Five light pieces on a serious subject: why we want the university president's job

We argued that four eminently qualified scholars could contribute much more to a university than any single person could. Split four ways, the minimum base salary for the president of $400,000 CAN would constitute a raise for each of the applicants.

Srdja Pavlovic Kathy Cawsey
23 June 2014
Humanities centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

Humanities centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Winterforce Media/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.A few weeks ago, four Canadian academics put together a tongue-in-cheek shared job application for the position of President/Vice Chancellor at the University of Alberta (U of A). It was the brainchild of Dr. Kathy Cawsey, from Dalhousie University.  Dr. Cawsey and her colleagues argued that four eminently qualified scholars could contribute much more to a university than any single person could. Split four ways, the minimum base salary of the U of A president of $400,000 CAN would constitute a raise for each of the applicants.

Using Facebook and Twitter they called on their colleagues to join in and create 4-person teams that would submit their own job applications as well. Within a week over 50 academics put their names forward and flooded the Search Committee with their job applications. Dr. Srdja Pavlovic, a historian from the University of Alberta, was among those applicants.

The initiative was meant to be a joke, but it quickly grew into an online campaign. A major Canadian radio show, “As It Happens,” interviewed the applicants and a couple of newspapers in Canada picked up the story. Then this clever and funny initiative went viral, was covered by publications such as Inside Higher Ed; Maclean’s; and Slate. Dr. Cawsey and Dr. Pavlović were also interviewed by several radio shows.

The story about executive excesses at Canadian universities and the growing distance of university administrators from the faculty touched a nerve. In addition to pointing out a set of serious problems, the joint applications also constitute a novel form of protest against the corporatisation of universities. 

What follows is a conversation about the state of universities today, especially the gap – both the pay gap and the ideological gap - between faculty and students, and top administrators. Dr. Kathy Cawsey, a tenured professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, discusses a joint job application initiative for change with Dr. Srdja Pavlovic, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. This conversation was born out of the need to highlight the systemic problems plaguing our universities and initiate the conversation between the faculty and the administrators. 


Kathy Cawsey: It wasn’t just the high pay of the university top administrator that we were objecting to. It was the high pay at a time when drastic program cuts are being imposed upon universities, and sessionals/adjuncts are increasingly replacing tenure-track professorships, and tuition is skyrocketing. For many of us the “rhetoric of austerity” that the University of Alberta and other post-secondary institutions across Canada were using to justify cuts, tuition raises, and hiring freezes, was ringing hollow.

Srdja Pavlovic:  What I particularly liked about your initiative was humour as a way of approaching a serious and, I dare say, systemic problem plaguing our universities. This light-hearted campaign should not be taken as a sign of poor understanding of the depth of a problem. On the contrary, when people find themselves in a precarious situation, such as the one we have been trying to highlight, humour seems the best way to cope with it. Moreover, the issue of adjunct and sessional instructors hit close to home for me.


KC: It did for many of the people who took part in the protest. We made sure that each of the letters was sent from the email account of a tenured professor, but many of the other signatories were sessionals, contract staff, or people who had given up on finding a secure job in academia. For those people, one-fourth of the minimum salary would double, triple or even quadruple their current income. And even more people supported us, but felt too precariously employed to actively participate. 

SP: I am very familiar with the issues involved. Over the past 10 years, if not longer, universities have been relying ever more on contract or sessional instructors providing the bulk of the undergraduate teaching. As a rule, the contract instructors work for less than a living wage but deliver a superior service to students. They are also conducting research, writing and publishing scholarly papers and books, and organizing academic conferences. Some among them produce scholarship and engage in knowledge transfer at a level higher than many of their tenured colleagues. I saw your initiative as a call for a fair assessment of the impact sessional and adjunct instructors have on universities and of their scholarly contribution. That is a conversation we need to have. If I have been good enough to educate generations of youth over the last several decades, some of whom continue to build stellar careers in academia and beyond, I should be good enough to become a tenured faculty. University administrations, however, are refusing to hire sessional/contract instructors as a tenure-track faculty, citing budgetary restrictions, while tenured faculty seldom seem to lend support to their underappreciated and undervalued colleagues. But that was not all, was it?

KC: That is one side of a coin. The other side tells a story of the changing nature of our universities. Another reason we did this right now was because we were still angry – we still had momentum – from the reaction to the firing of Robert Buckingham at the University of Saskatchewan for speaking out against the program prioritization TransformUS process that the University of Saskatchewan administration was pushing forward. What enraged academics across the country was the attack on academic freedom and tenure. But most of the people I talked to felt that it was also a symptom of a larger problem – of the increasing corporatization of universities, and an increasing gap between administrations and faculties in values, ideology and understanding of the purpose of a university. 

