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Universities after a millenium: Whither or wither [audiorecording] Marchak, Patricia 1996-10-05

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378379Patricia MarchakUNIVERSITIES AFTER A MILLENNIUM:WHITHER OR WITHER?Professor Patricia Marchak, F.R.S.C.Department of Anthropology and SociologyUBCOctober 5, 1996Biographical Note: Recently retired as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at UBC andChair of the Board of Directors of the BC Building Corporation, Professor Marchakhas published numerous articles and books on resource industries, economic de-velopment, industrial change, political economy and political ideologies. She ison the Board of Directors of Ecotrust and is a member of the Forest AppealsCommission of British Columbia. Her two most recent books are Logging theGlobe and Racism, Sexism, and the University.According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first university wasestablished in 859 in Fez, Morocco; the next one in Bologna, in 1000.If we include the ancient Greek philosophical schools as forerunnersto universities, this is surely the oldest surviving institution.   Aninstitution with that longevity deserves attention, and when it is fac-ing tough times we need to concern ourselves with it.Universities are under fire everywhere these days.  They areaccused of failing to teach well, or of failing to teach the right sub-jects, of being elitist or of being too democratic. They are accused ofbeing too western in orientation or of failing to respect the westerntradition. The technological revolution, demographic change, andglobalization are all having an impact on universities, and every-where they are struggling with declining funds and many expensivedemands.  What I propose to do this evening is discuss some of thechanges in the university’s environment that make this a critical timefor this institution.  Please note that I am discussing these changes,not advocating them.  I, like many of you, have loved this commu-nity as well as this institution, and I find some of the changes discon-certing.380Technological RevolutionA technological revolution is underway and it has the potential toprovide high-quality interactive computer education to a mobile,multi-lingual, highly diverse global population, and to do this withminimal professorial support staff and low space demands.  Thisform of education can be and already is being produced by privatecompanies.In some fields, the traditional format of lectures, seminars,labs and tutorials was already outflanked by television three decadesago.  Students could learn about lost civilizations or the habits offieldmice without introductory university lectures.  Traditional un-dergraduate structures were not immediately threatened because tel-evision stations could not give credits for courses and viewers hadno control over viewing schedules. Now with both video and inter-active computer technologies, where students control the timing andthe computer itself can provide the testing, traditional classroomsare obsolete in fields where close personal supervision or intenseinteraction are not essential.For example, one can learn most languages today throughinteractive computer programs combined with audio/visual programs.Students will benefit from participation in conversational groups andaccess to a technical advisor when they run into a glitch, but they donot really need a professor of literature to teach them verb declen-sions.   Another example: the British broadcasting system, togetherwith Britain’s open learning institute, is creating a magnificent se-quence of Shakespeare’s plays, directed and acted by the best Shake-spearean troupes, with commentaries by leading scholars, all on CD-ROM and soon to be available on the world market.  Science coursesare already available on the web, and while laboratory experience isstill essential in many fields, much of the rest of the standard under-graduate science curriculum can be produced through the multi-me-dia technologies. In the social sciences, reproduction through multi-media will improve most offerings, especially where maps and visualaids add to the learning experience.Established universities and upstart private companies are now381Patricia Marchakcompeting for a market that is sure to expand.  Institutions basedanywhere in the world can provide degree programs on the web orby distance education in competition with existing programs at localuniversities.  As more and more of what is called education becomesa commodity in privatized global markets, such competition willbecome ever more fierce. Up-front costs are heavy.  But the savingwill be on professorial faculty numbers as programs displace them.Survival for faculty members will depend on ability to do the re-search and development for new programs, and there will be compe-tition for contracts.Credentials will follow the technological possibilities.  If stu-dents can learn a course at home via computer and video technolo-gies, the university need only devise testing methods.  The assump-tion that learning requires so many credit hours of class time is al-ready passé.A likely outcome of technological change in any event is de-emphasis on the kinds of credits, diplomas, and degrees of the past.New situations tend to oblige us to recreate accreditation systems,just as occurred when the crafts system gave way to industrial capi-talism in other fields. In fact the university is the last of the craftsguilds to face change.  With its student apprentices, graduate studentjourney-persons, masters and doctors, its organization could onlysurvive as long as the students needed the faculty.Such sweeping changes as these will not occur gently.  