Day 39: “Amit Chakma’s Evolutionary Vision” by Prof. Edward Comor
I recently looked up Amit Chakma’s installation speech made at the commencement of October 2009. It reads as expected: a humble self-introduction-cum-purple pep rally. Also as anticipated, it’s rife with cliches – ranging from Chakma’s anything-is-possible autobiography to another President’s (of the United States, however) call on citizens to ask “not what your country and the world can do for you [etc.].” Beyond quoting John F. Kennedy again (on the subject of going to the moon), Chakma references Charles Darwin, quotes Michelangelo, and reflects back on one of his predecessors, Ed Hall, who in 1956 “called for Western to become the greatest university in Canada.”
Proceeding beyond pro forma remarks about “educating future citizens and leaders,” according to the new President, “we also have a responsibility to seek solutions for complex challenges facing our society.” The world, he asserted, has not only changed since Ed Hall’s time, the “pace of change has accelerated” and, as such, Western needs to keep changing also. “This year,” he remarked, “we celebrate the 200th birthday of Darwin. In capturing his thoughts, it is said that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
Over the past six years, good to his word, the President has ‘evolved’ our university. The stepping stones laid out for its 'survival’ have been much discussed so there’s no need for me to critique them here but, to again look back at his 2009 speech, his reference to us having “the courage to review our curriculum to ensure that we can meet the needs of our future citizens” is particularly salient. Inspired by “the strength of the human spirit,” Western, he said, has the potential to produce the leaders of tomorrow – leaders, I take it, in solving problems facing the 'real world’ rather than those who merely question 'real world’ conditions. (Why, after all, should we invest our limited resources into investigations that lack an obvious pay off?)
Let us assume for a moment that this makes good sense. Let us, for the sake of this brief reflexive exercise, temporarily suspend the postulate that there’s a political agenda informing Chakma’s effort to adapt UWO for the sake of its (and future citizens’) survival. All that aside, what strikes me as remarkable in this introductory speech and in light of subsequent years of enforced change (er, sorry, I meant 'leadership’) is the hollowness of it all – its intellectual and ethical emptiness and, more damningly, the treachery it constitutes to the academy itself.
Here, I know I’m idealizing what the university should be or might be. It, I think, should be or one day might be an institution that has almost nothing to do with meeting government and corporate pressures to yield readily measurable results. The academy and its ivory tower, I submit, should be and, indeed, must be removed from the 'real world’ that the Chakma regime insists we must adapt to.
“In the long run,” Nietzsche reminds us, “utility…is simply a figment of our imagination and may well be the fatal stupidity by which we shall one day perish.”
What Chakma, our Provost, and many of our senior administrators (not to mention members of the Board) seem unable to understand is that their project and way of thinking is the very embodiment of the university’s own negation. For what is it that we do that is of value? Most fundamentally, and unlike almost every other institution, it is that we do almost nothing that can be readily valued, at least not in the quantifiable ways that most take to constitute 'reality.’
We are (or at least many of us are) in the privileged and important position of asking questions about the truth rather than merely working to reproduce the structures and relations underlying the predominant truth. Tangible outcomes, including a factory-like production of young people with attractive CVs, are not what we are here for. Adding these up (adding up Tri-Council grants, articles in 'impact journals’, the number of graduate degrees awarded every year, etc.), like counting grains of sand on a beach, is an absurdity in the absence of some awareness of how such activities might or might not ameliorate life and our knowledge it. To pursue mechanistic goals in the guise of some sort of 'courageous’ project is itself antithetical to the far more complex realities that our leaders can’t or don’t care to comprehend. The scholar’s defeat, Julien Benda reminds us, “begins from the very moment when he claims to be practical.”
As a political economist I’m well aware that the university needs money and must respond to the demands of those who have it, but our response must not constitutively legitimize their interests through how the university’s budget is spent and thus its educational and research priorities. With the ascendancy of professional administrators and the decline of secure faculty with the capacity to check the corporatization and bureaucratization of the university, not only have we lost our way, the Chakma administration has aggressively 'led’ us into this anti-intellectual morass.
Compelling UWO to become a great university by evolving it in ways that in fact undermine its capacity to be a university is not a vision; it’s a narrow-minded business plan. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The vacuity of our current administration’s thinking was signaled at the start of Amit Chakma’s appointment and we have been living (and dying) with it ever since. Near the end of his first term, as most will recall, the President and Provost met with campus faculties to “consult” about their new strategic plan. In my faculty – the Faculty of Information and Media Studies – the President opened this meeting with some predictable remarks but, in making these, startled us when he bluntly stated that “I don’t know what you do.” Today, sadly, I am convinced he never will.
Professor, Information and Media Studies