The Quiet Campus: The Anatomy of Dissent at Canadian Universities

The remarkable—a word that can be read in many different ways—2012 student protests in Quebec have stirred memories of the activist campuses of yesteryear. For faculty members introduced to the academy in the era of student activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and general social unrest, the recent quietude of the Canadian university system has been disturbing. Universities had been transformed in the 1960s from comfortable retreats into agents of intellectual foment, social change, and political action. For a time, it appeared that the imperatives of the academy had aligned with a commitment to social justice to create a system almost ideally set to lead Canada’s transformation.

Universities had long stood apart intellectually from the Canadian mainstream, but finally, in the1960s, began to reflect society at large. The humanities and social sciences expanded rapidly. Women, minorities, immigrants and working class Canadians came to campuses in record numbers and, later, showed up at the front of the classroom. They brought new perspectives on the issues of the day, challenging the patriarchal, middle-class hegemony that had dominated Canadian universities for generations. With some exceptions, faculty members and administrators stood behind student radicals and protestors. Many faculty members used the classroom and their writing to support hitherto unpopular causes. Universities were often at the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and in favour of the rights of women, Aboriginals, LGBT individuals, and minorities.

Academic freedom, although rarely tested in a formal sense, was a right that was taken for granted. Faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates routinely pressed at the boundaries of conventional debate, often taking their commitment to causes, principles and policy matters into the public realm. The public pressed back, complaining about Marxist teachers, feminist “propaganda,” pro-Aboriginal courses, and overt advocacy for causes from environmentalism to homosexual rights. While the academy remained a fairly conservative place—the radicalism of the few did not permeate the entire professoriate or the student body—there was ample room to dissent, to protest and to challenge the status quo. While professors probably devoted too much effort to their university affairs and too little to broader societal debates and issues, the reality was that universities were leading a social revolution, one that had profound implications for Canada and much of the world.

Then the promise of the 1960s and 1970s faded. The heady days of radical thought and public protest slowly declined, at least in part because of the aging of the professors hired in the period of university expansion. Universities found themselves in an interesting and complex situation, expected to respond to the educational needs of historically disadvantaged groups, encouraged to include more professional and career-focused programs, and challenged to provide the scientific and technological know-how needed to underpin the rapidly emerging “new economy.” Meeting these expectations would have been enough of a challenge. But there was more. There were additional government pressures to increase research intensiveness and foster commercialization, a decline in public revenues, rapidly rising costs (not the least for salaries), and a national preoccupation with providing access for as many students as possible. Added to this were myriad regulatory and service requirements associated with freedom of information, disability services, and support for international students. On the positive side, new universities opened, colleges were converted to university colleges and then universities, on-line delivery expanded, more faculty members were hired (but not enough to keep up with enrollment growth), and research funding expanded dramatically. Ethnic diversity on campus also resulted in students taking more of a lead on the controversial topics of the day—witness the regular conflicts between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups at central Canadian universities, advocacy by LGBT student organizations, and outspoken demands for more “green” institutions. Faculty members typically play only a peripheral role in these discussions.

There were other, less recognized changes. Disciplines became an even stronger focus for university professors, many of whom appeared less concerned about external audiences for their work than about the academic colleagues who vetted their papers and grant applications. With the quantification of research results for the purposes of tenure reviews, merit, research grants, and promotion, faculty members quickly learned to follow the incentives. At many universities, the prospect of merit or rapid promotion carried substantial financial and professional returns. With the incredible growth of universities around the world, and the proliferation of academic scholarship to the point where most professors struggled to keep up with work in their subdiscipline (or, typically, sub-sub-sub-discipline), the focus on publications, conference presentations, and research grants assumed a greater role within the university. Having an impact on society at large, while generally applauded, was not seen as truly meritorious within the academy and generally carried few financial rewards. The university, to put it simply, turned sharply inward, focusing on faculty incentives and discipline-based accomplishments rather than the concerns of society at large.

There has been much debate, led by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAU T), about the vulnerability of Canadian universities to external influences. The rise of private and corporate donations and the sharp increase in institutional reliance on industry partnerships and contract research skewed the university further away from cutting edge intellectual work and public engagement. CAU T has focused a great deal of energy on a handful of social science-based donations, challenging what they see as the possibility for interference with academic freedom in terms of faculty hiring and program development. CAU T has been largely silent on the much more widespread integration of faculty research and corporate activities in engineering, the sciences, medical fields, and business schools. Here, close collaboration has almost become the norm, and research and teaching agendas in these areas have long been shaped by contracts, partnerships, and the requirements of external accrediting agencies. If academic freedom is defined, in part, as the ability to pursue research determined entirely by personal interest, the sciences and applied sciences often operate under many more constraints than do social science and humanities professors. But in these fields, there is much greater acceptance among faculty members and institutions of proper and engaged cooperation with the private sector and government agencies.

