Truth, Freedom, and Productivity: When PR usurps scholarship

No one wants ill-advised assessment regimes imported into higher education. No one wants to see a single-minded, narrow emphasis on quantifying value. No one desires deeply flawed metrics being used to compare institutions and individuals. Nevertheless…[1]

Quoting the above out of context is a little unfair — the authors are talking about the need for historians to develop standards for assessing student learning before administrators or lawmakers do so on their own. But even if you agree with that sentiment (I think I do, with reservations), the “nevertheless” may seem somewhat oddly placed. “No one wants to bastardize what we do in the name of mindless form-filling. Nevertheless….” If you’ve spent much time on reading or discussing your university’s “strategic directions”, on the other hand, chances are that you’ve seen that “nevertheless” playing a similar role elsewhere. It’s the Kevin Bacon of the academic management lexicon, and the role it plays is a pivot (to borrow from the same lexicon): you were talking about one thing — say, the complexities of teaching — but now you’re actually talking about something else — say, the politics of institutional survival.

I’ll say something about teaching another time; the nevertheless that concerns me now relates to the university’s other basic function, research. Or, as some still think of it, the pursuit of truth:

The commitments, rights, and responsibilities of members involve three major related roles: to participate in the search for basic truths, and to communicate openly the results of this search; to develop creative scholarship in specific disciplines…; to encourage where feasible the generalized application of scholarship and research to the benefit of the university community and the common good of society.

So says Article 6.01 of the Collective Agreement by which I, as a full-time faculty member at my university, am contractually bound. The article concerns “Academic Freedom”, the purpose of which is “to provide security for fundamental academic values”: to wit, “freedom of speech and of enquiry”, entailing “the right to raise probing questions and challenges to the beliefs of society at large.” While it may not rise to the level of poetry, this does at least define the chief purpose of the university as fostering open enquiry, untrammelled by prior commitments to utility or orthodoxy. And as the same document notes thirty-nine articles later,

The Board of Governors and the Association agree that the first duty of the University is to ensure that its academic priorities remain paramount, particularly with regard to the quality of instruction and research, and preservation of academic freedom.­

Heartening stuff, even if the immediate context is an article dealing with “Financial Emergency”. The quality of teaching and scholarship, and the academic freedom they require, are paramount. Nevertheless….

Since what follows touches my immediate surroundings, I should offer three disclaimers. First, the documents discussed here are publicly available; indeed, banners bearing the pertinent slogans bilingually festoon our city campus. Second, I well know that similar plans are afoot at universities across Canada and the world over; the buzzwords and timelines vary, but their drift is the same. The trend is my target, though my examples are inevitably local. Third, I write from a position of privilege, among other ways as a tenured professor at a unionized university, in a public system still somewhat insulated from (not immune to) the brazen degree of ideological manipulation and legislative shenanigans that have undermined similar institutions south of the Canada-US border, to say nothing of universities farther afield. (And no, I’m not talking about trigger warnings and safe spaces.) But of course it is just this comparative security that allows me to write critically and that, given the terms on which I enjoy it, enjoins me to do so as I think best. That, and a sense that a generous share of the blame for the mess we’re in lies with tenured academics who appreciate their privilege only too well.

In that spirit, then, I introduce “Double Our Research: The Bold Direction: New Thinking, New Culture“. Together with eight other “directions”, this charts the course our university is to take for the foreseeable future. Its take on research is blunt: “The aspiration to Double our Research“, it opens, “reflects the reality that research and creative production are primary drivers of university reputation.” Who or what determines “university reputation”, and how it qualifies as an academic priority, are not clear. But it is evidently paramount. Under its aegis, indeed, research itself is redefined and specified in quantitative terms: first, as “research dollars per full-time faculty member”; second, as “the number of journal publications per full-time faculty member.” Both numbers must grow:

we need to place greater institutional value on research… recalibrate current faculty incentive/reward structures… and introduce more flexibility in course delivery and service expectations to maximize time for research and creative activity.

To them that have — grant money, staff and research assistance, course releases, time — more shall henceforth be given. Those struggling with full course loads, service or other obligations, once marked as unproductive of money or articles, can go by the board.

Particularly prized, however, is “output that is transformative to scholarship and knowledge in and across academic disciplines”, research that serves “the needs and priorities of the external communities with whom we engage”, “co-production/co-creation of knowledge with collaborators from all sectors of society” and “knowledge translation to industry, public policy and stakeholders.” One is free to imagine these communities and collaborators as parts of the public we should properly serve, and some of them certainly are. On the other hand, an unfortunate taste of what “co-production of knowledge” with industrial collaborators can look like emerged last summer, when a group of physicians and scientists wrote a letter demanding the retraction of a university-commissioned report condoning the use of chrysotile asbestos and dismissing its critics as “emotional”. Despite the report’s inaccuracies and its faculty author’s blatant conflict of interest (he was a paid PR consultant to an asbestos consortium) — which an internal investigation acknowledged — the report was merely taken off the university website, not formally retracted. In an inventive invocation of “academic freedom” — and a gesture of modesty absent from its managerialism in other areas — the administration effectively declared itself incompetent to judge its faculty members’ work. What is truth, after all?

If recognizing the demonstrated malpractice of a faculty member with industry links is a no-go, however, advocating wholesale “cultural change” across the length and breadth of the university is another matter. Among other things, Doubling Our Research

means fully internalizing the mantra that research and creative work, postdocs, graduate students, and graduate studies are core to Concordia’s mission, and moving to reflexively integrate this priority into all operations and marketing of the university.

It also means de-prioritizing the traditional disciplines and the departments that house them, whether by direct attack or, as seems easier, malign neglect. Think tanks are in: “Funded externally for the most part,” they “require far fewer operational resources than a standard research center” — and they build a university’s reputation for influence. So are “transdisciplinary, Institute- based graduate program[s]”, whatever the actual subject matter — so much so, in fact, that Double Our Research would have us develop a new one, with breathtaking arbitrariness, every year.

I do not mean to suggest that the ideas contained in Double Our Research and its ilk the world over are all bad. They’re not, even if they are all drenched in a seamy slick of treacly buzzwords and cloying slogans. But, good, bad, or neutral, they are all about PR, and that is the problem. One does not need to believe in wizened professors who keep Historical Truth in their roll-top desks to see the difference between a scholarly reputation and the manufactured buzz of a jump in magazine rankings. And one must be extraordinarily cynical, I think, to imagine that conjuring new graduate programs from above, annually, just because; recruiting real students into them; and starving existing programs to pay for them is the same thing as building a university that serves meaningful academic priorities, that is, the priorities of its scholarly community, faculty and students alike. The eyes of colleagues here and elsewhere often glaze over at talk of strategic plans like this, dismissing them as marketing gimmicks, and therefore nothing to worry about. But when marketing becomes the university’s driving goal, the damage is real.

Notes

[1]Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, Measuring College Learning in History (SSRC, 2016), 41.

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2 thoughts on “Truth, Freedom, and Productivity: When PR usurps scholarship

  1. “No one wants to bastardize what we do in the name of mindless form-filling. Nevertheless….” forms must be filled mindlessly if need be if we are ever to form an army division of these 10,000 soldiers. Date: Sat, 10 Sep 2016 02:19:56 +0000 To: christymccormick@hotmail.com

    Like

  2. Pingback: Branding Is Not An Academic Priority | memorious

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