What’s in a Name?: Lougheed, Buffett, Shakespeare (Report from the General Faculties Council Meeting, 3 February 2014)

Collegial governance is not having an easy time of it at the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council (GFC).

Four items came before the Council at its meeting last Monday, with only one of these an action item, and items that were for “discussion” were unlikely (it seemed) to return as matters for GFC to vote upon. On the one item on which it could vote, GFC approved a new UAPPOL policy in which student groups must secure approval before hosting any event. Members of GFC raised questions about the policy, including what was meant by “event” and whether this was an attempt to control whom students could invite to the University as speakers, but despite the fact that GFC’s Terms note that “debate should be either for or against a motion,” no one who stepped up to the microphone expressed themselves as if they were declaring positions to help shape a vote. Instead, GFC members asked questions, and though the answers made it clear that the language of the policy was very vague, GFC voted for the new policy, reassured, it seems, by claims that it is simply intended to support students in their activities. (As called for in GFC’s Terms, the minutes should fully reflect the basis of the decision taken in the vote.)

The general disposition of elected representatives during discussion of the one action item carried over to the rest of the meeting. The lion’s nails have been so clipped it has forgotten how to roar. And so when an even more weighty matter came before the Council there was no sense that its members had the power, if they wished, to exert authority to take the matter being discussed back into their jurisdiction.  

The matter in question was the proposed Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute.

GFC, the body that is supposed to have final authority over all of the University’s “academic affairs,” was being asked (it seemed) merely to discuss an idea centrally tied to the academic mission of the University as if it has already been approved elsewhere. The position of GFC’s elected representatives was clear enough: they do not understand the academic purpose of the Institute, or why it has come before GFC without any clear statements about this purpose or any business plan attached, and more than a little frustration was expressed at the general situation. Wasn’t the proper authority to decide whether or not any such Initiative was to go forward GFC? Should it not at the very least play a shaping role in determining what form this Initiative was to take? Who was “the community” to which Martin Ferguson Pell, in his new role as “Special Advisor to the President,” was referring when he declared that “a community” had produced the slides before them? And how and by whom was this “proposal” to be approved? (The official documentation for discussion of the matter at GFC clearly indicates that approval is to come at a later date by a “route” and an “authority” that have not yet been determined.)

As it is, the proposal came before GFC not in the form of a detailed brief, but as a set of powerpoint slides containing very general statements. These indicate that the committee exercising over the matter is the Leadership Academic Coordinating Committee, and that it was struck in November 2013. There is nothing in the formal documents to indicate that this is a committee of GFC. It appears, rather, to be a special Provostial committee on which only one rank-and-file academic staff member, Billy Strean (Physical Education/Faculty of Extension), sits. Strean’s bio notes that “his current focus is ontological and phenomenological approaches to developing and studying leadership.”

PLLI Arizona Chart

“Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative” slides presented to the University of Alberta’s General Faculties Council. Slide 11.

The slides themselves are silent on what is meant by the Leadership that will be pursued in Lougheed’s name through both an “Institute” and a “College.” They include a chart of “competencies” from the University of Arizona. The Provost, Carl Amrhein, declared that in its choice to focus on a single Attribute in the chart to develop academic programming the University of Alberta will be doing what no other institution in Canada has done. (All the more reason for the University’s chief authority over academic affairs formally to vote on the proposal.)

The slides refer to Lougheed’s “leadership attributes” and “leadership legacy” but do not say anything specific about either. We were told that the Leadership Institute in Lougheed’s name will be an Umbrella that “touches almost every student” at the University, but not what the “programming” that will be run in conjunction with the Banff Centre will involve, or how resources will be distributed. The 144 students chosen to live in the proposed Leadership College will have special opportunities to meet “established leaders,” including “global leaders,” and these encounters will position them to take up “competitive positions” when they leave the University. (Slide 16 informs us they may be able to get a “business leadership certificate.”) The slides assert, moreover, that these 144 students will solve local and global problems and “uplift the whole people.” There is nothing to indicate how these precious few students will be selected for special experiences at the College, and no equity and diversity statement attached to guarantee that the College’s membership will reflect the full diversity of Alberta’s population.

