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Sean Speer: Reform is coming for entitled universities—one way or another

Commentary

Over the weekend, Penn University president, Liz Magill, resigned due to the fallout from her high-profile congressional testimony about anti-semitism on campus. The two other presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T., who appeared alongside her, are facing similar backlashes but as of now remain in their posts.

Their refusal to state unequivocally that calls for the genocide of the Jews wouldn’t be tolerated on their campuses provoked such a strong reaction for three chief reasons: (1) the inherent double standard in the application of free speech protections, (2) a lack of a recognizable moral framework on the part of the university leadership, and (3) the growing monopoly that radical ideas now seemingly hold over post-secondary institutions.

One gets the sense that the personal consequences for the three presidents won’t be the end of this story. Their disastrous testimonies have been characterized as a “tipping point moment” in which new questions are being asked about the mission, purpose, and state of modern university education.

By coincidence, I recently wrote for The Hub about these same questions in the Canadian context, including whether we ought to eliminate tuition subsidies for domestic university students. The article received more reaction in general and more criticism in particular than my typical writing. 

Some of the criticism has been constructive. One reader, for instance, noted that possible changes to tuition subsidies would require more careful thinking about the treatment between undergraduate and graduate education, the effects on different universities and the potential for rationalization and even consolidation within the sector, and the risks to Canada’s standing in the global competition for talent. 

Others, however, seem to have mostly reacted to my conclusions without seriously engaging with the essay’s arguments. The case for rethinking tuition subsidies was dismissed as elitist or an emotional reaction to recent evidence of campus radicalism. 

Yet the article wasn’t an act of provocation. It wasn’t written as “clickbait.” It was instead a first-principles attempt to reckon with whether our pre-existing assumptions about tuition subsidies for university students can still withstand policy scrutiny. My conclusion was that the case is weaker than most people—including evidently those in and around the university sector itself—seem to take for granted. 

It doesn’t mean of course that any major policy reforms to the status quo wouldn’t be complicated or involve tradeoffs, or even that public funding for post-secondary education and research ought to be eliminated altogether. But the inability of many university voices to substantively respond to wonky policy arguments strikes me as evidence of an entitlement mentality and a bad sign for the sector’s capacity to defend itself in the face of a less hospitable political environment.  

In the essay, I set out three arguments in favour of revisiting the current policy of subsidized tuition rates. It’s worth restating them and responding to the criticisms here. 

  1. Subsidized tuition rates are regressive 

Subsidized tuition fees for every university student regardless of his or her financial circumstances are an inefficient means to achieve the egalitarian goal of broad-based university access. It would be more efficient and equitable to permit tuition fees to rise in order to better reflect the true cost of university education and then subsidize low-income students with enriched means-tested grants. 

Post-secondary policy expert Alex Usher has previously made similar arguments in favour of the better targeting of direct university subsidies. There’s a logic to adopting the same policy treatment of the indirect subsidies embedded in tuition rates for everyone—particularly since, as I outlined in my essay, they may in some cases exceed current tuition rates themselves. 

It’s worth observing that the approach proposed here conflicts with the Ford government’s policy decision to cut and cap tuition rates in Ontario which has had the effect of increasing indirect subsidies to students. Most university voices were rightly critical of the government’s decision at the time. Many of the same arguments apply to the regressive subsidies reflected in ongoing tuition rates across the country. 

Following the same advice here would manifestly lead to higher tuition rates for some students. But it wouldn’t necessarily harm the system’s overall progressivity—in fact, if the tuition hikes were matched by an increase in means-tested grants, it could actually have progressive effects. 

A separate yet related outcome is that it would in theory encourage students to have a much greater stake in the cost and quality of their university education. They would be more intentional about their own educational choices and experiences. They would also presumably be more prepared to hold university administrations accountable for superfluous spending (such as growing DEI bureaucracies) that drives up costs but fails to improve the student experience. The net result might be that lowering or eliminating tuition subsidies could have anti-inflationary effects on the university sector’s inherent growth bias. 

2. Individual benefits versus broad-based ones 

The assumption that university education produces positive externalities underestimates the individual gains for university graduates and overestimates the broader societal benefits. The point here of course isn’t that universities fail to produce positive outcomes. It’s that they’re really quite good for individual graduates who generally receive a significant earnings premium but the evidence that they produce positive spillovers for the broader society is a bit more complicated. 

There’s competing research on the subject and even then the scholarship tends to study universities as a whole rather than distinguish between programs or fields of study. Disaggregating different types of university education and research would presumably show that certain programs produce positive spillovers and others produce fewer or none at all. 

