Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fundamental values: what it should have said

I've already complained about the existing "Fundamental Values" in the draft UVic Strategic Plan, so I'm not going to repeat myself here. But if I'm going to challenge the document, then I need to offer some replacements that reflect a different politics. If I want to be inclusive and respectful of others, and also to be aware of ecology in a way utterly unlike that of the draft plan, then I need to imagine something like the following as an alternative "Fundamental Values" section:
The following fundamental values will inform all of our actions and are a prerequisite to fulfilling the purpose of the university:
  • a healthy ecology, both locally and in increasingly larger regions up to a global scale
  • freedom of academic inquiry, particularly innovative and/or interdisciplinary teaching and research
  • equal rights and dignity of all persons and peoples.
What do I mean by these points, and why are they better than the ones we've got?

Well, the drafted ones are (as I said already) either empty or unfathomable. They mostly just duplicate provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (that we're legally bound to follow anyway), or say that UVic's a university just like any other that lets its faculty members figure out their own research projects. Neither element makes the values meaningful or valuable.

Why are mine better?

The first one - about a healthy ecology - postulates that a healthy ecology is the baseline for human society's persistence and and its future, and that the world as a whole is better off if humans all work toward a healthy ecology, but it also assumes that the local and global ecologies are under threat. Without an express acknowledgement of all these elements, a Strategic Plan becomes merely a short-term stratagem, a gambit rather than a vision. UVic needs to take this as a basic condition for its future activities.

My second value assumes that teaching and research are intimately connected and that the institution needs to be proactive about encouraging and permitting both research and teaching. For example, right now it's extremely difficult to team-teach even with someone in your own department. If you want to partner up with someone in a different faculty, then your two Chairs and Deans will likely turn the discussion into a smackdown about bums in seats, who gets the credit for them, and who will have to pay for it all. We shouldn't have to invent a new school or concentration or program just to let students watch two instructors work out together, at the front of a classroom, what their disparate backgrounds and research projects have to say about an individual subject.

And finally, I've merely added the two words "and peoples" to the third draft fundamental value. Maybe this is already captured by the Charter, but the draft plan doesn't specify respect for distinct groups of people, particularly First Nations peoples. Human dignity may be protected under the Charter, but it's under threat in the world in a way that freedom of speech and of academic inquiry aren't under threat.

In each case my hope is that the university will see itself as bound to take a leadership role in each issue. Right now, the values don't commit us to anything interesting, and that's a real shame. We ought to be trying harder than this.

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