For collegiality, call Mr Fixit

May 23, 1997

WHEN Concordia professor Valery Fabrikant was convicted of killing four colleagues in 1992 the university called in an outside expert to review its administration. Harry Arthurs delivered a harsh judgement on the Montreal university.

Professor Arthurs not only wrote of scientific and financial improprieties, but pinned much of the blame on an administration that did next to nothing while a boiling pot was ready to spill over.

"Why could they not spot this madman?" he asked, referring to an administration whose vice rector Professor Arthurs feels brushed off all the stories of the engineering professor's incessant abuse of secretaries, librarians and faculty members. The report also cast a negative light on Professor Fabrikant's faculty.

In 1997, Professor Arthurs can not only recognise a madman, but can also look into the eyes of a mad university. He is the person administrators call when the collegial atmosphere turns to conspiracy theory. He has recently filed a report on Trent University in Ontario where a faculty strike was followed by resignations of its president, two vice presidents and an acting dean - all in the same year.

The central figure in helping sort out the mess in two of Canadian university history's most contentious administrations, the labour relations specialist has been called on by other administrations to overcome their various stumbling blocks. But Professor Arthurs, for now, is sticking with his Toronto-based day job as professor of law at York University's Osgoode Hall. "One doesn't do these things for a living," he said.

Bram Freedman, Concordia's legal counsel, said the university's external inquiry "was painful for the university". "Nobody likes to air their dirty laundry in public," said Professor Freedman, but he appreciates Professor Arthurs's thoroughness and ability to pull all the inquiry's findings into a useful document. Many of the Arthurs recommendations have since been adopted. "All in all, the university is now a better place for the report."

The fact that, following the report's release, at least 50 universities ordered copies was not due to some rubber-neck curiosity. The recommendations in the Arthurs report could have been adapted to fit most universities. Who does not have an engineering faculty which rewards those who have been successful and aggressive in winning private-sector contracts? Who does not face a union grievance committee ready to fight to the death for a member no matter how repulsively insulting they happen to be? And who does not have a senior administration crippled by procedure and frightened by the utterance of the word "litigation"?

It is those issues which still concern Professor Arthurs. "There's an enormous strain being put on university administrations these days," said the 62-year-old former president of his university. He sees the job of university administrator, with its increased amount of time seeking private money, getting more and more complex.

As Canadian public universities begin to play the private game, setting up separate real estate offices here and selling off intellectual rights there, the university administrator, as education critic Peter C. Emberley puts it, is increasingly becoming a professional manager. That new role as he sees it - part placater and part code follower - is what distances the university administration from their faculty, said Professor Emberley, author of Zero Tolerance: Hot-Button Politics in Canadian Universities.

"It's easier to hide behind code or legislate rather than attempt to educate your faculty or try to restore some type of civil society," said Professor Emberley. Professor Arthurs agrees that university presidents have been hiding behind code but he puts the blame for that on unions who have been emphasising due process "for good reason".

But the cause of administrative failure and in-fighting, according to Professor Arthurs, has to rest squarely on the lack of government funding.

He gives the example of Ontario, which 20 years ago spent 8.1 per cent of its entire budget on colleges and universities. That figure has dropped to 4.9 per cent.

"Governments are not responding to university funding as a political issue," said Professor Arthurs.

"If universities deteriorate, we will have a less civil society. But the consequences will not be felt for another 20, 50 or 100 years."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments