Wente on Ontario Universities

14 04 2010

Yesterday, Globe columnist Margaret Wente published a piece in which she denounced Ontario’s academics as overpaid people who devoted too much time to research and not enough time the job taxpayers expect them to do, namely, teaching undergraduates.

Wente’s piece has generated a strong response. This letter appeared in today’s Globe.

“Dear Editor;

Margaret Wente, in her complaints about Canadian university faculty being the highest paid in the world (“Universities are sitting ducks for reform,” April 13, 2010), bases her argument on a 2008 Boston College report that itself cautions readers that, lacking consistent data across countries being available, their study “must be seen as a first attempt rather than a definitive report.”

Regrettably Wente shows no such caution when urging Canadians to adopt a university system where faculty are no longer paid to perform research. Hundreds of years of university experience have shown that faculty research and teaching are intertwined, enriching and enlivening each other, to the benefit of students. To drop this research-based model in favour of “efficiently delivering mass undergraduate education” will reduce the university to being a kind of upper-level high school.

Our students don’t need more high school. They need interaction with faculty who are pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Wente is too swift to abandon quality higher education, especially in view of the enormous challenges we face, such as healthcare and global security. We need the best possible postsecondary system to generate solutions to these urgent issues.

The research model might cost more, but education on the cheap is too expensive a solution.

Mark Langer
Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations”

Ms. Wente makes some interesting comments in her piece. I don’t disagree that the Ontario university system needs a major overhaul.  However, I think that there are some flawed ideas in her piece that need to be pointed out.

First, Wente seems to dismiss the research that is 40% of the job of the typical academic. She said: “U.S. commentator Walter Russell Mead remarks, taxpayers are not going to subsidize research in critical literary theory much longer”.

Very few professors devote their time to critical literary theory. I would hazard to say that many Canadian universities are without a specialist in the theories of Foucault. Most taxpayers would probably say that a lot of the pomo theory stuff is garbage. But the practitioners of that, er, scholarly tradition represent a miniscule minority of all professors.  [Moreover, the postmodern stuff is far more prevalent in the United States than it is here in Canada. The pomo BS is even less common in Britain and is unknown in universities in many European countries. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages with different degrees of state control, but to my mind, this pattern suggests why publicly-funded universities that are under state supervision may be a better arrangement than the privately-funded universities of the US, a more laissez-faire environment where much of the truly nonsensical stuff flourishes along with all of the cutting-edge research].

Anyway, what about all of the professors who research terrible diseases or who teach difficult to learn but commercially vital Asian languages or who publish on important topics such as the Holocaust or why financial crises happen?  What about the many academic historians who write books that ordinary people read in the evening after work? In the field of Canadian history there are Professors John English and Jonathan Vance who fall into this category, which is one that I hope to join. Pointing to the tiny minority of people who abuse the system isn’t fair.

Moreover, Ms. Wente cites an academic book in her column. In fact, she praises Academic Transformation: The Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario. This book was published by an academic press (MQUP) and the authors are professors. The fact that Wente read and then cited this book undermines her own argument that academic research is largely useless.

The professor who publishes shoddy research devoid of social utility is, in my view, a trivial problem. The stereotype of the professor who issues a stream of books written in pomo jargon is largely a myth.  There may, however, be a problem with professors who simply don’t publish enough or who are indifferent in their teaching. However, there are systems for dealing with this. Students evaluate the teaching of their professors.  TVOntario rewards Ontario’s best university and college lecturers. Getting tenure in North America often requires the publication of two peer-reviewed books, at least in book-oriented disciplines.

The British government measures the scholarly output of academics and then uses the results to rank university departments (with some surprising results, I might add) and so it will know where to allocate funds. The British do this not because they share Ms. Wente’s apparent disdain for academic research but because they want _more_ academic research to be produced and are willing to incentive academics to produce results. The results of the British system are impressive: in per capita terms British scientific and humanities academics outperform scholars from other countries in terms of both volume and influence (citation counts) of publication. Ontario seems to be inching in the direction of adopting something similar to the British RAE/REF system. The Ontario government’s new Higher Education Quality Council, which seems to have been inspired by Higher Education Funding Council in the UK.



3 responses

15 04 2010

The real problem is, of course, the tenure system, which rewards mediocrity and low productivity. Hopefully, time will take care of this, as the current standards for getting a tenure-track job, let alone tenure, seem to be much higher than in the past. That said, the institutional price for refusing tenure (loss of a tenure-track position with no guarantee of getting it replaced) still militates against a truly selective system.

15 04 2010


The idea of quantifying research output – let alone tying funding to said measurement – is extremely contentious in arts faculties, and not a simple model to be adopted from the UK.

And as for “The real problem is, of course, the tenure system, which rewards mediocrity and low productivity.” …

15 04 2010

@Claire. Measuring research output would be contentious in many faculties, but it has to be done. If you don’t measure something that can be measured, that means you don’t care about it. Someone who doesn’t own a bathroom scale doesn’t care about their weight. Actions speak louder than words and measuring in an action. To not measure research output while paying lip-service to the idea that research is important is inconsistent and illogical. The existing arrangement suggests that the government doesn’t really care about academic research. I find that personally offensive, since what we do is important and there should be more of it.

Let me also say that existing rankings of Canadian universities (e.g., Maclean’s, Globe and Mail) lack credibility precisely because the authoring institutions are not making financial decisions based on them. Maclean’s can produce shoddy or good rankings, it doesn’t matter, because it is not as if the parent corporation of Maclean’s is making decisions about how to allocate billions in funding based on the rankings. Talk is cheap when there is no penalty for error. The British government, in contrasts, allocates billions in research funding based on its rankings. Ask me which star is my favourite and I might pick one at random. Ask me which city I want to spend my holiday in and I will give it more thought to the question.

@AR. Tenure is important because it protects academic freedom. However, for tenure to be saved from the likes of M Wente and other disgruntled taxpayers, university professors need to police themselves by introducing performance benchmarks. In fact, this may our last chance to save tenure which is, as we all know, being partially phased out in Ontario by the introduction of more short-contract teachers. Research output measurement is a way of dealing with the abuse of tenure without limiting the core principle underpinning tenure (academic freedom). Under the British RAE system, the government funding agency doesn’t care what you said in your books and articles, as long as you are publishing in sufficient quantitites and with peer review. You are free to criticize or support the Iraq War in your articles, as long as you are publishing them in peer-review journals.

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