Fac-ulties everywhere are organized, articulate, increasingly litigious, andmilitantly opposed to downsizing of either their salaries or their num-bers.Faculty members will argue that a major part of the learningprocess is embedded in the interactions between teachers and stu-dents in classroom and informal settings; that education does notconsist simply of mastering grammar rules or the basic principles ofeconomics.  And they are right.But the contest is not between the ideal they describe and thecomputerized alternative. The ideal is already gone, buried in largeclass sizes and stretched-out teachers. Students are no longer a ho-mogeneous group of young people just out of high school.  They are382all ages, both sexes, often have families and paid work, and theyhave very little time to interact on the models of an earlier era.  Forthem, interaction with computers, supplemented by occasional dis-cussions with faculty or meetings with other students, is a means ofacquiring an education that would be otherwise inaccessible.  Forthe society, an end result is achieved at an affordable price, thoughits quality may be dubious.Government and Business InterventionsThe technological revolution and global marketplace strategies cre-ate a very different context for universities than in the past.  No longerdoes an institution have a near-monopoly on higher education for alocal population, and that raises the question of whether provincialgovernments should provide the funding for institutions that are nowpart of a global marketplace.Governments of all ideological stripes are now pressuringuniversities to find private funds.  As well, they are enjoined to putmore of their efforts into short-term vocational training and programsbased on co-op and contract partnerships -- as they are called -- withbusiness.  The B.C. Government has increased funding for voca-tional programs and decreased it for other aspects of university edu-cation.  A quasi-governmental task force called the B.C. Labour forcedevelopment board advised government to transfer funds from uni-versities to vocational training in a paper released some months ago.The board’s members are almost all from the business communityand labour unions. Dr. Robert Allen of our economics department rebutted thearguments.  Through examination of Statistics Canada data on jobsand salaries, he demonstrated that a university education was stillsuperior to vocational training for individuals and for the society andeconomy.  John Dixon and Stan Persky published eloquent rebuttalsof the board’s recommendations.  And Mary Russell in UBC’s so-cial work school published a thoughtful essay on the Gove Commis-sion report on child welfare, arguing that its recommendations couldonly be met if social workers were provided with more extensive383Patricia Marchakeducation. But the government seems to have listened to the board,not its critics.Students As ConsumersThe pressures imposed by governments and businesses include a verydifferent version of a university than was current when thee and mewere young, Maggie. Students are paying higher tuitions, govern-ments are demanding accountability on their terms, employers aredemanding products that enhance their profit margins. The atmosphere of the marketplace pervades the universitytoday, and arguments on behalf of quality education, the kind that issupposed to inculcate skepticism and encourage wisdom, are not highon many business agendas.   No longer education for its own sake, orthe cultivation of the mind, the search for truth, the love of perfec-tion, sweetness and light.  When education is a commodity, thosewho can provide a competitive product for a demanding market willsurvive; the others will go to the wall.  There is no measure of qual-ity beyond the market.The market model for business schools across the continentinvolves two intersecting markets.  The main one is business, whereprospective employers participate in establishing the curriculum and,hopefully, hire the products.  Students provide the consumer or sub-scriber market.  Business schools listen to business and do marketsurveys before deciding on their particular specializations.  Some oftheir programs are designed with international students in mind, andschools are moving into distance education, sub-contracting arrange-ments, and various other modes that were pioneered by internationalbusinesses but never before used by university faculties.  As noted ina recent newspaper report on this, business schools are now beingrun as businesses.Another model of the student-as-customer is more muddle-headed, replete with 1960s-style rhetoric.  Students are to be viewedas customers and faculty should provide them with reference serv-ices.  Faculty should not impose their values or educational priori-ties on students.  We are informed, indeed, that to do so might hinder384creativity and learning.  One way of phrasing this comes from a bro-chure that reached my desk when I was dean of arts.  It says thatfaculty should be primarily designers of learning methods and envi-ronments, unlike old-fashioned faculty who were teachers. Thoseold-fashioned people are claimed to have thought of students as pas-sive vessels to be filled with objective knowledge.  Now we shouldthink of knowledge as “constructed in a personal context.”Customers are always right, of course, and one does not evalu-ate them.  Once past the initial entry levels, consuming students,according to those who use this terminology, should select their owncourses, move from one level to another as they desire, and eventu-ally gain accreditation without much in the way of academic expec-tations, course requirements, or grading in the process.  They cannotfail, and if anyone says a disparaging word along the way they cancomplain.The Legacy of Growth and DiversificationThree major changes have occurred since the end of the 1940s.  Onewas growth and diversification as higher education became a majorcomponent of democratic, industrial societies.  