McGill’s Senate – the University’s highest governing academic body – not only takes on the appearance of a corporate boardroom; it acts like one too. Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Rose Goldstein’s presentation at Wednesday’s meeting sounded more like a business report than an actual assessment of the University’s research priorities. Goldstein’s goal is to increase McGill’s revenue by selling inventions and raise McGill’s reputation by buying citations.
The focus on producing revenue does not address the quality of research being done, the specific faculties in which this research is conducted, or how any revenue would improve the quality of education for students. Even more striking was the vocabulary used to assess the University’s performance. McGill’s reliance on public funds was mostly depicted in negative terms, and research priorities were identified based on their chance of “success.” Success is determined by awards and distinctions granted by other institutions, as was outlined in the Senate meeting. The financial pursuits of the upper administration at the University have lost sight of what that money is sought for. There is a fundamental difference between how the administration envision sthe University’s higher education and how students do.
McGill is not alone in its eagerness to privatize. This week, a conference called “Rendez-vous du savoir” is seeking to facilitate discussion between the business sector and CREPUQ, a group that brings together the administrators of Quebec universities. The conference website says that Quebec is “directly dependent on the relationships” between businesses and universities. This notion must be challenged. It is doubtful that the private sector can play any constructive role on our campuses. Moreover, any “dependence” on businesses is bound to translate into greater corporate influence in our university, including what types of research are conducted and for what purpose.
Knowledge for the sake of profit is a fundamentally different pursuit than knowledge to improve the quality of education and scholarship, and selling the product of knowledge can have detrimental effects. McGill’s ties to corporations are destructive environmentally and socially. The most obvious manifestation of this was controversial research produced on asbestos, which deemed the toxic material acceptable (of course, McGill neglected to discuss that this research was paid for by a large private grant). This is visible all over the university: from Mining Engineering’s corporate sponsors who engage in deplorable practices, to the Economics department’s privately affiliated research institution that orients its research to the private sector. It is not about how condemnable each individual manifestation is. It is a systemic, deep-seated problem of priorities.
Challenging privatization is difficult considering the inaccessibility of decision-making bodies at McGill. If things are to change, we need to question the research performed at McGill, rather than passively accept it as objective. We need to consider both the sources and uses of funding in our university. And most importantly, we need to consider whether privatized knowledge causes more harm than good to our communities and our quality of education.