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A web search shows other “leadership institutes” across North America defined in a variety of ways. Sometimes these are student-run organizations that host “teas” and “workshops.” Brown has a leadership institute for high school students; and Harvard an institute for “advanced leadership” for those who are already established leaders in one or another field. Yale has a leadership institute focused on producing “moral, courageous, visionary leaders who will serve as catalysts for positive change”; Kansas, an institute for “women’s civic leadership”; Rice, an institute for non-profit leadership; and Texas, an institute for “Leadership and Ethics.” CalState Student Leadership InstituteElsewhere such Institutes are hosted by Business Schools where they are associated with “executive education.”

We would expect a great public university that aims to be in the “Top 20” in the world to take a different approach to such a proposition than any private university, and a more sophisticated, capacious approach to the idea of “leadership” than that espoused either by the Arizona chart or any American state school that lacks the capacity for social impact that a great Canadian public university can wield. In the absence of a clearly articulated intellectual idea that states how the proposed Leadership Institute will support the University’s academic mission, there will continue to be concern that the proposed institute will centre on “executive education” for a select few students —  less than 1% of the University’s undergraduate student population. And in the absence of a statement guaranteeing the necessary inclusion of women and members of the aboriginal community (the proposed College will stand, after all, on Cree territory), there will be other concerns. (A few years ago President Samarasekera publicly declared her commitment to ensuring that “young white men” of this generation end up as the heads of Canada’s corporations twenty years down the road.) The College should also, of course, have a firm representational commitment to the inclusion of the members of Alberta’s many immigrant communities. The Alberta of 2014 is not, demographically, the Alberta of Lougheed’s years in office.

With so many considerations along these lines unaddressed, and the academic and intellectual content of the proposed Institute seeming to depend on the University of Arizona’s “competencies” chart as guiding rubric, Kathleen Lowrey (Anthropology) stood up to declare that she wanted the minutes to record that the proposal was in her view “intellectually vacuous and morally pernicious.”

Later, Deborah Burshtyn (Medical Microbiology and Immunology) pursued the second of Kathleen Lowrey’s contentions by suggesting that the proposed College will reinforce existing class structures and dynamics. As such, she said, it strikes her as a backwards proposition not consistent with her idea of Lougheed as a forward-looking figure.

Presumably, the Initiative comes forward in Lougheed’s name out of respect for him as a democratic leader who distinguished himself when he created, in 1976, the Alberta Heritage Fund. The Fund was supposed to ensure that the development of Alberta’s natural resources, especially its non-renewable energy resources, would yield the financial wealth necessary to nurture social goods for Albertans across generations. Since Lougheed’s departure from office in 1985, however, the Fund has been continually undermined. It now bears no resemblance to the fund through which Norway has generated massive sovereign wealth for Norwegians. (See Ricardo Acuna’s recent column in Vue Weekly on this issue.) A commentator from the Fraser Institute has gone so far as to declare the Alberta Heritage Fund “an abject failure.”

The sad irony of the situation, then, is this. Lougheed stands, for Albertans and Canadians more generally, as a visionary leader most known for what he attempted to do by way of the creation of social wealth — especially in the form of massive investment in Alberta’s postsecondary education and healthcare systems. But subsequent Progressive Conservative governments in Alberta have led Albertans in abandoning this vision, with the abandonment signalled nowhere more emphatically than with last March’s provincial budget, in which the Progressive Conservatives cut funding to the postsecondary system by a whopping $147 million. The dire effects of these cuts have been felt across the province, especially at places like Mount Royal University, as a higher education institution specializing in the Arts. In terms of dollars, the cuts have been heaviest for the University of Alberta, with the consequences of last year’s cuts still to come, in the form of faculty members walking out the door at June 30th due to the Administration’s “Voluntary Severance” program, and the budget for 2014-2015, for which the University has a shortfall in the tens of millions of dollars. In the meantime, we have private donors who are willing to step forward, and offer some funding to the University in Lougheed’s name. Wonderful. The pressing concern amongst the academic staff and students is that the Institute be established in a form consistent with Lougheed’s vision.

