Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Universities and cash...a witches brew of "branding"

By Linda McQuaig, Toronto Star, February 22, 2011
With university administrators now heavily focused on wooing private funds, corporate money has become an increasingly potent force shaping our universities — a development prompting a group of concerned professors to hold a teach-in at U of T’s Bahen Centre this Saturday.

The concern is that reliance on corporate philanthropy risks skewing the university’s priorities to court the rich, and threatens to undermine the role of universities as key democratic institutions where society’s prevailing orthodoxies and power structures come under scrutiny.
Are universities likely to critically scrutinize power structures when their funding increasingly comes from those who dominate these very power structures?
This question surfaced last year with the firing of the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs — which is heavily funded by billionaire Jim Balsillie — and affiliated with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.
Ramesh Thakur, an internationally renowned scholar, was fired as director after he clashed with Balsillie over Balsillie’s involvement in academic issues at the school. The firing was done by administrators at Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo, but it appears they were acting to please Balsillie.
An investigation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers called this “the dark side of philanthropy,” faulting the universities for their “lack of commitment to . . . academic integrity” and “regrettable failure to educate the principal donor . . . Jim Balsillie, as to the donor’s proper role.”
Universities insist they vigilantly protect academic freedom. U of T’s Statement of Purpose pledges to protect critical teaching and research, since “no other institution . . . is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.”
Lofty words. But U of T’s written agreement with donor Peter Munk, establishing the Munk School of Global Affairs, seems to tell a different story.
The agreement reveals that $15 million (almost half Munk’s $35 million donation) will only be given to the university at some point after 2017 — and only after Munk has been satisfied with the outcome of the Munk School.
This certainly puts pressure on those running the school to take it in a direction pleasing to Munk. Is it likely they’ll hire academics doing research, say, on the role of multinational corporations in developing countries — where the mining operations of Munk’s Barrick Gold Corporation have come under attack?
Munk’s agreement with U of T calls for $2 million to be spent on “branding” — as if the school were a cigarette or designer handbag.
Another strange clause in the agreement sets an elitist tone that seems out of keeping with the university as a collegial academic community. It specifies that the school’s elegant heritage mansion will have “a formal entrance reserved only for senior staff and visitors to the School.”
Branding the Monk school, like the kind of social engineering that goes on in some business schools, and the flow of money from corporate interests like oil, insurnace and pharmaceuticals, for starters, are the kind of devolutions that universities do not need and  the society cannot afford.
Last night there was another example of a university using the public media to recruit dollars through enhanced reputation. Am orthopedic surgeon at Queens performed two cartilage reconstructions on two patients, using computer generated images to improve the accuracy of his technique in replacing missing cartilage from the knees of the two patients. Sexy, movement-restoring, life-enhancing surgery to be true; but also a not-so-veiled promotional piece by the Faculty of Medicine at the university where the recruitment of funds is an on-going campaign. Obviously the patients were compliant actors in this nationally staged drama.
It is the process of "what's sexy and what sells" that reduces anything, any institution or specific social organ including universities, to a "brand" in a reductionistic marketing perspective that is eroding the breadth and the depth of the academic purpose of the university: to challenge the very fundamentals of the society in which it exists.
And the implications are not restricted to turning the universities into "training schools" to fill jobs; they also include the reduction of eccentric thinking and thinkers because corporate funding does not readily seek to colour outside the lines. The implications also include the skewing of the universities to the sciences and the professions where extrinsic, empirical and socially useful research and experimentation are publicly observable, whereas in Literature and Philosophy the research and heavy lifting sit quite still for centuries behind the covers of books on library shelves...not at all sexy, or useful in recruiting funds.
It will be from the universities that, for instance, the arguments will be mounted to demonstrate the need for new approaches to global crises, be they economic, or tectonic shifts causing tsunamis, or earth quakes.
Similarly, it will be from the universities that arguments will be developed to demonstrate the need for new political institutions that  complement the United Nations in the global attempts to better protect and deploy workers, to better protect and defend against international crises, and to integrate the world's peoples in a complex and freeing system of communications.
While corporates will rush headlong into the breach, hoping to gain some advantage, and their puppet politicians will listen carefully and act according to their sponsors dictates, it will be the universities and their scholars whose lives are already full with work who are not riding the tidal wave of their "infamy" for their personal ego-massaging (lol, because they too have human impulses like the rest of us)...however we do legitimately expect some degree of both objectivity and social utility, even if it does not conform to the "groupthink" that corporates demand, from the universities. And that has already eroded significantly, and will continue that erosion over the next decades, to our national and global detriment.
Occasionally, after many years of research, funded presumably by the host university, research like that contained in the new book, The Spirit Level, will so provoke contrarian views of the growing gap in equality in so-called "advanced" societies like Great Britain and the United States, that the ripples in their argument will flow, hopefullly, upward into the board rooms of both governments and corporations, making significant dents in the slick and sleek systems that support those two increasingly incestuous institutions.

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