Manufacturing Collegial Consent?

Len Findlay, Professor of English and University Professor, U of S

At the January meeting of University Council the President of the USSU Council, Max Fineday, read the text of a motion unanimously passed by the USSU Executive expressing non-confidence in TransformUS. This news was greeted by prolonged applause from students and faculty in attendance, and by silence from almost all the senior administrators present. The administrators seemed mostly caught between surprise and fear, amazed that the students would have the guts and gumption to do what they had just done, and fearful about how to react to such dissent with the University President and Provost in the room.

The Chair of Council hurried a dramatically divided room, the cleft collegium no less, beyond this shock and on to other business. In the days that followed there was nary a sign in any administratively controlled location of what the USSU Council had done. Instead, this ‘bad’ news for THE INSTITUTIONAL BRAND was buried under a flurry of good news for students in the form of more money for scholarships and recognition of the outstanding achievements of some of their peers.

But at the February meeting of University Council at least the draft Minutes for January included the full text of the USSU Council motion and the fact that it had elicited “applause.”

Later in the February meeting we arrived at consideration of the Findlay/Brooke motion of non-confidence in the TransformUS process. This motion had been submitted for consideration to the Coordinating Committee of Council along with a rationale from the mover and seconder. However, only the motion itself was circulated with the materials for Council. As the mover of the motion, I was promised “two to three minutes” to introduce it. However, Professor James Brooke would have no such guaranteed spot, but would have to take an opportunity to speak from the floor.

Already feeling somewhat squeezed by Council process and rulings from various quarters, I indicated to the University Secretary that I would speak from the main podium and use a few Powerpoint slides which I would bring along to be loaded into the Neatby-Timlin system just before the meeting began. I did not ask for permission to use the podium lest that request be refused. Nor did I wish to submit my slides early to the University Secretary lest they give the senior administration the chance for a preview and prep they did not deserve.

As the meeting of Council began, the room was packed, the atmosphere electric. As usual, the Chair made his remarks about the rules of engagement, and we then heard from the President about several matters, including the targeted and deferred ‘good news’ from the recent federal budget. The Provost then made a lengthy presentation from notes, taking up far more time than was accorded me or anyone else, and sounding as soporific as muzak in the Cave of Morpheus. The electricity was definitely in decline, perhaps intentionally.

After reports from Jordan Sherbino, USSU VP and the GSA representative, and a principled and insightful report from the Chair of the Planning and Priorities Committee, it was my turn. I gave it my best shot, in under five minutes. Not much of an over-run I thought, since I have given the University almost forty years of service. My temporal excess was duly remarked upon by the Chair, and debate began. In the meantime, some electricity had returned to the room.

However, it did not take long for my motion to be divided and dissed, in a bout of protracted dithering that shifted attention from substance to process (a distinction apparently dear to the Provost). One could have covered with a handkerchief the dividers and dissers, but that was probably an accident of seating arrangements, don’t you think? At the same time complaints were heard from this quarter about a lack of rationale for my motion, a rationale which I had in fact provided but others (including some of the dissers) had decided was not worth circulating! I rose briefly to explain that the second part of my motion followed the Council guidelines in offering a positive alternative after a negative sentiment of non-confidence. I had added what some deemed “moot,” for another reason too, namely to counter the alarmist rhetoric about the sky falling and the tanks rolling in if TransformUS were to be rejected.

Not only do I not I have an aversion or incapacity when it comes to rationales, but I had already co-authored a detailed 5-page rationale to the Board of Governors with Claire Card and Howard Woodhouse in preparation for our meeting with the Board on March 18. I also produced a one-page rationale (what the University Secretary described as a “written justification”) for the Coordinating Committee which they chose not to circulate, thus leaving my motion in isolation, like an irascible orphan or hare-brained hunch with nothing behind it.

While I was being accused of not doing what I had been prevented from doing, I somehow recalled a warning I had received from one of the dividers and dissers earlier in 2013. In moving from the mere attendees’ section to the Council members’ section, he had assured me, I was moving into “the big chairs” where, apparently, great minds meet. Well, metaphorically “big chairs” may accommodate big asses, but not necessarily big brains. The argument from furniture is especially flimsy, for two reasons. First, the chairs in Neatby-Timlin auditorium are democratically uniform. There may be a front row, but there is no throne in evidence, despite the prevalence of courtiers. Second, the notion that being in the members’ section will bring home to carpers-from-the-bleachers the gravitas of governance and the brilliance of the visionary company you have joined, is hard to take seriously.

As is now customary on such occasions, after dissident faculty have spoken, the deans and vice-deans rose like a chorus line to spout the official position. Peter Stoicheff at least sounded like a dean ought to: principled, informed, attentive to the ebb and flow of the debate, engaged with the category of the public interest, and clearly concerned that we find ways of working together. His voting against my motion I could understand and respect. In contrast, most of our other academic leaders offered a counsel of capitulation and despair. Things are allegedly much worse in the United States, and Australia, and at the University of Calgary. We should therefore look down for our standards and rejoice in our right to input to TransformUS and PCIP, or else get ready for really tough love from above and outside. Oh dear.

The vote was taken, apparently whipped and unwhipped in predictable ways, and the Findlay/Brooke motion lost by a significant margin.

