Volume 41, Number 5: September/October 2007

The Alberta Disadvantage in Higher Education

In Alberta an attack is gathering force on the most fundamental principles essential to the academic viability of universities. This attack has implications that go far beyond the jurisdiction most stereotypically associated with cowboy culture and the lucrative vastness of this province’s oil-and-gas resources.

As demonstrated by the political genesis of Canada’s current federal government, developments in Alberta tend to foreshadow changes elsewhere. In this sense, Alberta has long been a laboratory for experimentation in right-wing techniques of political manipulation and governance. This experimentation is aimed most often at subordinating the activities of public institutions to the will and desires of the executive branches of private corporations, especially the Texas-based energy conglomerates that dominate Calgary.

Hence, the stakes are large in the current drive to make Albertan universities conform to the energy industry’s preferred models of business management. If this insidious power grab succeeds here, it may soon spill over to contaminate the educational policies of other provinces and states.

Bill 43: A Trojan Horse in the University System

The Trojan horse in this subversion of higher education is Bill 43, the Alberta Post-Secondary Learning Act (APSLA), a statute passed into law by Ralph Klein’s Tory government in 2004. With Orwellian embellishments, the legislation prepares the way “for a co-ordinated and integrated system approach, known as Campus Alberta.” The new law lays out a template for the standardized governance of all Albertan post-secondary institutions, including universities, community colleges, technical institutes and the Banff Centre. Power is concentrated in the executive branches of these schools. Executive rule is extended in a way that invades the most fundamental bastions of peer review, academic freedom and collegial governance. For the first time in any North American jurisdiction, deans are defined as the Chief Executive Officers of their respective faculties.

This “co-ordinated and integrated system approach” radically transforms the constitutional structure of universities, institutions whose evolutionary development in the West has long been integral to scientific and technological advancement, as well as the viability of free and democratic societies. Instead of treating professors as the core constituencies of the universities’ ability to conduct sound research, publication, teaching and governance, non-administrative faculty members are downgraded to mere corporate employees. In the language of the Act, “academic staff means an employee of the board” and “each board is a corporation.” With these few words, university professors are ushered outside the core of the institutions in which they work. Delicate constitutional principles that have evolved over centuries of trial and error are contemptuously brushed aside. “The University” is defined as something other than its academic staff.

The legislation’s preamble flows consistently from the self-interested preoccupations of the oligarchy that has ruled Alberta without interruption for more than a generation. The legislation begins with the assertion that “the Government of Alberta recognizes that the creation and transfer of knowledge contributes to Alberta’s competitive advantage in the global economy.”

This bow to the role of higher learning in the economics of global competitiveness leaves some of the university’s most important and difficult functions unarticulated. The preamble fails to recognize the role of universities as institutions with a heavy responsibility to lead society’s quest to differentiate truth from falsehood. The success of this process depends on the ability of university staff to abide by the fundamental principles of scholarly merit and academic freedom. Academic freedom depends heavily on the institution of tenure as an essential requirement for robust and fearless scholarly inquiry and debate. In the global culture of the academy, the healthy advancement and defence of these ideals form the primary criteria of academic excellence.

And yet it is precisely these principles and ideals that are most undermined by the Alberta government’s drive to expand dramatically the imperatives of executive rule and outside political interference into the internal operations of the province’s universities.

The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associa-tions responded to Bill 43 by drawing attention to the severe “bias” against academic staff that “permeates” the entire statute. As university presidents and their deans start to assert their new powers, the full extent of this bias is becoming clearer. The push to expand the scope of the executive often pre-empts the terms of collective agreements arduously negotiated between university administrations and university professors. Traditionally these contracts between equal parties have been considered essential to the way that universities define themselves, being treated in the manner of operating manuals for the day-to-day activities of university constituencies on both sides of the bargaining table.

From more than a decade of experience as an associate professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge, I have my own way of viewing the pre-emption of negotiated contracts through unilateral exercises of parliamentary supremacy. The Alberta Post-Secondary Learning Act is similar to the Indian Act in that it overrides and thus negates the terms of treaty agreements between allied interests. Hence the APSLA, like the Indian Act, is of dubious legality. This is because it treats old constitutional conventions as if they were subordinate to mere statute. But the Constitution is very clear in its stipulation that constitutional instruments trump legislative enactments when the two are inconsistent.

My own case illustrates how dramatically the new legislation undermines these constitutional principles, demonstrating that the integrity of peer review has been seriously violated through the provincial government’s implementation of the so-called “co-ordinated and integrated system approach known as Campus Alberta.”

The Significance of Peer Review

In the constitutional conventions of universities, peer review is designed to link individual universities and their academic staff to the standards of achievement established by practitioners in larger international networks of scholarly enterprise. Peer review constitutes the form of assessment that invests professors with the primary responsibility to evaluate the academic quality and originality of the work of others. Peer review is based on the principle that only those with internationally recognized publications and credentials in specific fields of knowledge are in a position to judge the academic merits of those others seeking to contribute new knowledge or to acquire new credentials in the same field. Peer review is the primary protection against the academic parochialism that can develop if faculty members are not subjected to periodic evaluations of wider communities of academic colleagues.