An alternative to eliminating tuition subsidies altogether therefore might be to estimate the externalities of different programs and set tuition subsidies accordingly. Taxpayers could subsidize programs that produce broad benefits and students would be required to pay the full cost of programs that do not. 

Although such a policy reform would undoubtedly be controversial, the first-principles argument is reasonably strong. It would better root public subsidies in a rationally-connected policy principle and create a market mechanism for the kinds of education and research that may interest individuals but produce no demonstrable benefits in the broad public interest.

3. Democratic accountability for universities 

The thorniest issue is the growing disconnect between the ideas and languages of universities and the rest of society. The rise of decolonialization, intersectionality, and other critical theories has led a lot of university education and research in increasingly narrow, radical, and unrepresentative directions. 

Critics dismissed these concerns as nothing more than a “handful of ‘outrageous’ examples” or a small issue “happening at a half-dozen universities.” This strikes me as a serious lack of introspection and self-awareness on the part of the sector and its proponents. The rise of campus radicalism has been well-documented across the Anglosphere, including by Canadian-British scholar Eric Kaufmann who recently left the University of London College because of these trends. 

One just needs to survey the academic job postings over the past several years. There’s been a clear tilt in the direction of highly-politicized campuses. The problem isn’t just that the universities are monolithically left wing. It’s the disproportionate influence that radical ideas have assumed over admissions, hiring, grant funding, and journal publications.

We’ve directly witnessed the consequences over the past several weeks here in Canada in the form of acts of intimidation and protests on campus that have selectively targeted Israel for opprobrium and sought to justify or rationalize Hamas’s horrific attacks. Universities have been at the epicenter of antisemitism across the country.

It’s reminder that we shouldn’t be too smug about last week’s congressional testimonies by Gay, Kornbluth, and Magill. Their refusal to say that calling for the genocide of Jews contravenes their schools’ codes of conduct is outrageous and certainly worthy of the criticism that they’ve faced. But as private institutions that rely primarily on non-public funding, the responsibility for what happens on campus ultimately lies with those who pay for and run these institutions within the context of the law. 

What distinguishes the experience in Canada is that universities are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Governments dedicate roughly $20 billion to university education and research each year. This isn’t an insignificant amount. It’s nearly the same level of public expenditure as national defence. 

The key difference here is that private universities are subject to certain market mechanisms. Board members, donors, faculty, and students can opt out of particular institutions or even the private system altogether if they believe that the culture, pedagogy, or ideas are unhealthy and bad. We don’t have that option in a publicly funded system. Canadian taxpayers are expected to subsidize public universities without any voice over the education and research that’s carried out using their resources and in their name.

Herein lies the tension: university administrators and faculty members want it both ways—they want taxpayer funding but they don’t want taxpayers to have a say about what happens on campus. As I outlined in my essay, one cannot help but think that this is no longer a sustainable arrangement. 

What taxpayers have witnessed over the past several weeks is bound to lead to growing demands for greater democratic accountability. Something will likely need to give. Universities may have to accept a greater democratic role in their administration and allocation of resources or move to a more market-based model in which tuition fees and other own-source revenues come to represent a larger share of their budgets. An expectation of ongoing public funding with no strings attached is no longer a safe bet for university leaders. 

Opening up universities to greater democratic accountability comes with legitimate problems as University of British Columbia law professor Camden Hutchison set out in his essay for The Hub. The alternative therefore to reduce the extent to which universities are dependent on taxpayers represents a better option. It could enhance progressivity within the system, better align the benefits and costs of university education, and solve the growing tension between academic freedom and democratic accountability. 

Even if critics disagree, they’d be prudent to take these issues far more seriously. In light of long-term fiscal sustainability challenges facing several provinces, public spending on universities was already bound to face greater scrutiny in the coming years. The public’s exposure to campus radicalism over the past several weeks is likely to only reinforce such questions.

A response of derision and entitlement isn’t in the interests of Canada’s universities. All it will do is hasten their inevitable confrontation with politics. And, as Gay, Kornbluth, and Magill learned, they probably won’t like the outcome.

Antony Anderson: Canada’s forgotten role in the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel

Commentary

The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has caused a lot of commentators and politicians to invoke historical arguments in favour of their particular point of view. These claims on the past typically centre on the partition of Israel and Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. A forgotten part of this history is the instrumental role that Canada played in shaping it.

