Thursday, April 11, 2013

Collegiality and in-house comparisons

In general, I've had very positive feedback from my colleagues about this blog, both from colleagues at my university and from those who work elsewhere. One reply, though, gave me real concern, and I've been thinking hard about it ever since. In part, that's why I slowed down my posting again, just when I'd started to develop something of a rhythm.

The objection was really that in discussing differences between academic units on campus, I was myself escalating whatever factionalism might already exist between the units, and weakening the cross-department collegiality that's the only thing encouraging all of us to speak on behalf of units other than my own. When I compared the teaching loads for History and English, for example, it was suggested that I was undermining the relationship between these two departments.

And this wasn't my intent. I don't think that's what the post did, either, but clearly at least one thoughtful person thought that it did. In consequence, I've decided it makes sense to clarify my views about collegiality, data, and differences between academic units (taking "academic units" in the broadest possible sense to mean departments, faculties, employment categories, whole universities, and really any possible community of interest within the postsecondary sector).

Fundamentally, I assume that genuine collegiality is the basis for every principled question or comment about some aspect of postsecondary educational institutions. That's not to say that we should all hold hands all the time (here's someone else, somewhere else, talking interestingly about collegiality's challenges): disagreement is extremely valuable within a collegial environment.

An academic institution needs to be operated along principles that support its academic mission. I can't believe that this needs to be said (hi, Tom Lukaszuk!), but there you go.

Market principles are at play, of course, exerting influences in a variety of ways both direct and indirect. The key influence flows from the executive into the academic programs, in that they see this university to be in competition with other universities, and they see our programs to be in competition both with other programs elsewhere and with other programs at this institution.

I reject entirely any arguments for the primacy of market-style competitive forces within a single postsecondary institution. Each unit needs the freedom to make its own decisions about how to address the overlapping areas of faculty research and student learning (as well as faculty learning and student research, but that's maybe a topic for another day). This means, among other things, that the unit's existence and funding cannot be entirely subject to market-style budgetary decisions at the executive level.

To the extent that my comments on this blog might be considered to be fomenting discord, in other words, my comments must be understood to be fomenting discord between different levels in the university's governance structure (including levels outside the university itself, particularly the provincial and federal governments).

In the particular case provoking all of these reflections, the backstory was that -- to the best of my understanding -- the Provost decided that English was the only department within Humanities whose professors would be required to maintain a 3/2 teaching load (five courses per year), while all other Humanities departments were permitted to move to a 2/2 teaching load (four courses per year).

(Was it really the Provost's decision? Hard to say: I haven't seen this in writing, though I haven't seen anyone else assigned responsibility for this decision, and certainly no one else has claimed the responsibility.)

It had been suggested that one reason for distinguishing English in this way was that data existed to mean that this one department was different enough from other departments that its professors should be required to maintain a different teaching load. My intent in that post was simply to say that English's closest comparator (which happens to be History) had very similar statistics to English.

It follows therefore that it cannot be successfully argued that data along these lines should reasonably have formed the basis of the Provost's decision: assuming that it was indeed the Provost's decision, of course. (And it's possible that this data was NOT part of the decision, too, no matter whose decision it was. This is what happens when there's a transparency deficiency around administrative decisions.)

In conclusion:

My position should absolutely not be construed to be an acceptance of differential treatment on any grounds other than purely academic ones. Financial constraints must factor into decisions like the one I was discussing, but if these constraints are disentangled from academic principles, then the university is failing to fulfill its fundamental mandate to further and sustain the human experiment.

Or, you know, something less wankily grand.

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