Academic Agenda Addresses
The Emerging Academic Agenda
Notes for an Address-February 1998
I've been at the University of Saskatchewan for six months and six days. Barely a blink in the history of this institution, but a very long time indeed for a wide-eyed Easterner with aspirations of adequacy. For most of you the last six months and six days have probably been fairly uneventful; for me it has been a roller coaster ride.
Today I want to share with you some of my impressions of the University, discuss the environment in which we find ourselves, and, most important, discuss the future. I've entitled this presentation "The Emerging Academic Agenda." I've used the term "emerging" simply because it is in the process of becoming. Nothing is settled. Expressions of concern and ideas for change are still flowing in. But change is on my mind and I can see that it is on the minds of many others who find the environment in which we are operating increasingly oppressive and frustrating.
It is "academic" because that is why we are here. All of us-students, faculty, administrators, support staff-are here to participate in and contribute to, in he words of the mission statement, "…" The success of this institution is not measured by how well we can process the payroll, or clear the snow, or even tear down crumbling buildings, as important as all of these things are. Success is measured by how well all of this, and much more, contributes to the achievements of our students and our faculty.
Which is why we need an "agenda." As we introduce improvements and efficiencies into our management operations, those who support the academic mission increasingly look to the academic side of the house to establish a sense of direction. In fact, it is difficult to know what innovations make sense without knowing just what the academic agenda is going to be.
There is an important sense in which each student and faculty member has his or her own academic agenda. We can't do everything so we pick and choose our courses, our programs, our research projects, our collaborators. Creating an academic agenda for yourself shouldn't be that difficult. For the institution as a whole, however, it is by no means an easy task.
For one thing, the institution is incredibly complex, far more complex than I imagined. The problems that exist in one quarter simply don't exist in another. Recruitment is a problem in some places, not in others; facilities are a problem in some places, not in others. Also, expectations differ. My brief stint on the University Review Committee has underlined for me that the University has different, sometimes significantly different, standards for tenure and promotion depending on one's College.
Complexity has nurtured fragmentation. Colleges and departments, sensing that they are unlikely to get a lot of sympathy, let alone help, from either the central administration or one another, have embarked on a variety of projects intended to increase discretionary revenues. These projects are often viewed with suspicion and envy: suspicion that the core academic values are being sacrificed in the interests of lucrative partnerships; envy that some are better positioned than others to benefit from alliances.
Of course, there are some processes that bring us together-the budgetary process for one-but there we come prepared principally to do battle on behalf of our part of the academic mission. In all of this it is hard to discern an overall academic agenda, although many will contend that there are a multitude of hidden agendas.
This sense that we might need an academic agenda is by no means a conviction shared by everyone. After decades in administration at several universities, David Strangway offered the view that a university administrator makes the greatest contribution by hiring the very best people available and then "getting out of the way." The institution's agenda is then written by its faculty and students.
That doesn't mean that administrators would have nothing to do. If the dual requirements of the academic administrator are vision and judgement, and if vision is looked after by bright students and brilliant faculty, that still leaves judgement and there's plenty of scope for doing well (or screwing up) on that front. Writing from the perspective of Stanford University, Donald Kennedy, in his recent book, Academic Duty, writes that "…higher education in American has never been stronger or more successful. It serves more people, and better, than it ever has (p 2)." Not that universities in the United States don't have problems. Kennedy's book is all about the ethical challenges that attach to academic freedom and he makes it clear that we need to rethink our academic judgements very carefully in a world where it is not just governments, but corporations, interest groups, local authorities, and professional bodies who are demanding accountability.
Here in Saskatchewan we face the same demands, but they are complicated and seriously aggravated by a history of eroding financial support. Unlike the American universities that Kennedy describes, we are not stronger than we have ever been. Compared with support for K-12, support for penitentiaries, and support for labour market initiatives, universities have fared miserably.
[Graph: Change in Demand from 1978-97]
Look first at demand. As Graph 1 shows, using 1978-79 as a base year (and using constant dollars), our graduate enrolment increased 100 percent by 1990 and by the end of the decade stood at 130 to 140 percent of the 1978-79 levels. Undergraduate student enrolment increased more slowly, but by 1996-97, the University of Saskatchewan had 20 percent more students than it had in 1978-79, the major increases having occurred in the early 1980s.
