It seems a crescendo of bad faith negotiations at York University has finally been reached. The government of Ontario is being forced to step into a dispute which has been marked by a public rhetoric of dispute so disturbing I cannot fathom how students could still want to voluntarily subject themselves to what is surely becoming one of the most broken institutional examples of administration/faculty relations in Canada. Irrespective of responsibility the damage this process has done to York's image, relationships and community leaves me feeling profoundly sad—and not, even more sadly, for the first time in York's history.
The relationship between university administration and academic faculty has been of enduring interest to me, ever since years ago while in student government I cracked the archives on the apocalyptic admin/faculty disputes that once rocked my alma mater.
The question which always seemed to be at the heart (or very close) to these debates is: what is the responsibility—or if you prefer, relationship—of the academy to the public? I have had fellow grad students wax about the academy as a kind of ecclesial (maybe even priestly?) community, one which must be absolved of direct responsibility, because of the privileged epistemological and cultural status it has in society. Society cannot hope to govern it—or find it responsible, at least in the mundane ways a public could imagine. For these observers tenure is the feather in the academy's cap—it insulates intellectuals from the market, from the cult of efficiency, and from utilitarianism.
Of course those fatly endowed chairs still need a generous public to endow them (at least in the American system), who are sometimes not at all pleased about the course that this academic freedom takes. Indeed—as the endowment wars heat up—those bestowing the money are trying to tie more and more accountability to how university administrations spend their money. The horror of academics could not be more pronounced. Stanley Fish even calls this era that of The Last Professor. In this apocalyptic vision liberal arts programs will be driven under by market forces, which don't see generous bottom lines at the end of history, philosophy or literature degrees—in the same way they might at the end of engineering, biology or chemistry. Privately, I have had more than a few former liberal arts graduates confess to me that their university Bachelor of Arts was of “limited use” because it did not prepare them for a professional career. It was all very interesting, but they had no employable skills.
So what of this relationship between faculty and administration?—between scholars who recognize, as Fish does, that education for its own sake is a public good from which society and culture genuinely benefit—and between administration constantly pressured to produce learned students capable of performing the promised return on private and public investments.
I think this question is at the heart of the nature of the post-modern (re: 21st century) university. I think it is also animating many of the disputes at York, where faculty work (rightly) to protect their autonomy and privileges to insulate against a market academy, and where administration works (also rightly) to present a saleable face to the important work that goes on at institutions of higher learning.
How do we strike this balance? On my mind particularly is how should a Christian university strike this balance? I suspect our theories on this are fairly well developed, but our practice is not—from what I see—all that great (and I do not suggest for a moment the forthcoming generation will do any better). I recently highlighted a book from the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar The Bible and the University. Is there anything comparable—either in consultations or publications—that draws together top level Christian university administrators and faculty to consider the market and the university?
If folks like Mike Goheen are right—and in this at least I think they are—that the market and its ancillary institutions in the global economy present the challenge of our generation, this deserves much more thought and action—much better thought and action than we see sadly unfolding at York University.