Suppressing the Ideals of ‘The University’: A troubling realization for a new academic

By: R. Anne Springer, Assistant Professor College of Nursing University of Saskatchewan

As a relative newcomer to the academy, only two years in, I am deeply troubled by the seeming suppression of the ideals of ‘the university’ as a place of intellectual freedom and critical inquiry. Regrettably, the reality as experienced by the author is a reality that contravenes the ideals of ‘the university’ as a place where original ideas are pursued, where autonomous thinking is encouraged and valued, where education and scholarship occurs (Petrovskaya, McDonald & McIntyre, 2011), and as a place of integrity, collegiality, and knowledge sharing. The institutional push of many Canadian Universities, including the University of Saskatchewan, to achieve status, prestige, and position among its peers has not only suppressed the ideals of ‘the university’ as a place where individuals learn to think, it has (re)positioned academics as competitive adversaries who guard their knowledge rather than share it, and it has positioned administrators defensively in relation to any kind of critical engagement with institutional processes. As Petrovskaya et al. (2011) argue, when the strength of commitment to the values of efficiency and the maximization of profit, as reflected in any number of University strategic plans, serves to crowd out the freedom to create, the freedom to think autonomously, and importantly, the freedom to disagree, critical engagement as a member of the university is rendered burdensome and too often interpreted as an assignment of blame. Moreover, when the institutional drive to achieve status and notoriety through its pursuit of research intensiveness overshadows discourses of student centeredness, collegiality, integrity, scholarship and knowledge sharing, ‘the university’ becomes a perplexing place to navigate. For the new academic, that perplexity mounts when ideals of intellectual freedom and critical inquiry are abandoned, and one’s commitment to teaching students to critically examine their own knowledge is smothered by the normalizing power of a research industry that marginalizes knowledge development through non-traditional approaches to inquiry. As new teachers and new academics, we are constantly reminded of the value of bringing what we know, our research and our experiential knowledge, into our classrooms. However, when one’s approach to research is positioned at the margins of the empirical (Cheek, 2004; Springer, 2010) due to its critical nature and as such rendered hopeless to receive funding in the face of the powerful biomedical and intervention-oriented health research machine that is the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), for example, one is not only constrained in meeting the educational needs of students, some of whom do expect to be educated when they enter ‘the university’, one is also disadvantaged in a timely progression through the ranks of the professorate. As Morse (2001) argues “it is easier to move along with the status quo, to get funded applying for mainstream priorities, and to get published submitting articles on fashionable topics” (p. 3) than to tackle questions that evoke controversy and deep critical reflection. Critical research is so often misunderstood as an approach that serves to undo or undermine. On the contrary, critical research undertakes the important political task of critiquing the workings of the institution with a view to creating space for meaningful dialogue to occur and the possibility that perhaps things could be different, thereby offering the opportunity for real change to occur (Springer, 2010).

Cheek, J. (2004). At the margins? Discourse analysis and qualitative research. Keynote address: Fourth international advances in qualitative methods conference. Qualitative Health Research, 14(8), 1140 – 1150.
Morse, J.M. (2001). Are there risks in qualitative research? Qualitative Health Research, 11(1), 3 – 4.
Petrovskaya, O., McDonald, C., & McIntyre, M. (2011). Dialectic of the university: a critique of instrumental reason in graduate nursing education. Nursing Philosophy, 12, 239 – 247.
Springer, R. A. (2010). Pharmaceutical industry discursives and the subjectivities of physicians, nurses and multiple sclerosis patients: A Foucauldian dispositive analysis. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta. Library and Archives Canada. Canadiana: 2010212695X – ISBN: 9780494544815.

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