The second was de-mographic change in all western societies, and in universities. Andthe third is the commodification of education already mentioned.Consider the process of growth and diversification. It waspredicated on a laudable intention, the democratization of highereducation. But there was very little planning involved. Since fund-ing was available, faculty and administrations avoided conflict bygiving every subject equal standing.  Every teacher had the right toprovide a course in his or her speciality whether there was studentdemand or not.  Subjects that had never before had academic cloth-ing were re-cast. New departments and new degrees proliferated.The curriculum became a cafeteria, where students designed theirown education in view of their career intentions and with no neces-sary reference to such old fashioned notions as development of theintellect, exposure to rigorous analysis, acquisition of skills in re-search and rhetoric, or acquaintance with whatever was currently385Patricia Marchakregarded as great works.  Faculty members relinquished intellectualauthority beyond their own narrow specializations.  Even there theyavoided departmental squabbles by negotiating trade-offs: allowingothers to teach whatever they wanted provided others allowed one-self to do the same.The expansion was pushed further by ambitious administra-tors and departments who measured their prestige by the number ofgraduate students they attracted and the dollar funding they obtainedfor advanced research.  Like corporations that grow and diversify,universities became so large, so diffuse, so multifaceted that theirdiverse parts lost contact.As is so often the case, the problems of one era grow out ofthe benefits of a previous one.  There is no doubt that democratiza-tion of higher education over the past half-century has been a greatboon to both individuals and society.  The expansion of intellectualskills has benefited everyone, but it brought with it some unintendedcosts.  One was that as more people obtained bachelor degrees, themarket value of the degrees declined.  Then the push was on to in-crease access to graduate programs, but again, the market value ofdegrees diminished. Then as chance had it, the economy ceased togrow at its 1970s rate, and universities lost their expansionary move-ment. By the mid-1990s, there are large and numerous undergradu-ate and graduate programs, insufficient funds to maintain them, andthe academic job market is shrinking.  Because we allowed growthto occur without imposing academic criteria, we are unable to makedecisions about what to keep, what to cut; what matters most andwhat matters less.Demographic ChangeDecisions at this stage must take into account the demographicchanges of the past few decades.  The university for most of its longhistory was a male preserve. The democratization of the post-warperiod included equal entry for female students. By the mid-1990sthree quarters of undergraduate students in arts and education facul-ties, half in law, medicine and science are women.  In the humanities386and social sciences, half of masters students and a third of Ph.D.students are now women. The trend clearly is toward continuingfeminization of universities and their numbers are increasing mostrapidly in the liberal arts.  Though senior faculty are still predomi-nantly male, a third of faculty recruited in the last half dozen years inthe humanities and social sciences are women, consistent with theirproportions in the Ph.D. recruitment pool.Ethnic heterogeneity is more difficult to measure, but cer-tainly students at this and other Canadian universities are increas-ingly multi-cultural populations.  I doubt if there is one dominantethnic group at UBC in the mid-1990s.These two demographic changes present challenges to uni-versities that were unimagined by the more homogeneous institu-tions of the past.  One of these is to figure out how to teach a multi-lingual as well as multi-cultural population.Languages of InstructionUniversities have long required basic competence in the language ofinstruction, English in this part of Canada and French in Quebec, forentry to credit courses.  UBC has an entrance examination to screenstudents, and requires those who fail it to take remedial non-creditcourses before they can enter the required courses in first year Eng-lish.  A couple of years ago the Faculty of Arts at UBC adopted apolicy that in all courses where written work in English is required, aportion of the grade should be assigned to competence in use of theEnglish language.  All of these actions are now controversial.  Notonly students but some administrators argue that it is parochial anddiscriminatory to expect all students to be capable of communicat-ing in English.  In part this reflects the pressures to internationalizeeducation.But international students are still a small proportion of thetotal population at Canadian universities.  Many more students withdiverse cultural roots are Canadian citizens and residents.  The de-bate over the continued monopoly of English as the language of in-struction involves many of these students.  Our elementary schools387Patricia Marchakwill soon be offering language instruction in some of the many Asianas well as European languages of our multicultural population, and itis reasonable to ask not whether but how the university can changeto accommodate its multicultural population.We do offer courses in other languages but these are special-ized literature courses.  We have no courses in, say, philosophy, bi-ology, or geography, where instruction is offered in other languagesor where students can choose a language of instruction.  Obviouslythe implications for present faculty would be enormous if such arequirement were introduced, since few could re-tool and offer theircourses in several alternative languages.  As well, the overall cost ofinstruction would be prohibitive.The language issue will become more prominent in the nextfew years.  