What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 1

The university system is limping, that’s for sure. But it’s because of short-sighted decisions by policy-makers, not because of rebellious professors, as Margaret Wente would have us believe.

I have been a professor of communication studies and French at McMaster University since 2001. In July of that year, I joined McMaster as the first professor in the Communication Studies Program. We started the program on a shoestring and a prayer. We had many students, one faculty member and lots of enthusiasm. I was 27 years old. Those were heady times.

Since then, the program has grown and matured, developing into the program with the largest number of majors in the Faculty of Humanities. Our alumni are very successful, our research and the fine art our faculty members produce is internationally recognized. This year we started a graduate program – a Master of Communication and New Media. We have an internship program that places at least 15 students per term. Now here’s the kicker: we did all of this with 5 and a half full-time faculty members. We are lean and efficient.

We do not have a sense of entitlement.

In fact, I think that Ms. Wente would be hard pressed to find the professors who don’t understand that they work for the citizenry. My colleagues are exquisitely aware that their jobs, and tenure, create for them a very privileged place in society. A sacred privilege that bears with it a serious responsibility to act as critics and commentators: people who are given the freedom by society to criticize it freely. This is a fundamental part of our democracy. It’s important.

I sat on McMaster’s University Planning and Budget Committees for three years from 2005-2007. I had a first-hand look into the pains that Deans take to make sure that every penny counts. I watched them struggle valiantly to meet the no-deficit stipulation put forward by McMaster’s Board of Governors and enforced by us on the Budget Committee. They cut where they could, they spread more work over fewer faculty. They downloaded as many tasks as possible. The faculty took all of this on and worked with it. They asked their research assistants to do more with less. They took care of many more menial tasks than ever before. They shouldered the administrative tasks of retiring colleagues who were not replaced. They did their part. For the most part, they didn’t complain.

Let’s talk about salaries.

Most faculty don’t really earn much money before their early thirties.

Think about this for a second: a typical young person finishes her BA at 22 years old, then her Master’s degree two years later at 24. Her PhD will take her 4-5 years, so that puts her at 28 or 29. After that, she’ll probably take a postdoctoral fellowship to beef up her publication record. That’s at least another two years, if not four. So now she’s 31. That means that she’s been in school, living on survival wages until her early thirties.

Then she might find a tenure track job – if she’s really lucky. If she lands a tenure-track job, she’ll probably be hired at a salary of about 70k. 31 years old, with neglible income during her 20s, makes 70k at 31 not a great payoff. Then she has to get tenure. That means another 6 years of 10-12 hour days and constant worry about whether she’s meeting the bar for achieving tenure in research, teaching and administration.  That means that at 38 yrs of age, she’ll be granted tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor. She might be making 100-110k. She might still be single, not having found the time to marry or have children. She might be divorced, the stress of the previous 20 years leading up to tenure being far greater than many relationships could bear.

Then, to earn her annual salary adjustment or merit increase, she will have to face constant criticism and peer review. Constant scrutiny on a level only certain lawyers and surgeons and parliamentarians ever have to face. Again, if she’s lucky, she might be promoted to Full Professor seven or ten years later, at 48 years old. At that moment, she might be making 120-130k.

All-the-while, her “media profile” is measured and reported to her Dean, who encourages her to increase it. She has to apply for grant money from government, private and not-for-profit sources. She has to write op-ed pieces. She has to publish, direct MA and PhD theses, and go to at least one or two conferences per year. She gives public lectures, she is involved in community service, political action or community education.

Does this sound like a gravy train to you?

I didn’t think so.

What the system needs is an injection of resources to be able to keep professors productive. It makes no sense to have professors who work with skeletal administrative support. It makes no sense to have professors teach classes of hundreds upon hundreds of students. That isn’t education. It isn’t even training. It is a simulation of education – it’s just going through the motions and saying “we have universities and we push a large percentage of the population through those universities.”

If you look at the amount of money that the Province of Ontario spends on post-secondary education, it looks like a large number. But bear in mind that this is a number that hasn’t grown since Mike Harris cut funding to post-secondary education in the 1990s. Funding was flat-lined. This means that universities have been limping along using 1990s dollars in a 2010 economy.

A proper post-secondary education costs money. It is not cheap. Rather than bullying professors and threatening to take away tenure – neither of which will do anything to reduce the cost of delivering world-class higher education in Canada – Government should be finding ways of injecting much-needed resources into the system. That means choosing between a few options:

  • greater investment of taxpayer money,
  • multi-tiered system of universities,
  • privatization of several universities,
  • deregulation of tuition fees.

America has colleges that deliver spectacular results, both in terms of research and educating well-rounded, thoughtful citizens. But American student-professor ratios of 10 to 1 are very costly. Tuition fees often hover between 25-40k, and we’re not talking about ivy-league schools here. Just typical, small, liberal-arts colleges.

The great American institutions, such as Dartmouth and Princeton are small and spectacularly well-funded. Princeton has fewer than 7,000 students. Yale has fewer than 12,000. Those are small institutions compared to Canada’s giant schools (McMaster has approximately 22,000 students, U of Toronto has over 60,000, York more than 50,000).

So, in a word – Margaret Wente should understand what she is talking about before she speaks.

The Canadian university system need fixing. But let’s get our facts straight: the professors aren’t the problem – the funding model is.

Canada needs a powerful, national vision for post-secondary education. And it needs it now. Post-secondary education is the key to prosperity from today until the year 2100.

The policy-maker who comes up with a serious plan for post-secondary education will be remembered as one of this century’s great visionaries.

TOMORROW – why education matters.

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  1. Excellent post; thanks for standing up for the rest of us. I too look around at my colleagues and see none of that sense of entitlement. I also don’t see anyone who is sheltered from teaching because of their research (another claim often lobbed in our direction). It’s exam time here and everyone is buried in student papers while also carrying on with their administrative tasks (as you say, doing more with less) and trying to gear up research and writing plans for the summer. Everyone I know takes work home every night and weekend; we answer to our students (who can now reach us, thanks to technology, in many different ways) at all hours; we try to make their educational experience as rich and challenging as possible. As you say, we also face intense scrutiny and criticism from our peers at every stage, including as we try to satisfy the increasing demand from governments and administrators for ‘quantitative’ proof of productivity in the form of publications at a time when even mass-market publication models are tanking. And if anything, you paint an overly rosy financial picture. A decade after my tenure and first promotion, I at least am not making any $100K. But what I’d like is not more money to me personally–not at all. Or a change to my job description: I think all the work I do (teaching, research, admin and service) is important and often very rewarding. But as you say, I think a lot of us would like the conditions to be better, for us and our students–smaller classes, more admin support, the kind of thing that would let us work more thoughtfully, without chasing grants to cover basic expenses for research and to scrape up ‘indirect costs’ funding for the university.

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