Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Politics in the ivory tower

Came across this story last week and I've been meaning to highlight it, as I think it raises some interesting discussion points about the potential for political interference in Canada's universities, or at least how the fear of that potential may be driving university decision-making.

Recently Stephen Owen, formerly the Liberal MP for Vancouver-Quadra, was hired by the University of British Columbia as vice-president, community and external relations. During the hiring process, the hiring committee expressed concerns about whether Owen’s political career may prove detrimental to the university’s relationship with Canada’s Newish Conservative government.

Mr. Peets said concern that Mr. Owen's appointment could sour relations with the Conservatives “was an immediate and obvious thought in almost everyone's mind” during the hiring process.

“You are hiring a guy for government relations who is from a party that is not in power and that should be a concern,” he said.
“You worry that if you hire someone from the opposition side that they may have burned some bridges with the government side and the government relations thing may not work well for them.”

It may be a pragmatic concern certainly, although its rather unfortunate that a candidate’s politics should have to be an issue. Owen invited the committee to contact members of the other political parties to discuss Owen’s political career, and whether or not it may prove an impediment to his new potential role.

UBC took him up on the offer, and Conservative godfather and former campaign director John Reynolds was among those contacted to ask whether appointing a Liberal MP to the VP’s role would be a “problem” for the university. Since Owen got the job I guess Reynolds gave him a pass, although one wonders what would have happened had Reynolds said it would be a problem.

When reached for comment by CP, Reynolds comments were a little odd:
“I am a private individual and I got nothing to do with the party,” he said.“I don't decide with the Conservative party who spends money and who doesn't spend money. I am not involved with that end of things at all. I don't think this was done at all or had anything to do with funding whatsoever. It's not (Mr. Owen's) job — his job is community relations.”

John Reynolds has nothing to do with the Conservative Party? Believe that and I have a bridge to sell you. He also has nothing to do Ottawa mayoral races of parole board appointments.

Anyway, while one hopes that no government would let politics enter into decision-making around things like grants and research funding, we do also live in the real world. And the potential for abuse is certainly there:
The last Conservative budget was the first to bypass the peer-reviewed process of federal granting councils by directly funding seven research institutes to the tune of $105 million in matching dollars.

“That is what has a lot of people in the academic community really concerned,” said Mr. Robinson, whose association represents about 55,000 academics ranging from librarians to researchers across the country. “No one is questioning that these institutes weren't deserving, but there are a lot of deserving institutions and the question is how do you decide which one? Do you make a political decision or an academic decision? We would argue that, for a whole number of reasons, it has to be an academic decision. We can't have political interference in the academic world.”

It seems an unfortunate path to be going down, where universities feel they have to vet potential hires for political compatibility with the government of the day. There needs to be a separation of politics and academe, with government setting the broad outlines, goals and mission of a program and non-political learned experts vetting applications and allocating the funding to specific institutions.

Remove the potential for political interference and testing candidates for political purity won’t be necessary.

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14 comments:

Johnny said...

Jeff what is your answer to this the government should give our tax dollars
away and they (government)
have no say in it? Is that
what your saying?

A BCer in Toronto said...

Is that
what your saying?


Nope.

Johnny said...

Then i don't understand
what your saying Jeff sorry!

A BCer in Toronto said...

I'm saying many things, but I think this passage would be relevant to your query:

There needs to be a separation of politics and academe, with government setting the broad outlines, goals and mission of a program and non-political learned experts vetting applications and allocating the funding to specific institutions.

rabbit said...

Politics has always been present in universities. In the last few decades, however, it's generally been conservative politics which has been ostracized.

As a notable example, last year the Carleton University Student Association banned pro-life groups from receiving status or funding. I'm pro-choice, but for the CUSA to take such a blatantly political stance when they are supposed to be representing all students is outrageous.

Universities have got to get back to merit, not politics.

Ti-Guy said...

In the last few decades, however, it's generally been conservative politics which has been ostracized.

You're a Conservative operative. No doubt about it.

The is related to the the fact that what are called "conservative politics" these days are in fact causes that are illiberal, anti-democratic, or pseudo-scientific. They do not simply represent differences of political opinion.

rabbit said...

Ti-Guy:.

If you wish to debate a point, do so.

But if all you can do is make personal attacks and speculate about people's political affiliations than bugger off. Nobody wants you around.

Ti-Guy said...

Well, Rabbit, I just find your statement about "conservative politics" and the CUSA decision to be rather odd, but then I don't expect some people to actually understand the difference between legitimate political differences and things that are illiberal, anti-democratic and pseudo-scientific.

And those people are generally Conservatives.

The problem is with what is currently defined as conservatism which is causing problems among a lot of academics.

Miles Lunn said...

I don't see what they should have to worry about. Any government with any class would rise above petty political partisanship and support the appointment of someone with a distinguished career. I don't recall us, when in power going after institutions that appointed former PC MPs. The fact the university is worried about this just says how much of petty partisans the current government is.

Kingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
canuckistanian said...

this was an old story from a few months back, but thanks for adding some fresh perspective to it. reynolds said at the time something like: "he's a helluva guy, shouldn't be any problem...yaddyaddayadda". pretty hilarious story...and disconcertingly so, for anyone remotely involved in the academic community.

McLea said...

with government setting the broad outlines, goals and mission of a program and non-political learned experts vetting applications and allocating the funding to specific institutions.

Ha. Good one.

Too bad we live in the real world.

Chet Scoville said...

In the last few decades, however, it's generally been conservative politics which has been ostracized.

Except in every economics department, every business school, and every engineering school in every university in the entire country, not to mention many law schools and political science departments. It's true that there's not much conservatism in humanities departments, but they're certainly not the whole of the academy.

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Miles sed --"Any government with any class would rise above petty political partisanship and support the appointment of someone with a distinguished career."

Yer sayin' we got a gummint with class?

JB