Senior administration leaving faculty behind

Two weeks ago, Wilfrid Laurier University hosted a conference to “reimagine” the future of universities in a changing world. Hardly advertised on campus, it was aimed primarily at senior administrators from Laurier and other institutions.
Although it was clearly an effort to position Laurier as a key player in the current debate about the future of university education in Ontario, the issues discussed are of profound importance to the Laurier community.

Laurier’s president Max Blouw opened the proceedings with an overview of the challenges facing universities today, particularly those associated with inadequate government financing and the growing number of students.
Blouw concluded that the current model is under great strain: he wondered whether it is possible to sustain faculty spending 40 per cent of their time on research and only 40 per cent of their time in the classroom (20 per cent on “community service”)?

Much of the subsequent discussion surrounded the proposal that a sustainable model for post-secondary education involves, faculty devoting 80 per cent of their time to teaching. In other words faculty would teach eight courses rather than the four we currently deliver. Beyond the obvious financial returns that would accompany such a shift, two assumptions underlie this proposal.

The first is that today’s universities are failing students and must, therefore, be reformed drastically. The second is that faculty are largely responsible for this failure: we are too caught up in our own research to care for the needs of students in the classroom.

As was repeated many times at the conference, apparently there is no proof that faculty actively engaged in research are of any benefit to the learning experience.
There are few at Laurier who would disagree with the fact that the university in general — and our university in particular — is facing unprecedented challenges in the midst of the current economic climate. There are also many who would agree that things need to change; that we can do better. Last week’s Maclean’s rankings would seem to support this conclusion.

How do we achieve positive change?

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is that we, the primary stakeholders, are not invited to participate in the process by which the administration hopes to address the problems that Laurier faces.

Students who pay increasing amounts for their education, as well as faculty and staff who will invest decades of their lives here, all feel that we are on the outside looking in at a process beyond our control.

The “re-imagine” conference is a prime example. Whether or not this was the intention, the fact that the event was not advertised extensively on campus beforehand, and that faculty were charged $100 and students $50 to participate, leaves the distinct impression that our input into the Laurier’s future is not encouraged.

Similarly, we watch with no small degree of incredulity as money is poured into centenary celebrations, the rebranding of the university, advertising in the Globe and Mail and conferences that try to make Laurier a name.

All at a time of supposed fiscal restraint when each year class sizes increase, courses are cut and when faculty and staff are told to do more with less.
Certainly, it will be challenging and time consuming, but the entire Laurier community needs to be involved in determining our future. Co-operation and constructive dialogue must replace the confusion and frustration that characterize our campus.

These emotions are understandable. After all, what did Blouw mean when he said that the current model is unsustainable?

Is he suggesting that the administration wants to move away from the four course teaching load — the very conditions that the administration (not faculty) insisted upon in the last round of collective bargaining? What did he mean when he asked whether we really need instructors with PhDs teaching at the first- and second-year levels?

If Blouw envisions Laurier as a “teaching only university,” is the vision that we become a highly regarded small-class liberal arts college as in the United States, or more like a Canadian community college or, for that matter, a high school?
Now that the administration has raised these important issues, the question that begs answering is what do students, faculty and staff think about these matters?

I for one don’t doubt the good intentions of Laurier’s senior administration, but the discussion must include all members of the community. Our future cannot be imposed from above.

A friend in the corporate world tells me that companies today recognize the importance of including employees in the decision-making and planning processes so as not to stifle motivation and innovation. Successful corporate cultures strive to avoid an adversarial relationship between management and employees by working with them to achieve agreed upon goals that serve all.

At a time when universities are increasingly functioning like corporations, perhaps we need to borrow from them so that we too can be innovative, creative and competitive.

At the conclusion of the “re-imagine” conference, Blouw noted that on the occasion of its centenary Laurier is on the cusp of great change.

Just what he was referring to was not clear. However, for the health and future of Laurier it must be change that is inspired and supported by all: students, staff, faculty and senior administrators.

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