At some point universities are going to have to makepublic decisions about languages.  They will have to either radicallychange their offerings to accommodate a multi-lingual population,or insist on academic standards in one language.  What is not reason-able is to permit entry to students who clearly cannot cope with thelanguage and expect them, other students in their classes, and thefaculty to somehow muddle through — or to maintain requirementsfor English and then call professors racist if they insist on profi-ciency in English.The “Western” CanonA changing gender ratio and ethnic heterogeneity of the student bodyhave brought about some changes in what is called the canon of theliberal arts. The heterogeneous population now studying at universi-ties in Canada may have a reasonable complaint when it comes tothe curriculum’s emphasis on the western scientific tradition, litera-ture, philosophy, and social sciences. Only two decades ago, whenasked what is the function of a university, I and many others wouldhave included in our response: to transmit our cultural heritage toanother generation.  Obviously the cultural heritage is much morecomplex now than it was when Canadians were predominantly ofEuropean descent.388 But while the discovery of women’s literature and translatedversions of work by writers outside the European tradition haschanged the curriculum, the questioning of what used to be the canonhas now become a more general questioning about how great worksare identified, who chooses them, and for what purpose?There are two very different answers to those questions.  Oneis the argument in the tradition of Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold,and many of their intellectual descendents who would defend theoriginal curriculum or a modified one provided it challenged theminds, developed skeptical and critical dimensions, enlightened thespirit, encouraged a search for knowledge and even more, for virtueand wisdom.  If the great works that once served a male undergradu-ate population are no longer acceptable on gender and ethnic grounds,then the addition of female and non-western male writers would beacceptable provided such offerings meet the criteria. The criteria forscholars in this tradition has to do with quality, even though the na-ture of quality is always problematic.Critics more sympathetic to critical theory, post-modernism,post-structuralism, and deconstructionism might argue to the con-trary that all activity, including the development of a curriculum,reflects the interests of those who engage in or defend it. All knowl-edge is gendered, rooted in ethnicity, region, religion or other bio-graphical conditions of the speaker; that is, all knowledge and val-ues are subjective.  The great books tradition, say the critics, was anideological underpinning for imperialism, racism, and patriarchy.Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Newman were leading spokespersons.To simply replace them with a few different voices would not funda-mentally alter the arrogance of the entire system.The debate on the canon rages in the humanities and hasdeeply penetrated the social sciences.  It has had little perceptibleeffect on the sciences where another tradition, realism or westernrationalism, has long organized knowledge and the pursuit of it.  Thistradition embeds two basic ideas of the university.  One is that truthexists independent of human perceptions of it.  The second is that inseeking truth, the personal characteristics of the seeker are irrelevant.These two ideas gave the stamp to the university as a unique institu-389Patricia Marchaktion.  Unlike religious institutions, the university did not seek knowl-edge through revelation, and was not dependent on guru-like trans-missions of insight.  Empirical science imposes strict demands onthose who seek truth. The rules of inquiry are explicit and objective.The post-modernist attack on the canon in the humanities andthe method, or more, the basic mind-set of the social and physicalsciences, goes well beyond an academic debate.  For if we choose toembrace that view, then much of what passes for higher education isnothing more than the exchange of personal and subjective opinionsabout the world.  The entire crafts organization of the university comesinto question.  How can merit be assessed if all criteria are subjec-tive?  Thus examinations, tenure decisions, publications and all elsebecome ideologically suspect.I personally take the view that reality does exist beyond hu-man perceptions; thus for me, the seeking of a correspondence totruth and the sober attempt to be objective make sense. One whotakes the rationalist position, however, cannot ignore the legacies ofhistory in the European and also many other cultures.  Sexism andracism appear to be universal issues, and every contemporary soci-ety in a globalized economy is struggling with problems of genderinequities and ethnic conflict.  That universities have discriminatedagainst women, aboriginal peoples, and non-Europeans is undeni-able though the discrimination was systemic and rooted in their largercultures. That the curriculum reflected and no doubt still reflectshuman prejudices is obvious.  Certainly our universities have to grap-ple with these moral and intellectual issues.History of DiscriminationIn taking the position of the realist rather than the post-modernist, Ido not imply disbelief in the reality of discrimination. But for uni-versities the question at the base of all this is: is there a commonpurpose in this institution, can we sustain the western rationalist tra-dition more particularly, and still ensure that all peoples, both gen-ders, and persons of numerous philosophical and religious traditions,feel comfortable in the university?390I actually think not.  If the university is maintained as a secu-lar institution, then many of its teachings will offend one group oranother.  