By November 1947, Lester Pearson had ventured deep into the labyrinth. There he was, serving in a tight working group set up by a United Nations sub-committee, which had been established by the General Assembly, to map out the improbable, or maybe even the impossible: a viable path to partition a blood-soaked piece of land—the Mandate of Palestine—for two different peoples with incompatible dreams. Every move that he made was scrutinized by the world’s politicians, diplomats, lobbyists, and press. No wonder he wrote in private at the time, “It certainly is the most complicated problem that I have ever come up against.”

Enveloped for centuries within a blur of Biblical kingdoms, and then after by vast empires (Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman), what came to be called Palestine had been most recently administered by the United Kingdom, on behalf of the defunct League of Nations (and Britain’s own imperial interests of course), to guide the locals to self-rule. This vague mandate from the League was greatly complicated by His Majesty’s Government’s declaration in 1917 that it viewed with “favour” a homeland for the world’s Jews in this piece of land.  

By 1947, Britain had spent close to three decades nudging, cajoling, begging, threatening, and fighting with the majority Arab and the minority Jewish populations to persuade them to live together in peace or at least next door to each other in some fashion—all in vain. Burnt out by the second global war of the 20th century, forced to dump imperial pieces overboard (India, Burma), London announced it was going to pull out of Palestine as soon as possible and left the UN to confront the looming legal, civil, and military void. 

In the spring of that year, the United Nations summoned member states to New York to deal with the crisis. Pearson, then deputy minister of External Affairs, was elected to chair the committee that would set up a special commission to travel to Palestine to examine the issue firsthand and make recommendations. 

Pearson witnessed the rage and stakes when delegations simply discussed the commission’s terms of reference and membership. As he put it:  

I’ve heard some pretty wild speeches at the United Nations…but nothing to equal the venom and the fury of the Arabs. And I don’t mean that this was some kind of synthetic fury as very often [Soviet] speeches were. This was genuine. This was sincere. This was from the depths of their being…The Jewish feeling was equally deep and equally sincere and it wasn’t diplomatic. It wasn’t a diplomatic conflict. It was a conflict of life and death between two peoples.

Canada had no political, economic, or military stake in the wider region or the immediate crisis so Pearson could afford to be a moderating voice in an intense argument. This enabled him over several weeks to stickhandle a divided UN to agree on the commission’s terms of reference and get it launched; in that angry atmosphere, no easy or inevitable achievement. He was praised by his fellow delegates and the press. One of his colleagues later wrote that “Pearson’s performance…might be regarded as the beginning of Canada’s role as a middle power.” 

In the summer of 1947, the commissioners, including a Canadian representative, toured Palestine looking for a way to satisfy the political and emotional demands of the 1.3 million Arab and 678,000 Jewish inhabitants. True to the very nature of the conflict, even the commissioners sent to shape a compromise could not agree amongst themselves. The majority, including Canada, called for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states sharing a customs and monetary union, with Jerusalem placed under an international trusteeship. The minority report called for a unified federal state with Arab and Jewish provinces. The UN gathered in the fall of 1947 to discuss those divergent possibilities. 

In October, Canada joined the UN sub-committee dealing with the partition option. After the initial round, the sub-committee decided it needed to focus the task at hand and Pearson was an obvious choice to dig in even deeper with a working group tackling the details. He was joined by a Soviet, an American, and a Guatemalan delegate. In that claustrophobic arena, the middle power diplomat had to balance demands from rival superpowers arguing over timetables, supervisory bodies, the scope of UN involvement, and whether to create one or two states out of one piece of land, while the clock kept running down on the looming British evacuation. Pearson confided to a friend, “Here I am, in the middle, between an obstinate Russian and a not-too-skillful American, and it has been about the most exhausting experience of my life.” 

Pearson had worked over the decades to practice his craft as dispassionately as possible—one admiring colleague even called his approach “ruthlessly pragmatic”—but when it came to Palestine, he was uncharacteristically drawn in. Given his childhood, that is hardly surprising. He was raised in a deeply Christian household, both his father and grandfather had been ministers and the Bible was the all-pervasive text in their lives. The minister’s son conceded he “got too personally involved…in a very special way because we were dealing with the Holy Land and a lot of my old Sunday school stories came out of there. At one stage of my life, I knew far more about the geography of Palestine than I did about the geography of Canada.” 