The line dealing with section sizes provides an clue as to how resources were changing in the same period. And, of course, the slow but sure increase in average section size masks some remarkable increases in certain classes and certain Colleges.
[Graph: Change in Resources from 1978-79]
The change in resources is illustrated more vividly by looking at the decline in the provincial operating grant per FTE student. With 1978-79 once again as a base point, the size of the operating grant relative to the student population declined steadily during the 1980s and 1990s until last year it stood at x% of its 1978-79 level.
Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1980s, tuition fees go on a tear until by 1996-97 they are x% more than they were only ten years earlier.
These tables document what many of us know from personal experience. In the United States research universities like this one provide generous start-up grants for young faculty, they look after equipment needs, sometimes to the point of excess, and they keep their faculty and student body in balance so that high quality teaching and research can be accomplished. We don't live in that environment.
Our response to the decline in public sector support has been to rely less and less on governments, who have made it clear that their support for higher education is limited and increasingly contingent on the types of projects we intend to embark on. In the place of provincial revenues we have turn to the student body, to research funding and to gifts and donations, all of which play a much larger role in the revenues of the institution than they did a decade or two earlier.
These developments have added enormously to the complexity of higher education. The complaint that universities have an accountability deficit is simply wrong. If anything, we have too many masters, none of whom have much patience with the others. We may not be the best at explaining ourselves to the world at large, but the demand for explanations is coming in from all sides.
What the erosion of public financial support is doing is to break down the barriers that separate universities and their environments. The demand for partnerships is widely understood to be an unadulterated "good thing," because it suggests collaboration and engagement. But collaboration and engagement is not necessarily a good thing, certainly not for everyone in the university. The bridge to PEI is doubtless good for some communities of interest, especially commercial operations, but it may not be good for the environment nor the culture of the island. This island, the university, will only be a net beneficiary of these changes if it is able to manage and direct them.
An Academic Agenda
All of which brings me to the question of what our academic agenda is going to be. There will be some who believe that our agenda should be to educate people to all of the great things that we do, that is "get the story out." And we will do that. We will continue to point out to anyone who will listen that we make an enormous contribution to the research and economic development needs of our province. And we will continue to argue that our students possess highly prized skills that benefit them as well as us. Graduates of universities in Canada face employment prospects far better than graduates of high school or community college. When it comes to technology transfer, our biggest contribution to this society are the students who walk out of our doors.
But I think we have to realize that even after our most strenuous efforts, a kind of dissonance is likely to persist. Unless you are part of this culture, academic freedom is hard concept to understand. As a result, people have very few criteria with which to judge us and this, as Kennedy points out, leads quite naturally to the conclusion that no matter what our contributions, "there is simply too much freedom and too little direction."
In this environment, it makes sense to think of an academic agenda as a guide to who we are, what we value, and where we think we're going. It is not a blueprint and it does not have targets. It is an indication of what we think we owe ourselves and others, and what we intend to work on together, as members of the Colleges and Departments, but also as members of the University.
So, what exactly is this emerging academic agenda at the University of Saskatchewan. From where I sit, and for the moment, I think it has three big components.
At the risk of oversimplifying let me suggest that there are two basic models of university governance. There is what might be called the hierarchical/fiduciary model in which formal authority is lodged in the Administration which, along with the Board of Governors, makes all of the important strategic decisions for the institution. Faculty members are both managers and employees. They manage the affairs of their departments-assignment of duties, hiring, and so on-and they work for the university in the sense that they are subject to negotiated terms and conditions of employment.
In the second, once again over-simplified model, the faculty-but also the students and staff-seek to govern themselves, that is to plot the institution's academic future in a highly collegial manner. This self-governance model acknowledges that faculty members have a strong case for involvement in academic planning based on their expertise and their ability to judge quality. Self-governance is a complicated affair, of course, involving hosts of committees each urging the significance of their own area of responsibility. Somehow all of these voices have to be reconciled within a governing structure; on top of which there is the question of who makes financial decisions. In the days of shrinking budgets, academic decisions and financial decisions are bound together and this model provides no easy answer to how these two realms should be reconciled.