Of course, university faculty members who work with companies, government agencies, external organizations, and who accept funding from private sources, are exercising their freedom as academics. Few, if any, faculty members have been forced to accept funding or other logistical support for their research and writing, and yet many do. University faculty members work with trade unions and environmental groups, First Nations and immigrant communities, professional organizations, and corporations. They develop market-ready products that have turned some university faculty into millionaires, assist disadvantaged groups to gain public attention, and work on public policy instruments that shape government and society. In some instances they get paid (and often paid very well) for this work; in other instances, particularly with community and not-for-profit groups, their contributions are pro bono, with some pay-off in terms of peer-reviewed publications and merit pay. With so many applied researchers and teachers on campus—from engineering to accounting, from nursing to marketing—it only follows logically that the campus life would tip away from “pure” research to more practical, externally connected activity. The idea that universities are now (if they ever were) places where faculty members and their students explored the world of ideas unfettered by interference or influence from external agencies and organizations has been sharply diminished.

While it is wrong to idealize the “old days” into some form of intellectual paradise, the reality is that there used to be a greater connection with the world at large, less preoccupation with collecting the accolades of the international academic profession, and (but only for a few decades) more willingness to speak truth to power, or at least to the powers out of favour with the academy. The old idea of the university as the moral conscience of society, while significantly true intellectually, has only episodically been true in practical terms. Indeed, universities have been training grounds for the status quo for much of their history, reinforcing the values of the dominant society, supporting the aspirations of the middle and upper middle class. Individual faculty members spoke out, in the past as in the present, but the campuses as a whole were quiet and comfortable places.

Two influences—the shift toward disciplinary priorities and growing engagement with external actors—now dominate the Canadian academy. While Canadian faculty members may chafe a little under the constraints of the current regime, there is an upside to all of this. Canadian universities have gained substantial federal and provincial financial support, and faculty enjoy the second-highest average salaries in the world and enviable working conditions on most campuses. The prestige of the profession appears to have taken a knock in recent years, due largely to the proliferation of campuses and the ubiquity of a university university education, but for those who manage to secure a tenure stream job at a Canadian institution the career and professional opportunities are first-rate. Some faculty members routinely adjust their research plans to secure funding, be it in the form of government research grants, foundation support, or private sector support, but rarely have to accept overt control over their work.

At the same time, universities have become less dynamic places. Careerism among students, graduate students, and faculty members has replaced genuine engagement with contemporary issues. Only a handful of public intellectuals hold forth on regional or national matters—where would the universities be in terms of public profile without the journalism-friendly faculty in Political Science?—and the vast majority are content to work at the ever-narrowing frontiers of knowledge and discovery. There are times when advocacy groups in the community carry their issues onto campus—again the Israel-Palestinian tensions are a good case in point—but genuine, open-ended debates about the most crucial issues of our time are few. There are more practical and logistical causes of these problems. Some faculty members come to campus only sporadically and a high percentage of students are preoccupied with part-time jobs due to rising tuition fees. Sadly, most members of the public find the nuances of scholarly debate either obscure or irrelevant. The now common phrase—distressingly unchallenged by members of the academy—that something is “only academic” is one of the great put-downs of modern times. The exceptions—a visit from a brilliant guest lecturer, a tense debate about a highly politicized or controversial topic, the emergence of a new and high energy research group—serve as a reminder of what universities could—and should—be.

What is the effect of all of this? First, Canadian universities are not particularly exciting centres of critical thought, if they ever were. The research shows students come to university primarily in pursuit of a high-wage job. (Anticipating the criticism, suffice it to say that on the other hand, a minority of university students are idea-driven, idealistic and highly motivated to learn and change the world for the better. They are a joy to have on campus and in the classroom.) Governments want highly qualified personnel. Businesses want top-notch employees. Parents want their children launched into adulthood and their careers. Faculty members, in the main, are focused on their research and professional engagements. There is not a great deal of room in this mélange of interests for exciting debates about social change, cultural revolutions, and transformative action.

For generations, universities have promoted the educational and intellectual benefits derived from a post-secondary education, as well they should. Confronting ideas, especially those that disturb and provoke, is a central part of the university experience for all students. From this, we have long believed, come young adults who understand their country and their world, who have learned about injustice and inhumanity, and who are well positioned to serve as the kind of engaged and informed citizens that every society needs and wants. Canadian universities still provide excellent opportunities for just such personal and collective development. Students who are engaged inside and outside the classrooms, professors who build bridges between scholarship and public debate, and institutions that do not shy away from controversial subjects contribute to a vital process of collective education and empowerment. Is it wrong to simply wish that we had much more of this on Canadian campuses?

Canadian campuses have become distressingly quiet. It is not that the universities are without dissenters from all points on political and social spectrums. Many of the country’s most radical, creative, and outspoken commentators work or study at universities and use the campus as a pulpit. This is how it should be. But the preoccupation with practicalities—work, careers, salaries, and the commercialization of research—has transformed Canadian universities into calm, largely dissent-free places, with the greatest debates often saved for battles between faculty and students and the campus administrators. There are no structural or legal impediments to greater engagement. There is nothing stopping students and faculty from speaking out, no grand tribunals determined to impose punishments on those who challenge the status quo. We have self-regulated ourselves into nearsilence, and our students and the country suffer from the quiet as much as university faculty. It is more than nostalgia that brings one to yearn for days of activism and protest; it is, instead, the realization that the ideas, talent, energy and resources of the academic could and should be used to change our country and our world for the better. 

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Need to Know About Canadian Universities.

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