The one thing I wanted to salvage from an arguably historic occasion was a record that captured my critique verbatim. I accordingly asked the University Secretary to have my slides and concluding comments attached to the Minutes of the meeting. I was turned down. I had been told earlier that a motion from Members of Council rather than from Council Committees was virtually “unprecedented.” That tells us something about the attitude in some places to the voices of individual faculty. It also betrays a significant ignorance about the history of collegial governance in the University, at least since I arrived here in 1974. In fact, I had my dissenting text attached verbatim by the University Secretary to the Minutes of Council after my integrity was impugned in relation to a presidential search in the 1990s.

One final point is worthconsidering. After the University Secretary conferred with the Chair of Council, she informed me that she would use my slides and concluding remarks as the basis of her summary of my key points. However, she described the texts (reproduced below) as “comments.” If she had called them a “rationale,” or a “rationale plus concluding remarks,” she would have been closer to a troubling truth about what gets recorded and what not.

I would welcome the opportunity to debate with the University Secretary and the Chair of Council the distinction between a rationale and comments, and the way in which my rationale was reduced to the category of “comments” arbitrarily in-house, because of its inconvenient if not insubordinate character, and that my second effort to provide a rationale for my motion had now been reduced to something that does not merit verbatim reproduction. As it happens, I have a deep scholarly interest in the history of reason, rationality, and what constitutes a rationale, and also in the power of rhetorical taxonomy (see Quintilian below) to diminish or dismiss particular forms of dissent.

And so, here, thanks to VOX, I share with you the text of my slides and my final remarks just before the vote. As you read them, if you read them, you will have to supply your own electricity, and that electrification may then bring you to the next meeting of Council, to the accountability event with the Board of Governors, and/or to the General Academic Assembly in April.

My personal obligation:

I was elected to Council on a robustly anti-Dickeson platform after studying his book carefully and consulting colleagues across Canada.

I owe it to those who voted for me to follow through on that platform, even though I have no staff to rely on in this endeavour but ‘only’ the support of equally over-extended colleagues and students, and incensed emeriti.

My personal motivation:

My home department, English, and the Humanities Research Unit which I direct, did well in the TransformUS process—despite our knowing far more about Quintilian than about quintiles.

Ergo, this motion is not sour grapes; nor is it self-interest, given my privileged position here.

The motion is, rather, an appeal for collegial action that promotes excellence as diversity and enlightenment, not institutional alignment and financial expediency: this appeal is made for the sake of the University on which our students and the general public are entitled to depend.

Everybody makes mistakes:

I’ve certainly made my fair share of academic ones.

Whenever I have confessed mine or had them pointed out to me, the audience has always been attentive, very attentive, and rightly so.

But smart people and organizations learn from their mistakes.

Can Council learn from its mistakes?

Two of Council’s mistakes:

Council consented “in principle” to an unspecified prioritization process that rapidly became the Dickeson one based on anti-faculty animus from a self-promoting lightweight who plies his trade within the consultancy paradox in “the managed university.“ This paradox derives from the fact that the more you grow academic management, the more those managers depend on external consultants while making the lives of those they manage frustrating or downright miserable.

Council showed too little curiosity about the origins and extent of the budgetary mess, a curiosity recently dismissed as “the blame game” by one of those who urge “accountability” on others but not themselves, following the lead of other bloated proponents of “Lean.”

Council’s opportunity:

To see TransformUS for what it was: a “deeply flawed” exercise pursued by hard-working and insightful faculty to the best of their ability.

To see TransformUS as a major waste of time (and resources) for the taskforces, their support staffs, hard-pressed respondents, and the University.

To see that useful things emerging from TransformUS can be saved for due academic process, lest they remain tainted and hence resisted as products of a process no other member of the U-15 would adopt, so little does it have to do with excellence.

Council’s obligations:

To reclaim its reputation for independence and objectivity.

To reflect on the divided response to the USSU President at the last meeting of this body: silent, stony-faced administrators, and applauding faculty and students.

To resist an unrelenting onslaught of Integrated Planning (11 years and counting) which adds lustre of a sort to the vitae of administrators while demanding compliance from faculty: one Dairy Queen topping after another, increasing the burdens of surveillance and reporting that impede serious, independent, intellectual work—the primary and enduring priority of any university worthy of the name.


We cannot ‘audit the future,’ but we can shape it on the basis of academic excellence and the public interest rather than contrived exigency, selective transparency, and cover for the culprits.

In order to begin that shaping, a motion of non-confidence in TransformUS is necessary, lest faculty and student morale sink even lower while the axe honed by PCIP falls needlessly or opportunistically in a sad parody of the cutting edge.

Concluding remarks after debate of the Findlay/Brooke motion:

If eleven years of integrated planning have succeeded in any way, then enhanced program integration resulting from this process threatens to be undone by the Dickesonian insistence on isolating programs from each other in order to enhance their vulnerability to an arbitrary metric. In this scenario, Program Prioritization is radically at variance with Integrated Planning.

If, however, 11 years of Integrated Planning have succeeded only in uniting planners themselves in a common delusion that what they do does make a positive difference, then the meaning of IP has been enforced compliance, not beneficial outcomes, power not product, and we have no reason to believe that the shift to Program Prioritization will be any different. In this scenario, the bureaucratic euphoria emanating from the senior administration is radically at variance with the recent and current experience of faculty, students and support staff.

No matter which of these two scenarios you favour, the claim that the University will emerge “leaner but stronger” from TransformUS is an insult to our intelligence and a denial of our history and current capacity. Do not be afraid. Please support this motion.