Like most model building exercises of this type, reality frequently lies somewhere in the middle. The administration retains its hierarchical authority, but a measure-sometimes a strong measure-of self-governance co-exists.
With the University of Saskatchewan Act we have moved to strengthen the second of these models and now we are dealing with the consequences. I think that part of the academic agenda of this institution will be to make this system work. At the moment the most obvious problems seem to be organizational and logistical. The terms of reference for committees are imprecise, their relations with one another are in dispute, and there are few precedents to guide committee chairs when it comes to deciding what kinds of decisions need the blessing of Council, in what form and at what time.
These have been described as growing pains, and I suppose they are, but the full scope of these problems is just beginning to dawn on us. Managing a fleet of Council committees with a very rudimentary constitutional structure and no permanent secretarial support is starting to overwhelm us. Proponents of program changes see this in delays and duplications; I see it in the form of staff members who are stretched to do jobs that fall well outside their areas of responsibility.
There is another problem as well. With the creation of major council committees, particularly-Planning but also Budget-there is a natural concern that difficult decisions will be postponed even longer and that the Administration will hide behind a collegial structure and avoid the responsibilities inherent in the hierarchical model, that is to make academic/financial decisions and oblige the university community to accept them. I have heard, more than once, the view that senior administrators should size up the situation and act, unilaterally if necessary, to correct it.
My own preference is clear: I prefer to work within a collegial structure, to build support for projects and initiatives, and to facilitate their implementation. I believe it is possible to use the Council structure to build an academic agenda (not just to prevaricate) and to push it forward. Will it be slower than the command system, yes. And yes, it will be frustrating because the Council system allows numerous veto points. But I believe that if your ideas for change are sound then you should be able to convince your colleagues of their soundness. And if people don't like what you your plans, the implicit question is: what is theirs? In the self-governance model, faculty have to have one.
Which brings me to the second component of the academic agenda, namely the creation of priorities. Most of you will have received a letter from me and Chair of the Planning Committee outlining a process for establishing some broad areas into which the University will place some resources. The exercise is set up to encourage members of the University to consider defining areas that deserve a priority designation, something that will indicate our willingness and intention to invest right now and will guide subsequent decision-making as well.
I have acknowledged in other places that in one sense at least the priority determination exercise is badly named. For one thing it suggests that we don't have priorities right now and we have to go out and get some. Of course, that's not true. The way we deploy our resources at the moment tells us what our priorities are. Now they may not be the ones we would choose if we were given a clean slate, but they are our de facto priorities. What we are trying to do is move some resources in the direction of those areas that, for a host of reasons, deserve increased support.
There are lots of problems: the definition of areas, the financing of this project, the timing of submissions and decisions. We have to work on these to make this undertaking only as smooth and non-disruptive as possible.
From my personal perspective, I think this is something that we have to do and that we should do, but I do not embrace the task with unbounded enthusiasm. Quite apart from the difficulties of implementation, it seems to me that the discourse of "priority determination" is not one which sits well within a university environment. Much like David Strangway, I think that our priority should be to hire the best faculty we can, give them the best equipment we can and attract the best students we can. After that, the priorities will take care of themselves.
This is very much the definition of priority setting that the Deans have adopted. At a retreat in November the Deans chose from a long list of projects-touching on everything from government relations to recruitment and retention-those action items that they felt were most pressing. At the top of the list was "faculty renewal." Sensing that we are entering a period in which we are losing those academics who have built the University's reputation and sustained it over many years, the Deans want to remove the obstacles to attracting their successors, obstacles that include uncompetitive salaries, the absence of start-up funds, and a promotion process that doesn't always work in the interests of junior faculty.
Needless to say, most of the Deans' priorities cost money. But they are legitimate priorities and I intend to work on them at the same time that I intend to work on the identification of priority areas. As we struggle to define areas of emphasis, and reallocate resources, we can't give up on this more traditional method of setting priorities at the University. But to engage in it will require either a net addition to our resource base, or a smaller university. This is not a choice I welcome but ultimately priority determination, in the sense of investing in quality, depends on our willingness to make it.
