On Campus

The government is here, and wants to help with your research

What's that feeling I get when the Big Five University Presidents talk about higher education? Oh, I know what it is. Terror.

I haven’t read something as frightening as this account of our university presidents’ views on education in a long while. For instance:

“The big five presidents worry about drift and lack of direction in our higher education system. That direction can only come from political leaders. So all of the presidents, even Montreal’s Vinet, called for Ottawa to pay more attention to what happens on Canada’s campuses.”

What you have to realize of course, is that contrary to popular imagination, university presidents are not academics. In fact, most academics see their university presidents as tyrants to be avoided when possible and thwarted when necessary. Why? Because they want more funding and they are happy to have Stephen Harper direct Canada’s universities if that’s what it takes. These executives have no interest in scholarship, only building their brands and competing in the global marketplace. If they actually cared about scholarship the last thing they would call for is more government control of teaching and research.

The reasons are so obvious that I am reluctant to point them out. For one, governments  tend to support what they can sell to the public, not necessarily the best research. Second, governments are usually behind the times, solving yesterday’s problem, not tomorrow’s. Third, governments (like corporations and greedy university presidents) like to focus on the bottom line, but that robs valuable funding for important, but not easily commercialized research in the humanities and social sciences. Fourth, most government officials wouldn’t be able to understand most serious university research. Finally,  and most important, one never knows where the search for truth will take us. As Carl Sagan wisely pointed out, no mid-nineteenth-century scientist could have invented the television, no matter how much government support he had, because the basic work hadn’t been done. And when it was done, it was done on a purely theoretical level. Similarly, no government-corporate partnership would have created a thinker like Northrop Frye, but he stands as among the greatest scholars Canada has ever produced.

I shudder to think what Frye would have made of his University of Toronto president today. And then I just keep on shuddering.