We all know the problems that the Academy is facing, North-America wide, from inadequate support for post-secondary education and university research. Here are excerpts from two statements — one American, one Canadian — calling for increased public advocacy on various funding issues from the leaders of post-secondary institutions. The writers — Carol Geary Schneider (President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities) and Nassif Ghoussoub (Professor of Mathematics at the University of British Columbia) — both take the position that explicit public advocacy from university leaders is what our current situation — one of “assault” on post-secondary education, in Schneider’s view, and the “demoralizing frontal attack on our young scholars,” on Ghoussoub’s — demands. Their focal points are different — Schneider is especially concerned with the attack on the liberal arts in the United States, and Ghoussoub, with recent developments at NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) — but the call is much the same: academic leaders need to step up and defend — to the government, to the public — the work of university teachers and researchers in all disciplines.
Schneider is unequivocal: “No student can be well, or even minimally, prepared for twenty-first-century challenges,” she writes, “absent a strong grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, across both school and college.” And then she is blunt:
It is time for all American educational leaders to say plainly that the current policy assault on the liberal arts and sciences is dangerous—dangerous to the quality of higher education, and dangerous for America’s future. The liberal arts tradition helped make American higher education the envy of the world. American society needs to own that tradition and to reinvest in its future vitality and generativity across all colleges, universities, and community colleges.
The same, of course, needs to be said for Canada, where the difficulties we face are on the face of it worse, as Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been actively cutting funding to scientific agencies that play such an important role in creating what Schneider calls “the ‘big picture’ understanding of our social and physical environment that everyone needs in order to make judgments that are fundamental to our future.” And so Ghoussoub, writing about the latest negative development on this front, NSERC’s recent declaration that it will permit Canada’s young scientific researchers to apply for post-doctoral funding only once, asks where our university presidents are in all of this:
University presidents weren’t always shy about affecting, or attempting to affect, Ottawa’s research policies. We all remember who won the epic battle regarding the “indirect cost for research” between university presidents led by Martha Piper and the Presidents of the Tri-council aided by a few bureaucrats at Industry Canada. Of course, cash for “indirect costs” is a prized discretionary fund, which may be more worthy of fighting for than postdoc opportunities. But academic leaders are dead wrong to underestimate the sentiments out there regarding the low profile they are keeping on such important issues affecting the future of the academy.
There is an exception, as he notes, in the University of Toronto’s David Naylor, whose August 2012 piece for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, “Innovation in Canada: Pitfalls and Potential,” takes a stand on more than one front, including a stand for disciplines outside STEM when, under the subheading “Zombie Ideas,” Naylor writes:
. . . discussion of talent is still marred by the zombie idea that prosperity and innovation depend entirely on the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM education is essential, but successful societies are built on a much wider base of innovation and creativity. Indeed, a spate of recent articles and case studies of successful companies has argued that even high-tech innovation can be catalyzed by an admixture of talented people with degrees in the arts, humanities, social sciences and business.
Stronger statements still are needed, urgently. Enough of the “low profile” that university leaders have been maintaining on this and other issues. Let us have more university presidents defining their roles as advocates for their institutions and the work of the academy more generally. And if members of your institution’s leadership team are playing such a role, please let us know. Any such stand is worthy of wide dissemination, and we know we cannot count on the mainstream press to provide it.