty is far more important than the administration, but I would also argue that the grad students and undergrads are far more important than the faculty.

    I feel indebted to my faculty advisor, but his reputation was only as good as the students he mentored. Sure, he can certainly take credit for being able to identify and guide talented young people, but it is definitely a two way street.

    Frankly, I think that the entire "tenure" idea is outdated. For too many professors, achieving tenure, in and of itself, is the goal. Everything else is secondary. Tenure has little to do with academic freedom. For far too many, if us about job security.

    This being said, removing the dean from his position of Dean for criticizing the University is acceptable. A Dean, essentially, is an administrative and political position. However, they went to far when they fired him as a professor.

    1. It is quite possible have an excellent world class university that has no undergraduates. This suggests to me that undergraduates don't count as much as you might think. There are quite a few good universities that don't have graduate students so they don't seem to be indespensible either.

      As graduate students and undergraduates pass through university they often take up an interest in what happens at universities. Some of them start to think about teaching and graduate students, in particular, learn anout the trials and tribulations of research. Many of them can make valuable contributions to improving the university but the still, for the most part, lack knowledge of lots of stuff that goes on at a university.

      Many students, for example, have rather naive views about the importance of tenure and academic freedom and many don't see why job security is important in a university.

      Finally, an extraordinary number of students at my university think, like you, that the corporate model is acceptable and Deans should be fired if they disagree with their "boss." They see faculty as employees of the university—because many of them are just employees these days—or as servants of the students because the students are the customers who are paying for their degrees.

      Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not about to turn over the universities to students whose main interest these days is getting a degree so they can get a job.

    2. See

      One of the points of the Humboldian model I'd like to stress is the third one: The unity of teaching and research. The Humboldian university became the model of German research not because of a conscious decision, but out of a need. Since Germany at that point in time was not a single nation, it was impossible to create an equivalent to the Royal society in London or the Societe de sciences in Paris. Humbold suggested to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia that Universities could serve as places where research could be done and FW accepted that proposal.

      The research university as a place of both learning and teaching, with a heavy overlap between them emerged in a world where institutions devoted purely to research existed, as well as institutions purely for higher learning and it was adopted by other German states. It also spread to nations that didn't have to adopt it as a last resort - the success in terms of research these institutions could show for themselves was big enough for other places to follow suit.

      I think you are underestimating the role students can play - at least historically they were responsible for the success of research universities compared to other models. I've always felt responsible for making a contribution to research - the job of the student is to get competent enough in their field to be able to tell their advisors something new.

      And academic freedom starts with students as well. To be able to make a contribution in this way, students have to take courses outside of the narrow field of their degree - something streamlined programs don't tend to offer.

    3. Traditionally, students *were* the university, at least in the classic universities of Europe like Paris and Heidelberg. They paid the professors directly based on what they thought they were worth.

    4. Well, it has to do with the etymology of "university" as universitas magistrorum et scholarium (the community of teachers and students). Without students, you can have a research institute, but no transfer of knowledge between generations.

  5. The universities belong the people that created them. We hire teachers and pay them.
    The students are to come from our people.
    The university does not belong to the faculty anymore then the army belongs to the officers.
    The university should be obeying the nations designs on education for our people.
    The universities should reflect the people of our country and not special people.
    If it was just the faculty then in the case of US the faculty should of told the government and press in Sask to keep out of a private affair. They didn't.
    This is also why creationism should be in science subjects and possibly fewer math professors. need some more firings !

    1. "Need some more firings!"

      Tell us, Robert, who should be fired to assist the cause of creationism. And who should fire them.

    2. Still waiting for an answer, Robert. Who should be fired, and on what grounds.

    3. Mr. Byers should consider taking remedial English...

  6. The faculty are not the university any more than the head or the heart are the organism.
    The faculty ought to own the direction of the university but that is not the same thing.
    A problem is, that some faculty act as if the university exists to serve them rather than the converse.
    Further, outside of universities, many of us spend significant effort to prove and prove again our value to incompetent administrators. It takes five to ten times the effort it should take to get even simple things done. Ultimately, you have to accept that his is part of getting things done, part of the job. When faculty whine about doing the same it just demonstrates a cult of privilege that needs some shake-up.
    I dislike the direction of the changes but frankly the faculty are usually their own worst enemy. And not recognizing the arrogance and negative message inherit in claiming that the faculty are the university signals more trouble ahead.