Democracy (a word nowhere used in the proposal) is supposed to support the equal development of all. As the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere has argued in books ranging from The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1981) to Hatred of Democracy (2006) true democracy will not be achieved until we act according to the presumption that everyone has the equal capacity for intelligence, and cultivate the social conditions that ensure that everyone has the equal opportunity to exercise that capacity. A public university that aims to “uplift the whole people” must take care not to act as if some people are more equal than others.

It must also take care not to suggest that there are “the people” and then a select, specially cultivated cadre of those who “uplift” them. The statement of Henry Marshall Tory’s that the Administration has been using for a few years now as its touchstone is not about individuals “uplifting the whole people.” Tory’s statement is a statement about the University as a place for the production and dissemination knowledge in which all may be participate. “The modern state university has sprung,” he wrote, “from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition.” The proposal for a College for a very small percentage of the student population is so worrying precisely because it seems to separate out, as the Elect, a very few students for an experience that is qualitatively different from what others will receive. Such a College risks, in short, creating (or deepening) the perception of Albertans that the University is a privileged, enclosed place, accessible only to those already in possession of wealth (or to be burdened by great debt where they are not), and working to place a few, a very few, in “competitive positions” that give them privileged lives out of reach of the greater part of the population.

PLLI GFC Slide 10

“Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative” slides presented to University of Alberta General Faculties Council, Slide 10.

If it does this it works directly counter to Tory’s vision, and counter to Lougheed’s, whose vision for the Alberta Heritage Fund was part of a high-water mark in Canada’s social thinking which included Canada signing on, in the same year, to the UN’s covenant for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Clause 13.1.c of which declares that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” Canadian governments seem to believe that given that the United States has no interest in such a social commitment they need not either.

As it stands, the proposal is not explicitly lashed to any ethical framework. It presumes that “leadership” tout court is a good when it is not. Leadership comes, after all, in diabolical forms as well as benevolent ones. The various instances of charismatic leadership driven by self-interest, cunning, and amorality witnessed by the twentieth century have amply demonstrated that “leaders” can act to harness large numbers of people to kill others. This is what I assume lay behind Professor Lowrey’s charge about the nature of the proposal: it is dangerous for it to assume and to talk about “leadership” as if it were in every respect a good, when in fact it can also enable evil. (Professor Lowrey’s earlier Arts Squared post on the Leadership Initiative is here.)

The Provost’s response, when he was invited by the President to return to the microphone at the front of the room to address the concerns had been raised, focused on the objections to the proposed College. (More than one speaker on Monday suggested that the idea of Leadership Institute is not itself the problem, as long as the “programming” is determined by the academic staff and is somehow truly distinctive from what it is we already do; the sticking-point is the proposed College.) “‘College,'” the Provost informed GFC, ” is just a word.” This claim was so important to him that he repeated it, adding as he did so that the members of the General Faculties Council were not to be “spooked” by it.

Martin Ferguson-Pell seemed keen to communicate that he was hearing and understanding the criticisms. He acknowledged that Professor Lowrey was right to ask that careful consideration be given to what was meant by “leadership.” And he attempted to speak to the criticism that the academic content of what was being proposed was not clear. This would come, he claimed, in the next step. In the meantime he offered a shorthand formulation for assurance. The Institute will aim, he said, to instruct students in leadership by ranging in its concerns “from Shakespeare to Buffett.”

Shakespeare to Buffett.

Shouldn’t students be studying leaders who have had the moral courage to stand up to the status quo? asked Brent Kelly, the student representative to the Board of Govenors. People like Martin Luther King Jr.? And Nelson Mandela?

No one will question the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela to world culture. The moral courage of these men was extraordinary, and their ability to translate it into the social action of others breathtaking. They are names that have been recently, with Mandela’s death and the celebration of the anniversary of King’s birthday, been on everyone’s lips. It would have been nice, however, to hear at least one woman, whether historic or contemporary, invoked in this aspect of the discussion. You’ll have your own list. Mine would include Elizabeth Warren, who is fighting hard in the United States to preserve the very idea of democratic government against the Republican onslaught against it. And we should be bringing things closer to home, and ensuring that the “leadership” that this Institute pursues includes figures like the women leaders of the social movement Idle No More, Sheelgah Maclean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon, and Theresa Spence.