Everyone is familiar, in one form or another , with the "service-station" model of higher education. The student pulls into the University and says "fill her up." And into the student's cranial cavity we pour facts, figures and formulas, sealing the whole thing up again with a credential, a Bachelor's degree of some description. There are students who cling to this model and faculty members who are willing to oblige. Who among us has consistently resisted the impulse to "get through the material" whether actual learning was taking place or not.
Peter Emberley, among others, has a different view. In his hyperbolic polemic, Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities, he describes the student as someone who comes to the university with a sense of wonder and longing. What the student is longing for is what Emberley describes as "soul-leading conversation, the world of imagination, critical judgement and the unalloyed spiritual and intellectual journey." Professors in this model have a moral responsibility to provide intellectual guidance and to ensure the growth of ethical capacities. They are teachers, yes, but also councillors and mentors.
Now this is an old debate: what is the purpose of undergraduate education? But for us at the University of Saskatchewan the question has a more contemporary form: what is it that we owe our students? This is a pressing issue, but in the time I've spent here at the University of Saskatchewan I've encountered very few opportunities to discuss it. Perhaps it's because I have such a limited opportunity to meet with students myself, but I can't help but get the feeling that the worlds of the faculty and those of the student, especially the undergraduate student, appear rather divorced.
Another way of putting the point is that we don't appear to be organized to discuss the quality of undergraduate education in a systematic way. We do make a stab at evaluating teaching effectiveness, but this is done at the College, not the University level, and the uneven application of often poorly designed questionnaires gives us, at best, a glimpse only of how well instructors are communicating with their students. Evaluations can't tell us much about what students are learning and they tell us nothing about what students should learn.
Evaluations are important. I think we should do them and we should do them well. But they are not all that we owe our students. I think we owe our students an explanation of why we are teaching what we are teaching and what they can expect to acquire by being in our classes, our seminars and our tutorials.
I see undergraduate education changing in two ways. First, I expect we will see increasing emphasis placed on the objectives of courses and learning outcomes. This will be interpreted in some quarters as pandering to students, but I see it as simply a strengthening of our existing commitment to account for decisions that faculty members make in the classroom. This focus on objectives will, in some cases, take the form of the instructor explaining in fairly explicit terms exactly what the student should know and be able to do after the course is over. In other cases, a discussion of objectives may take the form of a learning contract in which the instructor and the student negotiate mutual expectations.
We are making some progress here. The Council ad hoc Committee on a Code of Conduct is devising a document which will address the individual responsibilities of faculty and students and the collective responsibilities of the institution on a wide variety of topics that involve relations between students and faculty. Issues such as fair treatment, confidentiality, and conflict of interest will all be addressed. This committee will not discuss what should be learned, but it will focus our attention on the atmosphere in which learning should take place. This report will definitely form part of the academic agenda.
The second major shift I anticipate in undergraduate education involves interdisciplinary or thematic programming. Like most universities, we have developed strong programs centred on disciplinary bases. This will not change. But I believe we will increasing have to, and I hope we will want to, respond to the yearnings of our students to study topics that cut across disciplinary bounds. I think we owe our students an opportunity to look into other parts of the university than those dictated by disciplinary requirements. And we probably owe them an opportunity to take courses that are organized around interdisciplinary themes where they can encounter and learn from their colleagues in other disciplines around the university.
On this topic, I see one or two islands of innovation, but no general progress or commitment to this goal. At the very least, I think that discussion of this issue should be on the academic agenda.
At the moment, the academic agenda is crowded and getting more so every day. I have reports on my desk regarding learning technologies and instructional development. The Planning committee has launched the priority determination process, and is already moving on systematic program review and procedures for terminating programs. I have said nothing today about special tuition programs even though they represent an important change in our thinking about how we develop and pay for the new things we want to do. The Deans are developing their own list of areas to address, and while some of their concerns have been touched on here, there are other issues that they are concerned about and other projects they wish to launch. There are, in short, many items on the emerging academic agenda, but there is always room for more. If you haven't heard yours mentioned here, please let me know what it is.