This article, which was originally published in The National Post on September 14, 2002, is reposted here with the permission of the author.
A dangerous contradiction lies at the heart of the university system in North America. The citizens who pay for the great universities believe they exist mainly to teach the young and prepare them for the rest of their lives. People directing universities have other goals. They believe a university fulfills itself when it creates knowledge. Research makes a university legitimate. Administrators adore the term "research university." When you become a research university you enter the big leagues, like the best American schools.
Many professors consider teaching at best a secondary activity, at worst a nuisance. That's a big change. Two or three generations ago, great teachers had great reputations, and their students were much envied. Today we rarely hear of such a person. The age of the star teacher has died. I have actually heard one tenured professor say of another, with blithe condescension, "He's not done anything important in years--the only reason he retains any stature at all is that he's apparently quite a terrific teacher."
University administrators will argue in public that they emphasize both teaching and research, more or less equally; but I have not heard anyone say this in private for at least 20 years. Certainly you won't find support for it in No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren't Working (University of British Columbia Press), a tough, eloquent book by two political scientists at the University of Alberta, Tom Pocklington and Allan Tupper.
How can we be sure that universities no longer take teaching seriously? Pocklington and Tupper answer in one memorable sentence: "To our knowledge, no Canadian university in recent memory has hired a senior professor from another university because of his or her demonstrated teaching skills." (Outraged deans and provosts wishing to dispute this statement will please submit names and dates rather than the usual empty rhetoric.) A national survey by Pocklington and Tupper reveals that professors at all career levels believe hiring, promotion, and salary almost always depend on published research, almost never on teaching.
Pocklington and Tupper go so far as to question the principle that research and teaching are interdependent and that good researchers make good teachers. This is a sacred belief in academe, but no one has ever demonstrated it; the only evidence for it is anecdotal, the kind that professors reject when it's offered by students. Anyway, say Pocklington and Tupper, if that idea is valid, why do universities reward good researchers by lightening their "teaching load?" They also argue that professors, driven to justify themselves, often do research of no value to anyone.
The conflict between the public's belief in teaching and the academic belief in research makes the central problem of the university unique; there's no other great social institution afflicted by such a radical division between public expectations and professional goals. Can anything be done about it? No Place to Learn says universities must re-establish undergraduate teaching as their first priority and recognize it as "a complex and important activity that demands broad reading, disciplined thought, and great effort."
The word "effort" clicks quietly into place in that sentence, but behind it we can glimpse the outline of an embarrassing question: Are established, tenured university professors, as a class, lazy? Pocklington and Tupper say most professors work hard. Yet they note that in the 1990s, when universities complained that reduced government grants were eroding education, "not one of them responded by increasing the teaching obligations of their permanent instructors. In fact, many managed to reduce even further the teaching activities of professors."
No Place to Learn has drawn a searching and thoughtful response from Reg Whitaker in the September issue of the Literary Review of Canada. A political science professor, much admired for his writing on subjects ranging from the RCMP to the financing of the Liberal Party, Whitaker mentions in passing that last year, at age 58, he retired from York University--apparently because he couldn't stand the system any longer.
He endorses the conclusions of No Place to Learn and enlarges the debate by discussing a subject that Pocklington and Tupper don't emphasize, the poisoning of university life by rights-seeking groups who insist (Whitaker writes) that academic life is naturally "sexist and racist and can only by kept in check through intensive regulation and control...Everything that goes on must be monitored and policed." Which, of course, is the opposite of how we expect universities to operate.
Whitaker, while favouring equality of treatment, has learned by bitter experience that codifying decency and fairness has created a nightmare. Consider the intense anxiety that afflicts hiring committees, whose members know that every tiny decision may come under the hostile microscope of an "equity officer" or some other licensed busybody. For Whitaker, one great benefit of retirement is that he'll never again have to take part in this charade.
Pocklington and Tupper write with clarity and vigour, aiming at a general public. They deserve wide readership, though it's doubtful that a university press can find it for them. They hope to create a debate about universities, which for too long have sailed "on seas of unwarranted deference." But the system may be beyond fixing. Tenure, entrenched labour unions, rampant careerism, uncomprehending politicians, narrow-minded university governors: the obstacles to reform are so intimidating that the possibilities of change appear to be, at this stage, no better than marginal.