It must also be said that “Shakespeare” shouldn’t be the starting-point for the range of concerns that any academic study of leadership would need to take on. Within Western culture, we’re going to have to go back — at the very least — to Plato and Aristotle. We should also be returning to the matriarchal cultures of the East that the ancient Greeks warred with, and early Christian culture actively suppressed. (There are important allusions to these suppressed cultures in Shakespeare’s dramatic work.) And surely if this is to be an Institute contributing to the shaping of global leaders for the twenty-first century it is going to need to range culturally, starting with close attention to the indigenous cultures of Alberta, and what they have to offer to us in terms of ideas of “leadership” and social organization that differ radically from the system that has produced Buffett, currently the fourth richest man on the planet. Buffett may hold in his hands great material wealth, but this does not in and of itself make him a leader, nor should it put him in a privileged position to lead. What work, then, is the name “Buffett” doing in conveying to us the premises and objectives of the proposed Leadership Institute?

I myself do regard Buffett as a leader — a social leader — for the stand that he has taken against the tax regime in the United States as one privileging the wealthy at the expense of the working and middle classes. Buffett has famously declared that he finds it wrong that his secretary pays more than he does in taxes. And in 2012 he published an OpEd in the New York Times in which he argued that the rich ought to pay a minimum of 30% in income tax.

As my brother reminds me, Buffett has also led the charge (along with Bill Gates) for the wealthy to pledge to give away half of their wealth while they are still living. Buffett addresses this matter in important ways in his “Giving Pledge” letter, where he notes that he has benefitted from “a market system that sometimes produces distorted results,” in that it rewards those who “detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions” even as great teachers receive as reward for their contributions to society “thank-you notes from parents.” Not only is there no need for great wealth to be hoarded in select hands, such hoarding wreaks destruction across the planet. It also undoes the possessor of the wealth. “Too often,” Buffett writes, “a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner.”

This is in fact one of Shakespeare’s considerations in Hamlet, where the most famous character in Western dramatic literature considers a skull in his hand (no, not Yorick’s, a skull he imagines to be that of a lawyer) as an emblem of great waste, the living matter that it no longer contains having been expended (in the character’s imagination) on the production of “conveyances” in pursuit of the accumulation of material wealth:

This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries. Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box, and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

Is Martin Ferguson-Pell asking the University community, with his shorthand of “from Shakespeare to Buffett,” to understand the Lougheed Leadership Institute as fundamentally centred on questions of ethics and conscience in relation to our organization of material wealth? Well, who would not generally support that? But shorthands can be beguiling. If this is indeed what Martin Ferguson-Pell’s shorthand is intended to suggest, this idea — not expressed in the materials presented to GFC — needs to be confirmed. What is it that is intended, either by the “donors of record,” to use the Provost’s phrase, or the Leadership Academic Coordinating Committee?

To that question the declarations of another Buffett, Warren’s son Peter, might be of use.

Last summer, Peter Buffett wrote an OpEd for the New York Times in which he expressed his concerns about “philanthropy” as a good that nevertheless permits “the existing structure of inequality” to remain “in place.” “Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good,” Peter Buffett writes, “on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.” He expressed his particular concern that philanthropic giving tends to work as “conscience laundering” rather than operating as vital “risk capital” — that is, capital invested in the genuine creation of the new that would come if  “money” were used “to shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market.” (Buffett says he understands that such claims may “upset people who are wonderful folks” including “a few dear friends,” but that such things need to be said. That is moral leadership.)

The challenge of all philanthropic gifts received by universities is to ensure that the gifts properly support a given university’s academic mission. And so let me suggest that the problem here, or what is making the University of Alberta community uneasy, is that the proposal comes before us without crucial qualifying material that explicitly declares what the Institute is intended to stand for in terms of ethical orientation. If the proposed Institute is not an Institute for the “executive education” of a few at an exclusive college — not an Institute designed to bring about the participation of a few Albertans in the Davos class on the premise that they will somehow “uplift” the rest — but rather an Institute for conscientious leadership that empowers all Albertans to work as local and global actors for the common good, let this be clearly asserted, in its very name.

