Hot potatoes in a simmering stew

Zero Tolerance
January 24, 1997

Many universities will easily see themselves in the issues dividing Canadian campuses. On one side, you find government with a fix-it fixation and its opposition with an eagle eye on the bizarre research grant; industry waving money at the brains trust; and, of course, a growing class of trembling administrators writing existential memoranda to critics who want the university to be re-engineered as the true economic motor of society. On the other side, you find groups of students and faculty thumbing their noses at any signs of power from the administration while flexing their own muscle in trying to change the university from what many see as fortresses of Euro- and heterocentric privilege: they plan not only to blow up the canon but to stuff a few people into it to correct the injustices of the past as well as the offending passages of the present.

Throw into the stew academic freedom, national debt, major magazine university rankings, hungry part-time scholars, deadwood full-timers and hi-tech models of teaching and you have not only turf wars but a mess.

Luckily Peter C. Emberley, a political scientist at Ottawa's Carleton University, knows how to swim through muck and come up with some answers that will remind the professor, administrator and student what the institution in which they work or study stands for. Those who are clamouring for the quick fix should remember that the university is an institution that possesses a seven-century history, thank you very much. As each "hot-button" issue gets raised and as the institutions react, some of the inherent riches the university has picked up along the way get devalued, according to Emberley.

He is poetically scathing about both the cultural left and the corporate right. The issue we too often overlook in our quest to improve the university is, he says, that old thing called scholarly culture.

"A cacophony is developing across Canada as outsiders and insiders shout solutions to perceived problems, drowning out the quiet and unspectacular processes that unfold in the university," Emberley writes in his well-researched book and clear prose.

In passionate but logical tones, Emberley calls for arm's-length tenure reviews, undergraduate/ graduate tuition-to-operating-budget ratios of 20 and 50 per cent, a core curriculum and a new definition of inclusivity.

Here is a book that will make some professors rethink why they have been spending so much time in committee meetings. Instead of helping to put together a reason why universities are adapting so well to a mission they themselves wrote, could they perhaps be bringing their work closer to the community? The student screaming for the curriculum to include more writers of colour could try to put in a few calls for the celebration of simply wider intellectual writing, from Romantic rebellion to detached contemplation.

If some of Emberley's suggestions become new policy, Canadian universities' hot buttons will cool off a bit.

Philip Fine is Canadian correspondent, The THES.

Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities

Author - Peter Emberley
ISBN - 0 14 025347 5
Publisher - Penguin
Price - $19.99
Pages - 313

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