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Zachary Patterson: Universities are not going to reform themselves—so now what?

Commentary

A pro-Palestinian encampment set up at the University of Toronto in Toronto, May 23, 2024. Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press.

My two previous columns indicated that both professors and universities are failing to fulfill their respective, unique, roles.

Instead of being producers of dependable, objective knowledge about the world we live in, they have become highly politicized and intent on remaking society according to their own values.

In so doing they have abandoned the foundational truth, knowledge, and merit principles of universities. Moreover, universities have abandoned their commitment to academic freedom.

The abandonment of academic freedom and these principles is not innocuous. The surprising antisemitic intensity and tenacity of support for Hamas on campuses is just the most recent example of what has been percolating in universities for decades if not generations.

Importantly, it is clear that the public does not support the radical ideas promulgated and emerging from campuses. At the same time, Canadian taxpayers lavish enormous resources on higher education. In fact, thirty percent more money goes to universities than to the military!

Some may argue that the excesses of universities are only temporary and that farsighted administrators will be reading the tea leaves and preparing the ground to right the ship. Others argue that universities must be the ones to lead reform.

Reform “from within” is unlikely however for four reasons. First, as found in a study with my colleague Christopher Dummitt, universities are overwhelmingly populated by Left-leaning academics and there is an increasing willingness to cancel dissenting views. Second, university administrators seem to be more liberal than already Left-leaning academics so it’s difficult to imagine reform coming from them.

Third, governing boards do not appear to be up to the task. These boards have either little actual power or are ignored by universities themselves. Moreover, they are more commonly populated by people with little desire to take on the universities.

These positions are typically voluntary and primarily considered to be honourary, despite their potentially important role in the governance of universities. Few members, even if they were sympathetic to reform, are likely to risk reputational damage by taking on radicalized universities, their professors, and their students.

Finally, many governing boards don’t even follow the most rudimentary rules of organizational governance. The most basic rule of independence of a board from universities is commonly ignored, with professors and even students being represented on them.

Professors and universities appear uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of reforming themselves. Governing boards appear to be in no better position to do the same. Since the public devotes enormous amounts of money to universities and doesn’t support the radical ideas coming from campuses, it is clear that their representatives not only have a right to seek to reform them but indeed an obligation.

The legal and funding landscape for universities in Canada

The question then becomes: “How can this much-needed reformation be accomplished?”

There are two starting points. The first is how we can learn from elsewhere. The second is to understand the university governance and funding landscape and what it implies for possible avenues for reform.

Luckily, serious efforts to reform universities are underway in both the U.K. and the U.S. Given the similar legislative and legal environment, the U.K.’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 is the most closely applicable to Canada’s universities.

This act was designed to protect and promote academic freedom in universities in the U.K. Importantly, in order to provide teeth to the act, it establishes an academic freedom “tsar” to monitor university policies as they affect academic freedom. The “tsar” will have the power to fine universities found to be in violation of the act.

While the U.K. started early in its moves to reform higher education, the U.S. has been the source of much more activity. Over twenty-five states, most famously Florida, have introduced or passed legislation, very often related to “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” and thereby the merit principles, to this effect.

In addition to legislation that has been passed or introduced, there has also been a great deal of activity in proposing model legislation. For example, the National Association of Scholars has done a large amount of work on policy recommendations and stand-alone legislation. Similarly, the Manhattan and Goldwater Institutes have introduced model state legislation.

In addition to institutional contributions in this space, many public personalities have provided ideas for the reform of universities. These include Victor David Hanson, Chris Rufo, and Richard Hanania.

It’s beyond the scope of this column to provide a thorough description or analysis of all legislation, model legislation, and other avenues for reform. I mention them to highlight that whatever might be done in Canada, it’s not necessary to start from scratch.

Many people have put a lot of thought into these questions. Moreover, increasingly, we will be able to evaluate the degree to which different approaches have been successful and learn from experience elsewhere.

Avenues for reform are primarily a function of how universities are governed and funded. While the devil may be in the details, the broad brushstrokes are relatively straightforward.

Universities (and education more generally) are unambiguously provincial jurisdiction. Since almost all universities in Canada are public, they are ultimately public instances. They are governed through provincial power and legislation.

Universities are established through provincial legislation such as charters or acts. The relevant legislation then either directly or indirectly determines the governance of the universities. For example, they can delegate responsibility to a board of directors who oversee the management of a university, which is then governed according to university by-laws (e.g. University of Calgary).

University funding is less straightforward since it comes from multiple sources. Ultimately, university funding comes primarily from provincial and federal governments (directly and indirectly) and from students themselves in the form of tuition.

Given that universities are provincial jurisdiction, provinces provide the largest share of funding. This comes mostly in the form of operating funds.

Most provincial governments also provide research funding (e.g. Ontario Research Fund) that pays for equipment and other research costs but, importantly, also “overhead” funds provided to universities. Finally, provincial governments provide grants and student loans to students, which serve as direct or indirect funding for tuition.

While not in federal jurisdiction, the federal government devotes significant funds to universities through its “Tri-Council” agencies and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation with combined expenses of over $4 billion.

As with provincial governments, the federal government provides student loans that end up as tuition for universities. In addition, the federal and provincial governments extend tax benefits to universities (as well as to the tri-council agencies).

This overview of the governance and funding landscape explains the different means by which the public supports higher education in Canada. It also provides a framework to understand how they might be reformed. The concluding column in this series will lay out exactly how this might look.

Scott Reid: Change always wins. The sooner Justin Trudeau accepts this, the better

Commentary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Markham, Ont., Friday, June 28, 2024. Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press.

Change. You capricious son of a bitch.

Sometimes it will sweep you to power atop a tidal wave of enthusiasm, applause, and anticipation. But just as easily, it can bury you beneath the hard clay of political history.

When change rallies to your side, every move becomes genius. Every word, a song. Every choice, predestined. There is no more intoxicating or reliable campaign slogan. No force more elemental or unbeatable. Like charging into battle holding Hercules’ club.

But when change turns its back on you, politics can become orphan-lonely. Every decision is damned. Every appearance is ridiculous. Each adjustment is desperate. Change can chew you up, spit you out, and threaten your parliamentary pension.

Most political leaders encounter change of one sort or another. A few last long enough to experience both its shine and shade.

That is where Justin Trudeau now stands. Nine years ago, change was his warmest friend. Today, he suffers its coldest shoulder.

Until June 24th, it was at least partially possible for Liberals to dismiss bad polls as an untested prospect. No longer. The knee-weakening loss of Toronto-St. Paul’s removes any such pretense. For Liberals, it’s as bad as it looks. Worse, maybe.

So, what is to be done?

The answer will only be found in the concrete truth of change. Canadians want it. They will have it. The only practical decision left for Liberals is whether they will even attempt to provide it.