    1. If you institution is developing dysfunctional practices, then it is your responsibility to challenge those practices... whether you are an academic or not.

  7. Dr. Moran,

    Would you please point me to an article in your blog that complained about massive run up of student debt to sustain the universities?

    1. I'm not sure what you are asking. In Canada there hasn't been a "massive run up of student debt" for undergraduate programs. My position is that students should not have to pay tuition to attend public universities. I like the European system, especially the system in Northern Europe, where tuition is almost "free" (i.e. paid for by taxes).

    2. Re Larry Moran

      At one time, public universities in the US, at least in California, were virtually free. When I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, the tuition charge was $50 American per semester, independent of the number of credit hours. Today, it's getting hard to tell the difference between Berkeley and Stanford relative to tuition charges. IMHO, this is an example of being penny wise and pound foolish as, presumably, an educated populace is an asset to any country. The same thing is happening in most other states. At one time, the public university system in the US was the envy of the world; now it is being frittered away by short sighted legislators who can't look beyond the next quarter.

    3. In USA, since 2008 crash, the universities forced students to accumulate huge amounts of loan to sustain themselves. You can see the discontinuity in the first chart below and the number has grown to $ 1 trillion now.

      I do not have any problem is accepting 'the faculty is the university', but the implication is that the US faculty members are conspiring to sell kids into debt slavery.

      After Bush made a change in debt law in 2005, student debt in USA gets collected by Federal government (IRS). IRS is a nasty debt collector, I heard.

  8. It just hit me..How much money do the governments of US and Canada spent to support the "research" (I have to laugh here because I can't helps myself).... into the origins of life and so called evolution...?
    It is a public record... I will find out and expose the morons...

    This should be a public record so we should have some results soon...

    Can anyone imagine what it would be like living the world without bullies.. like....?
    Imagine the day the evolution was proven wrong not to mention abiogenesis some 100 years ago by Pasteur.... How do the morons with blind faith get together like that...? I can't comprehend...

    1. sez quest (whoever he, she, and/or it may actually be in their offline existence): "Imagine the day the evolution was proven wrong not to mention abiogenesis some 100 years ago by Pasteur…"
      I don't for one microsecond believe that quest is either willing or able to accept correction of any of his errors, but for the benefit of anyone who may simply suffer from a benign form of the ignorance to which quest willfully adheres: What Louis Pasteur disproved is the notion that contemporary life-forms (i.e., mice, flies, etc) might somehow arise from unliving matter. This notion is called "spontaneous generation", and as such, it is not interchangeable with the scientific hypothesis of abiogenesis, which holds that some sort of self-reproducing whatzit can arise from unliving matter. Spontaneous generation can be considered a specific form of the general concept of abiogenesis, and Pasteur's refutation of one specific form of abiogenesis does not, in fact, mean that the general concept of abiogenesis has been refuted.
      Since evolution presupposes the existence of entities which reproduce themselves with less than 100% fidelity, is it not clear why quest seems to think that refutation of any particular version of abiogenesis would constitute disproof of evolution. It is a mystery, as are the unrelated questions of how quest knows that that Witton character has been imprisoned, or what sort of evidence quest would regard as supportive of the hypothesis of universal common ancestry.

    2. Re cubist

      Morons like Quest continue to erroneously conflate abiogensis with evolution. They are two different theories and are, at the least semi-independent of each other. Abiogensis is the appearance of the first replicators; evolution is the process by which the first replicators lead to the diversity of life. It actually doesn't make too much difference how the first replicators appeared. Once they appeared, the process of evolution proceeded.

    3. How do the morons with blind faith get together like that...? I can't comprehend...

      I don't know - you might try looking somewhere that people with blind faith get together.

  9. Quest, before you start asking questions, maybe you should start answering the one (or two) that have been asked of you, over and over and over and over....

  10. Thanks Larry Moran for pointing to "Piece of Mind". Here is an installment about another subject you covered so well.
    Both of our blogs are living proofs that the narrow vision of the Alberta President about Academic Freedom should be outright rejected.