Inside the knowledge factory

Profit = 1, Ethics = 0

There’s a lot of buzz about university governance and budgeting these days. A scan of recent issues of The Daily reveals a number of articles highlighting calls for a review of where the money’s coming from and what it’s being spent on (“Bloated bureaucracies weigh down university budgets,” News, January 28, page 3; “Universities using teaching dollars for construction,” News, January 24, page 4; “Admin talks university finances at SSMU Council,” News, January 17, page 5). This timing isn’t coincidental: the Parti Québécois (PQ) government has called for a summit on education at the end of February, and discussions are ongoing about what will – and should – come out of that process. As the articles above suggest, many observers are not convinced the summit will ask the right questions, or that those present will be likely to come to the right answers.

As students, we tend to think that the university is about us. After all, from our first moments of thinking about applying to schools, universities are courting us. We are both their primary clients and their most important products, they tell us. Universities exist to provide a service to us: just think what you could do with a university degree!

The fact is, of course, that even if that was true fifty years ago it is most certainly not true now. And the University’s administrators make no secret of it, if you step outside the glossy advertising brochures and back-to-school MROs. At the end of last semester PGSS and SSMU put on a McGill-centric education summit to get a sense of where the McGill community stands on all sorts of issues related to university education. The format was unfortunately far from interactive, and the voices of the administration overpowered those of students, but it was an interesting opportunity to hear about McGill’s strategic objectives in a way that we rarely do as students.

I was particularly interested in a session on partnerships between the university and corporations. Although universities have always done research that benefitted the private sector, direct partnerships with corporations are becoming an increasingly prominent part of what universities do – and how they fund themselves. In fact, a much-overlooked part of the university funding plan that spurred last year’s student strike was the expectation that universities raise more of their operating funds from corporate partners – even going so far as to make some public funding dependent on universities’ ability to raise private funds.

In her presentation on the topic of these partnerships, Vice President (Research and International Relations) Rose Goldstein made it clear that all contracts signed with corporate partners include an academic freedom clause making sure that researchers can publish their findings whether the corporate funders like them or not. (McGill’s track record on asbestos research raises questions on whether this is always enforced, but that’s a different story.) That freedom is essential to scientific integrity, of course, but it hardly addresses the full ethical picture.

Imagine a university – a “research-intensive” university, to use that term the administration loves so much – that exists mostly to do research that others pay for. In the Department of Mining  and Materials Engineering, researchers supported by grants from De Beers, Barrick Gold, and other giant mining corporations investigate more efficient techniques for extracting highly toxic minerals from often-contested lands. In Mechanical Engineering, a professor researches de-icing technology that he then markets to military contractors through a business he owns. Speaking to the University Senate, the head of research urges faculty to look at the priorities of the university’s funders and tailor their research questions accordingly. The University wants them to get these grants, she says, and is putting all sorts of resources at their disposal. Meanwhile, who is funding research into the environmental impacts of tar sands extraction or the neocolonial causes of war? Freedom to publish adverse findings does not guarantee freedom to ask challenging questions, nor does it ensure university resources are made available to support the development of such projects in the first place.

The paragraph above is not a dystopian fantasy. All of those things are currently happening at McGill. At the same time, 100 Arts classes are being cut to save money, leading to fewer of the small seminars in which we get to hone our critical thinking skills and ask the broader questions. (Full disclosure: I’m actually in Engineering, so they aren’t my classes that are being cut. But students in all faculties need small classes.) Dr. Goldstein assures us that McGill is “very strong” in the areas of Arts and Social Sciences, but then admits that there are no specific safeguards in place to prevent endlessly pitching public money after private, as the university invests more and more in the areas it sees as prime candidates for developing profitable partnerships.

The buzzwords that keep coming up are “keeping McGill competitive.” But what are we competing on? Like the most reckless financial players on Wall Street, McGill’s administrators deal in numbers that no longer have any bearing in reality. Cutting classes to increase the percentage taught by tenured professors increases your rankings but does zilch for the quality of your education. Redirecting resources to support partnerships with business, rather than supporting less profitable research projects might make McGill number one on a chart in some investor’s office, but it probably won’t get us closer to solving the big problems our society needs to deal with.

As we discuss the state of our universities and our education system here in Quebec, these are the sorts of issues we ought to be tackling. Making budget sheets balance is great, but unless we are questioning not only the line items on the budget but the priorities behind them, our universities will continue to be dysfunctional: state-subsidized non-profits that aspire to be publicly-traded corporations, and end up failing miserably at both. I don’t want a top-ranked university that is internationally competitive across the world, I want a university that provides me and my society with the ideas, tools, and knowledge that we need to live well together – now and generations into the future. Perhaps you agree with me.

SSMU Council’s proposal for an états généraux on education brings us closer to discussing these goals than any part of the government-mandated Summit process has or will. But these conversations need to be happening not only in our legislatures and closed-off conference rooms, but in our living rooms, newspapers, streets, and, of course, in our universities. Which is why it is particularly concerning that the McGill administration has decided to bypass any further consultation or even a Senate vote on their new “operational procedures” regarding protests and disruptions on campus. With nowhere to discuss our goals for the education system, and no way to express our dissent with the effects of those imperatives, we may well wonder if the University is past saving as a useful societal institution. If, like me, you believe there may still be some redeeming value here, then we’d best get to work fanning it up into flames, because it’s well on its way to being muffled.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at