Petrified Campus

By David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J. L. Granatstein

Is there a crisis in Canadian universities?

Facing significant budget reductions, they are certainly being called upon to do more with less. At the same time they are being criticized for skyrocketing tuitions, the dumbing-down of curricula, grade inflation, the chilly climate of political correctness, and general irrelevance.

The authors of Petrified Campus think they know what the problem is, and how to fix it.

Unfortunately, their analysis is full of contradictions and turns into a disjointed polemic.

For example: Tenure, the authors opine, is entirely unnecessary and should be abolished. Currently it is only a “profscam” that allows incompetent faculty to go on “permanent internal sabbatical.”

In addition, something has to be done to slow down the explosion in worthless academic publishing and reign in trendy institutional fads like political correctness.

But it doesn’t take a Tiresias to see that if tenure is abolished the pressure to publish will increase exponentially. And that without tenure higher education will become even more consumer-driven and given over to fads than it already is.

But perhaps the most confusing thing about the book is the authors’ position as unashamed “intellectual elitists.” This is all very well, but it begs the question: elite by whose standards? The authors raise the “vexed question” of quality several times, but provide no satisfactory way of measuring it.

What, for example, makes an elite university professor?

Their short answer to that is “research.” Teaching ability is a misleading guide (students are easily snowed by mere entertainers) and, in any event, “the best university teachers are invariably the best researchers.”

Even if this were true (and it is not) the authors are stuck with the problem of sorting out quality from quantity. If well over half of what passes as academic research is garbage that nobody even pretends to read, how can research be used as an indicator of excellence?

Is the number of times an article gets cited a true indicator of its “usefulness”? Useful for what? Getting more articles published?

In English studies the Publications of the Modern Language Association is one of the most widely circulated, prestigious, and often-cited journals in North America. It is also one of the worst. Does it provide an elite standard? Spare me.

Many of the authors’ arguments will sound familiar. Not only should universities act with big business, they should act like big business. Computer technology is going to make distance learning effective and economical, and institutional mergers will lead to bigger and better schools.

One could object that this is just making universities even more like factories than they already are: producing more degrees, cheaper, faster. But this is to ignore the real problem.

The real problem lies in their corporate structure. Like any other large corporation, universities today are compartmentalized, hierarchic, insular, bureaucratic, and over-administrated establishments. Within the honeycombed walls of the ivory tower, drones prepare the drones of the future.

For institutions that are, ideally, centers of free and independent thought, this should trouble us.

It is a pity that Petrified Campus is so sloppily constructed, since it does deal with matters of real public concern and raises a number of valid points. But since meaningful change is unlikely, any discussion is, in the end, academic.

Review first published January 10, 1998. One of the authors (I believe it was Granatstein) came to give a reading at the University of Guelph. Yet despite being held at the University Centre during noon hour, less than fifteen people were in attendance. Of those who were there, none challenged the author to supply any evidence that the “best” American universities were superior to ours. It was simply assumed from the fact that Brian Mulroney sent his kids to school in the States that everyone knew the difference. The connection is not self-evident.


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