The President declared in her weekly bulletin yesterday that she considers the “high level vision” of the Institute to be fully in place. If this is so, time to bring the work down to earth, in conversations and collegial governance processes that ensure that the collegium at the University now takes control of defining what kinds of leadership the Institute will pursue, and whether an exclusive College is consistent both with the Institute’s larger leadership objectives and the University’s academic mission. In a statement last Fall, Jeff Melanson of the Banff Centre (a partner in this Initiative) declared “The Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative will further the goal that Peter Lougheed pursued his entire life—the creation of a strong, inclusive and vibrant society in which every individual has the opportunity to thrive.” (my emphasis) For that vision to be properly achieved, the idea of the Institute to be hosted at the University of Alberta requires refinement, and word choices matter.

Whatever form this Institute takes it must, consistent with Lougheed’s leadership with the Heritage Fund, focus on creating social wealth and empowerment for all, not private wealth and empowerment for a few that may become “social” or general only through that wicked fiction of Trickle Down. Let us have, then, an Institute that is an Institute for Democratic Leadership. Or Ethical Leadership. Or Global Leadership for the Common Good. Let the elected representatives of the General Faculties Council not only determine this language, and the form that all academic “programming” associated with the Institute shall take, but also determine whether, to meet the larger goals, this should be an Institute sans College.

And so with the “high level” work declared done, let the special Provostial committee be reconstituted as a committee of GFC, with a minimum of three elected representatives from the academic staff and one student.

I for one will be convinced that the Institute has a vision consistent with the University’s academic mission when we hear that the “programming” will involve the study of radical art movements and techniques for social change, and the “training,” instruction in democratic direct action.

As for Shakespeare, for a bone-chilling representation of one kind of leadership to be opposed, everyone can turn to Shakespeare’s late tragedy Coriolanus. (There’s a terrific recent film version starring Ralph Fiennes.) For representations of the bringing down of leaders who fail to act for the “commonwealth,” there’s Richard II and Richard III. And for a powerful counterpoint, turn to The Winter’s Tale, and the representation of the extraordinary moral leadership of Paulina.

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6 Responses to What’s in a Name?: Lougheed, Buffett, Shakespeare (Report from the General Faculties Council Meeting, 3 February 2014)

  1. “shakespeare to buffett” – or was that “buffet”? – what a bizarre explanation of leadership…

    Thank you for your column Carolyn. One of Lougheed’s important leadership initiatives was his terrific support of culture – And maybe Shakespeare is the clue – they plan to make space for drama and support for theatre productions? Lougheed established the first Dept of Culture in Alberta’s history and throughout his life was so very devoted to the work of artists, musicians…etc. By rights, the Leadership Institute should focus on cultural leadership – performance artists and cultural visionaries…. Poets and musicians could fill up the empty space on the North Saskatchewan that they have to fill afterknocking down those cosy houses.

  2. Laurie Adkin says:

    Your essay is a wonderful example of the combination of thinking, research, great writing, and leadership. My own view about this Institute is that, as usual, the cart has been put before the horse. Instead of beginning with a bottom-up discussion of university priorities and how to support them, someone’s bright idea has been parachuted from the top, without any expectation that it might actually be rejected. Not even the procedure by which a decision is to be taken, or by whom, is clear. We seem to have found ourselves back in a very early form of ‘constitutional’ monarchy, say, late 13th century England? Let’s see, that would predate Shakespeare . . .

  3. While it’s not as well thought-out as your submission on Leadership, check out the SU’s perspective here: http://www.su.ualberta.ca/about/news/entry/263/su-releases-discussion-paper-on-the-peter-lougheed-leadership-college/

  4. Brent says:

    Great point about no mention of female leaders in the discussion – certainly not nearly enough attention is given to female leadership. I’ll be sure to mention female leaders students should be learning about in subsequent discussions of the “college.”

  5. Jennifer Jay says:

    The SU statement on the leadership college is inspiring in conceptual inclusiveness and practical application. I applaud the SU leaders for producing the document. That is what I understand leadership to be uplifting across campus! Thank you, Thank you…….

  6. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Such a lucid summation of why a Kyriarchy College at the U of A would be no tribute to Lougheed’s legacy at all. thank you Carolyn.

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