S.P: Indeed, university presidents are acting as CEOs, and treat others as mid-level managers in a corporation who are expected to rally behind any and all decisions made by the top administrator. They are told that they should keep their mouth shut and toe the line. I was disheartened to learn that members of this exclusive club went a step further arguing that the issue of academic freedom “is so hopelessly misunderstood” and that is applies solely when one speaks about one’s own area of expertise. Any dissent, as we have recently witnessed at the University of Saskatchewan, is harshly sanctioned. Under the growing pressure by provincial and federal governments, university administrations are applying business logic to an environment that is not really suited for it. As you well know, it alters the dynamic between instructors and students and changes the set of expectations on both sides.

An increasing number of students demand value for money from their universities and instructors. Once they pay tuition, many think they are entitled to receive high marks regardless of their performance in class. I often say to my students that such expectations and demands could be compared to a scenario involving a gym membership. You purchase a yearly membership in the gym, but don’t go there at all or put very little effort in exercising. Once your membership expires, however, you complain that you’re not fit and do not have that much-desired beach body. 


KC: Given the response to our University of Alberta stunt, I would say that it is clear many others share our views, and perhaps a movement to change the trend of the corporatization of universities is starting. I’ve been receiving emails from around the world (Italy, Australia…) and people have tweeted and facebooked and shared the story. The response has been overwhelmingly positive – a lot of people are getting increasingly angry and worried about the state of universities in our society.

SP: Some of the early reactions to this initiative were surprising to me. You were even accused of racism and of deliberately targeting the University of Alberta because of the gender and skin color of its outgoing president, Indira Samarasekera. It made me laugh – it is such a lame way of diverting public attention from a serious problem highlighted by this initiative. The University of Alberta had simply offered itself up as a good example of all the problems we mentioned, including the executive excesses.

KC: Yes, some of the comments have been negative – mostly from people wishing we had chosen another target for our protest (such as racism). There are lots of real problems out there, both within universities and without, and we only picked one. We’re hoping that our methods – humour, irreverence, small-scale action – will inspire other people to start similar initiatives to change the other inequalities in our institutions. 


SP: We are fighting an uphill battle, and people are reluctant to join in and lend their support publically for fear of reprisal. An esteemed Canadian poet and scholar, E.D. Blodgett, recently pointed out to me that “Arts Faculties have begun to crumble in the western world, for the most part, because at every level administrators have failed to defend them in any convincing fashion,” and that “high capitalization of universities has made their corporatization inevitable.”

KC: A lot of the people on the applications we sent in are people in the same position as you, precariously-employed adjuncts or sessionals, or contract staff. Some are currently unemployed. Many others would have joined in but didn’t feel they could take even the small risk of participating in a joke. 

SP: That is, I believe, a sad testament to the situation at our universities. We ask these questions publicly because we are devoted to delivering high quality education, maintaining and fostering critical thinking at our universities, and offering all-encompassing education to young generations.

I firmly believe that philosophy, history, and social studies could and should coexist with the research of fracking and high finance. It is all about striking a balance between the two. Much like university administrations, we are also trying to make sure Canadian universities are indeed world-class educational institutions. I see this as a point where we should open up the dialogue, because what we do would of course be much easier if both universities and governments would consider re-evaluating some of their policies and approaches to higher education. 


KC: I said that if I was given the job, as a “perk,” instead of a house or whatever other sweetheart deals they offer an incoming president, I would ask for new humanities tenure-track jobs to be created and filled by people already essentially doing those jobs as sessionals or adjuncts. I wanted to point out the problem with sessionals, of course – that they were already doing the job of a tenured prof with a quarter of the pay and no security – but I also wanted to emphasise the importance of the humanities, the original core of a university from as far back as the Middle Ages (the three main subjects a medieval student would take were grammar, rhetoric and logic), but the area which has borne the brunt of education cuts. 

SP: Of course this is meant to be a joke. We never expected to be contacted, even though from a PR point of view, I think it would be good for the university administration to invite us for an interview and show their openness and their sense of humour; but I don’t think that is going to happen. As David Perry observed recently, the University of Alberta Board of Governors “will hire whoever they want to hire and I doubt anything will change, but turning this hire into a farce is good. One step at a time towards eroding this kind of pay gap.”

Of course, if I were offered to participate in the job sharing, I would be honoured and do my very best to meet the needs of the university. 

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