The privileges of university


We hear a great deal these days about how we have to be reasonable about the times we live in. Corporate officers pulling in massive salaries and bonuses even as their companies lose money say average working men and women have to understand that the age of job security, pensions and even a middle-class wage are behind us. Have any of them offered to take the lead by surrendering even a fraction of their benefits? Are Federal Labour Minister Lisa Rait and Quebec Premier Jean Charest prepared to trim their gold-plated pensions to set an example to the students and workers they condescendingly lecture about the "new reality"?
    Today's youth face a grim future not of their own making. Is it any wonder that they're angry about it? What they are asking for is what previous generations so eagerly gobbled up for themselves. If those generations now believe their entitlements were too generous, then, perhaps, in the spirit of sharing the burden, they might want to give some of them back.
    John Moore, It’s the older generation that’s entitled, not students,
                                                                                        National Post

And now, if I may take for granted that the true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University is not Learning or Acquirement ….
                                               Newman, The Idea of a University

Our Western way of life is coming to an end.  We're easily within thirty years of an end to the united, NAFTA-type North American economy that supplies much of our food and consumer products.  Smaller, regional economies with a manufacturing base and links to post-carbon energy sources could survive longer, but we're not taking any steps at all to build or protect these.  At one level, our hope is to sell the last of our resources to Asia, becoming a sort of snowy version of Africa or South America with China playing the role of the US.  At the other level, people are buying lottery tickets and hoping for the best.

And when they can, of course, they send their kids to university.

Getting kids into university is a big deal in Eastern Canada.  (Alas, all three of us kids disappointed my parents in this respect.)  Since coming to live in Saint John, I've only seen one large demonstration.  It was an October 2007 protest against the provincial government's plans to shut down the University of New Brunswick's Saint John campus and turn it into a community college.  It wasn't a crazy plan: our current community college is aging badly and strapped for space, and repurposing UNBSJ would be much cheaper then building a new NBCC campus.  But the liberal party - Shawn Graham's liberals - handled it badly and the residents of Saint John just weren't going to have it.

I remember being mostly unmoved by the UNBSJ protests.  I was surprised at the government's clumsy handling of it.  I noted the impressive PR campaign the university put on.  I was curious to see the Irving newspapers avoid committing themselves.  But, above all, I remember wishing that the many, many people who filled King Square demanding that we "Save UNBSJ" where as passionate about things further down Maslow's pyramid of needs.

At the time, I complained:

There were two news stories that caught my eye today - both front page on our local paper.

One was about our Premier sticking to his plan to demote our city's sole university to a community college. This [was] especially newsworthy because of the large and continuing public protests against this move. People in Saint John believe that, once lost, the university will never come back.

But, Premier Graham believes this is something that must be done for our province and our community....  I could almost respect Premier Graham and his determination to see this through, were it not for the other story in the news.

There's a trial going on, and details are emerging about the death of a little girl in New Brunswick. ...what we have learned is that, once again, the Department of Family and Community Services knew there was trouble in the household but did not adequately intervene.

This news story begins: "A mere week before a New Brunswick toddler died of alleged neglect a group of social workers in the Department of Family and Community Services asked their director if 'someone need to die' before much-needed staff and resources were poured into the department."

It was a silly question. As the director knew, kids have already died. In the past, the deaths of poor kids - whom FCS were monitoring and worrying about - hasn't had much impact in the larger picture of resource allocation. There's no reason to suppose this will change.

But it could change. It could change tomorrow morning. All it would take is for Premier Shawn Graham to decide to act, and to act with the determination he has shown in the area of post-secondary education.

And the worst news of all? Nothing in this case is causing anything like the uproar the plan to close a university has caused.

Two and a half years later, I posted my vexation at what I took to be a continued privileging of the merits and wants of universities and their fans:

There's also the $2 million, $23 million and $25 million for renovating two university buildings and constructing another, as well as $6 million for landscaping ("I want people to drive through the gate, look up and say, 'this is a prominent institution'" said UNBSJ's vice-president).

In recent months, I've watched other monies that might have gone into core family or literacy support programming, or even soup kitchens and food banks, being diverted to UNBSJ in a recruitment effort directed at selected poor families in one of our Saint John neighbourhoods.

Well, what are you going to do?  Everybody loves a university.



There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
                                              Mario Savio, Speech, December, 1964.

The first time I heard Mario Savio's 1964 "Bodies Upon The Gears" speech, I was a university student myself - at least, in theory.  It was one of those summers in the mid-80's when I was working manual labour jobs in the daylight hours and studying Hebrew thought and Latin American liberation theology late into the night.  The speech was tucked inside an industrial rock protest track played on CBC's overnight program Brave New Waves, and it suited my mood exactly.

Only much later did I learn that this passionate, poetic speech was not directly about bringing an end to the war in Vietnam or torture in Central America; nor curbing the growth and spread of nuclear weapons; nor extending social service basics like free health care and quality schools to America's poor.  It was, directly, about whether or not students at UCLA Berkeley would be allowed to set up tables and/or hold various protests on university property.  The Dean and Board of Regents - uncharitably and foolishly - said no.  The students said yes, and commenced to hold sit-ins and demonstrations for the next three months.  The cops got called.  People got arrested and released, expelled and re-admitted.  A student-faculty-administration study committee was struck.  That went nowhere, and eventually Mr. Savio climbed atop a car and gave his famous speech; which included a request that members of "Locals 40 and 127 of the Painters Union... painting the inside of the 2nd floor of Sproul Hall... not be heckled in any way."

Everybody loves a university.


For generations now, Americans have been told that it always makes sense to invest in higher education for themselves and their children. This belief was so strong that it had three unfortunate consequences: It convinced politicians and taxpayers that there was no good reason to subsidize public higher education (if people were going to enjoy such a good return on an investment why should the government subsidize it?). It encouraged colleges and universities to adopt a business mentality, which increasingly led these institutions to make revenue maximization their top goal. And it led the purchasers of higher education not to ask hard questions about whether what they were buying was worth the price they were being asked to pay for it.
                                     Singleton, Debt: Not just for undergrads, Salon

I'm told by a variety of commentators that the Quebec student protests are about more than a proposed tuition hike; that it has become a protest of Bill 78, which restricts demonstrations and protest marches. I believe that.  And I believe that the issue has been badly handled by a Liberal party that has gotten lazy about consensus governing.

And yet.  I notice the other stories.  The ones about our continued failure to reduce carbon emissions or otherwise address global warming, for example. The ones about bills being passed at a federal level to bring our legislation more into alignment with the United States as regards environmental regulations, labour rules, food and material safety inspections, and anti-terrorism measures.  The ones revealing that our government did indeed (secretly) bail out our banks to the tune of several billion dollars (this in the years they were lecturing us on the need for "financial literacy").  The stories about the latest round of Employment Insurance changes and the general, nation-wide effort to depress wages and create a migrant-worker class.  I wonder, with real sadness, why we can't have a hundred thousand people on the streets of Montreal to protest some of that?

We just had another soup kitchen close down in Saint John because there is no charitable or tax money to support it.  Why doesn't that fill King Square with protestors?

Fifty million dollars for three university buildings.  Another six million for landscaping.  "I want people to drive through the gate, look up and say, 'this is a prominent institution'" said UNBSJ's vice-president.  I'm sure they will.

Everybody loves a university.

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