This childhood attachment was reinforced by postwar revelations of the Holocaust. While Pearson and his fellow diplomats were working at the UN, Jewish refugees were trying to flee from a still antisemitic Europe past British gunboats into Palestine. In that desperate landscape, many of the UN delegates including Pearson championed some kind of Jewish homeland because, as he put it, “of an underlying feeling that it had been made necessary by the slaughter of Jews in Europe…that arrangements should be made in at least one country in the world for the Jewish people to be definitely freed from the limitations and the fears imposed by minority status.” This personal and political objective meant that, from the start, Pearson ignored the claims of the Arab majority in Palestine and in the Middle East to have Palestine all to themselves. In a gesture of admiration and gratitude for his support, someone, perhaps a delegate or journalist, dubbed him, “Rabbi Pearson”. He gladly accepted the title.

Over the month of November, Pearson often thought he had reached a compromise on partition in the working group only to see it fall apart. He couldn’t force or bully the American and Soviet delegates in this tortuous process—he had to rely on endless patience, delicate deflection, and political antennae finely tuned to every possible opening. “We sat in a cell-like room”, Pearson recalled, “hour after hour after hour, and the press were out there in the corridor keeping a death watch. We went on all day and all night and finally worked out an agreement that the Russians and the Americans would both accept.” Somehow, and there is scant paper trail on this, Pearson blended elements from the American and Soviet proposals to shape an agreement over the withdrawal timeline, a supervisory commission, legal issues, and Security Council involvement.

L. B. Pearson, Chairman of Committee 1 UN General Assembly, First Special Session April 1947. Credit: UN, UN7520573.

The compromise made front-page news around the world. The New York Times cheered his “tireless efforts.” The Manchester Guardian declared that his “capacity to watch a plan knocked down and then set up another should give him some special sort of status with the United Nations.” Despite the public applause, however, Pearson cautioned a journalist ally in private, “Don’t go out on any limbs, or sing any [paeans] until you see what is going to happen.”  

Pearson’s draft compromise on the terms of partition moved from the working group to the sub-committee and eventually to the floor of the General Assembly. On November 29, 1947, thirty-three delegations, including Canada, voted to partition the former League of Nations mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states with an economic union. Thirteen countries opposed the plan, including India, all the Arab nations, and fellow Muslim countries Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Ten members abstained, the most significant abstention coming from Great Britain, still trying to appear sublimely neutral.

Despite the triumph for the Jewish cause at the United Nations, Pearson’s work was, in diplomatic parlance, overtaken by events. Arab nations went to war against the Jewish population in Palestine—not to create a homeland for the resident Arabs but to seize and carve up the territory for themselves. The organized, impassioned Jewish resistance prevailed. In the fighting, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were pushed off their land and saw their dreams shattered. The State of Israel was born from this mesh of blood and faith, heartbreak, and joy.  

Pearson looked back with pride at the creation of a Jewish homeland and with anguish at the awful violence that creation entailed but he never apologised for his fundamental decision to support a Jewish homeland. He and his fellow delegates did not have easy, ideal, or universal solutions to work with. They had made the best of contentious options, fully aware that bloodshed was likely coming no matter what choice they adopted. 

In November 1948, after the war had frozen into a tense armistice, Pearson addressed the General Assembly, defending his support for partition, arguing there was no practical alternative. As he outlined: 

Some form of unitary or federal state would, of course, have been preferable, but there was no possibility of forcing political unity on the Arab and Jewish peoples of Palestine in a form which would not have been bitterly resisted by one side or the other. In these circumstances, the only thing we could do was reconcile ourselves to the necessity of separation as the solution which seemed best in the circumstances.

In that same speech, he acknowledged the tragic outcome for the Arabs of Palestine who had been displaced by the war, who would be used ever afterward as political pawns by Arab governments:

I do not deny for a moment that this is a difficult circumstance for the Arab states to accept, but it is nevertheless the case and it does not seem to me that the United Nations would be doing those states any service if it encouraged them, or even permitted them, to continue their efforts destroy by force of arms the Jewish state. 

In retirement, Pearson looked back on his time in diplomacy and remarked with chagrin that fear in international affairs is often the greatest inspiration to innovate, the greatest impulse to finally abandon old, blinding dogmas.

If there is one sliver of light in this current season of darkness, it may be that more and more people on both sides have possibly begun to grasp the fact that the status quo is unbearable and unsustainable. Hopefully, Israel will destroy, as it must, the terrorist Hamas organization. Hopefully, Israel’s appalling autocratic government will be thrown out, as it must. Perhaps then larger forces of decency and tolerance on both sides will emerge from the current crisis—which will end at some point—and try at last to fashion a new more humane and just state of being, with justice, peace, and security for everyone. That was Pearson’s dream of 1947.