Whether it is the theory of evolution, an interpretation ofthe history of a particular religion, a critique of a female writer’swork, or the conventional version of how aboriginal people came toNorth America over the Bering Strait, there are potential objectorswho will perceive these statements as racist or sexist.Further, while much of the open debate swirls around sexismand racism, there is another ism moving into the vacuum that univer-sities have created precisely because they have not defined who theyare.  This ism is fundamentalism. It is not peculiar to one religiousviewpoint.  Secularism, pluralism, and tolerance for diversity areevils in many fundamentalist lexicons, and if the university takes anexcessively puritanical position in its definition of racism, it runs therisk of opening up the debate on the legitimacy of secularism.  Indi-vidual faculty members practising what they regard as normal schol-arly activities are potential targets for dogmatists of all creeds.So this debate over reality is not merely academic.   As asociety we do have to decide whether all versions of everything areequal, whether anything is more true or more important than anyother things, and whether there is an intellectual direction to our aca-demic institutions.  If we cannot make those decisions and stick withthem, then perhaps it is time to replace expensive universities withalternative institutions that cater to selected populations or, as profitseekers call them, niche markets.The larger politics of gender and multi-culturalism play them-selves out at universities.  This is not a new phenomenon; studentsare young, energetic, and idealistic. They have always sought tochange the world, and when they are concentrated together on a uni-versity campus, they have the momentum to mount their claims.  Onemight say more power to them, but there are some drawbacks.  Oneis that the tolerance, pluralism, courteous allowance for all points ofview — in short, freedom of speech aspects of universities — are atodds with narrow language codes and perceptions of sexism in ac-tions that are — whether we like it or not — normal behaviours insociety at large.   Something has to give if we accept a code of zero391Patricia Marchaktolerance.The other drawback is that the university is not a microcosmof the society at large when it comes to its capacity to deal withmany of the claims.  We are not set up as courts of law; we do nothave stringent disciplinary procedures; our long history of relativelydemocratic decision-making and consultation is not conducive to hop,skip, jump rules governing personal behaviour.Universities and Intellectual LifeA burgeoning literature decries the decline of the university on thegrounds that the curriculum has lost its bite, that what now passes foran education in the humanities is pablum, served cafeteria-style.Intellectual rigour, academic standards, uncomfortable demands forgenuine learning have been replaced, say the critics, by fear of of-fending anyone, zero tolerance, and incapacity to distinguish between— to quote Howard Bloom — Chaucer and batman comics.  It is notthat the western canon has been replaced by an equally demandingother cultural heritage, but that it has been replaced by paralysis ofthe spirit. That is what is causing the death of the university, accord-ing to these critics.A measure of this paralysis might be noted in contemporarymission statements. Universities of the past had their Latin mottos.But their governors felt no need to enunciate mission statements.Over the last decade, facing declining public funds and increasingpublic demands, mission statements have proliferated. The one atUBC is typically superficial: “to be world renowned.”  Another phras-ing of it is, “to be second to none.”  These vapid statements epito-mise the dilemma of the modern — or perhaps post-modern — uni-versity.Universities did once have a mission, unstated because it wasself-evident and unambiguous.  The mission was, as the sciencescontinue to believe it is now, to seek truth and to impart such truthsas were found to another generation.Lost missions imply a loss of identity, and some writers ar-gue that universities have, indeed, lost their bearings.  Whether we392think the changes are good or bad, there is little doubt that universi-ties are not what they used to be nor are they likely to persist in arecognizable form in the future.Technology, globalization, and the pressures of the market-place are all pushing toward a dismantling of the large university. Inits place, institutions will become established for niche markets, pro-viding their wares in various languages and training their studentsfor a global marketplace.  Science, as long as it is useful, will con-tinue to receive funds either from private or public sources, but evenscience faculties will have to compete for students with private insti-tutes and global invaders.If alternative research and educational institutions can per-form many of the functions now undertaken in universities, and do itat lower cost to the public purse, do we still need these expensiveinstitutions?I think the answer resides in how highly we regard the secu-lar, skeptical, persistent questioning attitude of the university, andhow much we appreciate the tolerance, open debate, and demandsfor intellectual rigour.  These are the hallmarks of the university incontrast to all other institutions.  I believe, contrary to some of theuniversity’s critics, that universities have been a force for the goodand will continue in that role if allowed to survive.  I think we needthem as we try to address pressing ecological issues, the politics ofthe global economy, world poverty, and the evolution of multiculturalsocieties.  But there are many opposing voices, strong counter-cur-rents of change, and their survival will depend on a strong social willto keep them alive.393INSTITUTE MEMORABILIA


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