Without peer review, a university becomes little more than a place for the distribution of political favours to instructors who can garner the favour of the presidents, deans and other executives. In an institution where the integrity of peer review is demeaned, political cronyism abounds, and there are relatively few effective checks on the abuse of authority.

From Application to Inquisition

During the summer of 2006, I was invited by my university’s dean of arts and science to seek a promotion from associate professor to full professor. My application of 2006-07 was the first promotion I have ever sought from my current home institution, and I met my dean’s request by submitting an application in which I presented detailed evidence of my academic achievements since beginning my professorial career in 1982. For seventeen of these 25 years as a faculty member, I have worked at the University of Lethbridge.

The dean, together with the senior professor charged to chair the committee, chose four renowned academics, each of whom had gained their own high professional standing outside Alberta. All four reviewers wrote positive assessments, a summary of which I have now seen, and their unanimous opinion was that I should be promoted. Their recommendation was echoed by the report of the academic chair of the promotion committee. With all this work having been done, my dean unilaterally took it upon himself a mere day before the final committee hearing to “postpone” indefinitely the final determination of my application. At the very hour assigned for the final hearing on my promotion, the dean called me to a meeting where he personally initiated very elaborate disciplinary proceedings against me.

When pressed by my faculty association to give a justification for the dean’s apparent violation of the clearly outlined procedures of peer review, the University of Lethbridge’s president, Dr. Bill Cade, cited the provision in the APSLA that describe the official in question as the CEO of the Arts and Science Faculty. Apparently Dr. Cade believes that the Alberta government has given the deans who report to him new executive capacities to override the collective agreement with our faculty association in whatever way they deem appropriate. But nowhere in the many definitions outlined in the APSLA do I see any clear description of the powers of a CEO for the purposes of this statute.

At this stage, I have no way of knowing definitively if the dean’s actions are based on his own personal views, or if there are other, less visible forces at work. One thing I can indicate for sure, however, is that, in a career that some would describe as controversial, I have intermittently brought on the ire of the same government that drafted the APSLA. For instance, in 1991, when I was new to the Native American Studies Department, the Crown of Alberta charged me with allegedly speaking too loudly and thereby creating a disturbance in a public museum. The RCMP released a press release to the media on the matter, but when the time came for my day in court, the Crown stayed the charges and thereby denied me a chance to tell under oath my side of the story.

The Alberta government’s aborted attempt to criminalize my speech arose from assertive comments I made in September, 1990. At the time, I was protesting the decision of public officials to deploy excessive police force in efforts by heavily armed special-forces units to overwhelm a demonstration by Peigan Indians who opposed the construction of a provincial irrigation dam upriver from their reserve. As it turned out, a federal court subsequently agreed with me that the construction of the Oldman Dam was illegal, since the builders had failed to obtain the required federal environmental assessment. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) intervened at this time with a charge of its own, accusing the Alberta government of abusing the criminal justice system in an effort to intimidate and silence me. The result, CAUT determined, was that my academic freedom had been infringed.

In 2001, the CAUT president charged that my academic freedom had once again been violated, this time by a high-ranking official of the National Security Investigation Section of the RCMP. This division of Canada’s federal police force is the same unit that became notorious recently in the barrage of news highlighting its role in working with the government to deport Maher Arar to Syria, where he was repeatedly tortured. I was interrogated at the U of L for my role in organizing an academic conference in Quebec City that took place concurrently with the summit of 34 heads of government who assembled to consider a U.S.-backed proposal to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Many individuals and groups agreed with the CAUT’s stance. Indeed, the RCMP’s incursion into the academic life of the University of Lethbridge was condemned in an intervention on the floor of the House of Commons by the national leader of the NDP. My local faculty association joined CAUT in protesting the incursion of the secret police into our university’s internal affairs. The one contrary voice on this matter was that of Dr. Bill Cade, then brand-new in his job as U of L president. Dr. Cade tried to reassure his faculty that it is “common for the police to interview people at their place of work.”

Toward Corporate Academic Parochialism

It may well be that the events of 1991 and 2001 have nothing to do with the executive disruption of the process of peer review at the University of Lethbridge in 2007. It is my contention, however, that the complacent and accepting response of President Cade to the infusion of the secret-police culture into our campus near the onset of his term as Lethbridge president has helped open the way to the creation of an atmosphere of duplicity inconsistent with the academic effectiveness of our post-secondary institution. Since the police incursion of 2001, I have been ushered from department to department, from review process to review process, in ways that are completely dissimilar to the experiences of other tenured faculty members. The Kafkaesque nature of this six-year trial by executive order of the Arts and Science Dean has now been renewed with the transformation of a peer-review process into something quite different. That transformation, I believe, sheds a telling light on the thinking and intent of the drafters of Bill 43.

This executive disruption of peer review bodes poorly for the ability of universities to continue encouraging the informed academic dissent needed to achieve genuine social pluralism and democracy. Should peer review in Alberta be understood as a legitimate process under the control of academic faculties? Or is this process on the way to becoming a mere ornament to dress up the executive decisions of Campus Alberta’s CEOs? If such disruptions can take place at the highest level of the credential-granting process at Alberta universities, why should those who invest considerable time and money in the pursuit of undergraduate and graduate degrees continue to have confidence in the integrity of the system that produces these certificates?

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