Ron Srigley enjoyed annual teaching contracts at the University of PEI for several years. He is now suspended. His story is unusual, but it illustrates one reason why university tenure still matters. There may be no connection between an essay he wrote recently for the Los Angles Review of Books and his suspension, but there probably is.
Srigley’s sin was to pen an open letter to the parents of students across North America. He told them things they didn’t know about what the average, mediocre university today has become. And average and mediocre describe UPEI and most other Canadian universities.
The change can be described easily enough: the majority of university employees no longer serve the purpose of a university, that is, to cultivate intelligence and learning in our students and in ourselves. Instead the “senior leadership team” promotes reputation, jobs, career advancement, and self-interest. If this means inflating grades so little Janie does not feel disrespected and can acquire a transcript to ensure she gains her preferred employment, why not?
This is not a rhetorical question. The problem is that grade inflation, for instance, does not mean that Janie is getting smarter. Just the opposite: accommodating the combination of her long-nourished and high expectations with genuine inabilities means she is getting dumber.
There are many causes that brought even good universities such as Yale to the place where no fewer than 13 administrators were required to advise adult students how to dress for Hallowe’en. In terms of curriculum, for example, Srigley wrote, and many of us already knew, the liberal arts and sciences, historically the core of the university, don’t matter. Nor do those who teach arts and sciences.
By pointing this out, you are considered rude and not a team player. Etiquette demands forgetting about virtue and acting nice. Otherwise you may be accused of harassment. Years ago, academic freedom meant not having to play nice when everyone else was acting shamelessly. Scholars were assumed to value truth so highly and to pursue truth so diligently that excess and bad manners were marks of commitment.
What counts now is not truth but oversubscribed classes. One road to large classes is to ensure that lectures are entertaining rather than challenging. “Student-centred learning” means lots of YouTube, which is a recipe to flatter the children by prolonging their infant years. But a “successful classroom” can get you a teaching award, which is no longer a measure of academic excellence.
As evidence of the new direction our mediocre universities have taken, Srigley pointed out that many full-time academic staff think of themselves (and are) employees, not scholars. They work for the administrators where once the administrators worked for them, by helping facilitate the actual tasks of the university, teaching and learning.
The heart of Srigley’s concern is not that chemists have been replaced by chemical engineers or philosophers by industrial psychologists. Rather, all have become subordinate to student service departments whose members and not the faculty constitute the real core of today’s university. Being relatively uneducated themselves, their job is not to educate but to help students, to make them happy, filled with self-esteem, and empowered at the centre of their own learning experience. None of this has anything to do with trying to teach a student something or anything.
So Srigley’s message to parents: if you think your kids are learning to be more intelligent, you are being played. Worse, an entire generation of young persons has been betrayed.
Will his administrative superiors get the message or make his suspension permanent?
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.