On Thursday, a steady stream of students and academics presented to the Law Amendments Committee on the ways in which Bill 100 would strip them of constitutional rights while undermining academic freedom and the integrity of universities.
Bill 100 would allow university administrators anticipating financial difficulties to trigger a ‘revitalization period’.
Presenting to the committee, Dalhousie Professor of Philosophy and Bioethics Francoise Baylis said that under this revitalization period, the university would lose its status as a place of free academic inquiry and would instead become “a shill for industry”.
As Baylis pointed out, the relationship between universities and industry is already in evidence. Dalhousie, for example, recently announced a $600,000 ‘gift’ from Shell, and a $300,000 donation from mining company Goldcorp; the Shell agreement allowed the corporation branding rights on classrooms and equipment, supervision of students on field trips and final approval on extra-curricular student research projects.
If that’s already happening, said Baylis, imagine how much worse things could be if Bill 100 passes.
The Bill includes several clauses that many of those speaking before the Committee, including Baylis herself, identified as problematic.
These would have the university, through its revitalization plan, align its goals with the social and economic priorities of the government; turn “research into business opportunities”; demonstrate “excellent collaboration with industry”; and foster the “skilled, entrepreneurial and innovative workforce” required for economic development.
Bill 100 Won’t Work
But not only do these clauses compromise academic freedom; they won’t work to promote valuable research, innovation and economic development, says Matthew Herder, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Law at Dalhousie.
Herder would know; he’s currently Principal Investigator in a study on the impact of university-industry relationships, and has written reports for the OECD on the topic.
While the benefits of research may not be immediately apparent, that research can nonetheless be extremely valuable, he said, pointing to examples such as a surgical checklist developed at Johns Hopkins university – a checklist that has saved as many as 15,000 lives and $1 billion in treatment costs, but would have been impossible to monetize.
What’s more, he said, the success of industry in refining innovations is dependent on publicly funded breakthroughs carried out by academic researchers free to work on their own interests.
Bill 100 Overly Friendly with Industry
After presenting his statement, Herder was questioned by members of the Committee. Andrew Younger suggested to Herder that the language in the Bill would allow for the kind of research Herder had identified.
But when I spoke with Herder afterwards, he said that what’s doable and what’s desirable in the context of the legislation – as well as the overall current climate for university research – are two very different things.
No matter how friendly language might be to other goals for research – and Herder thinks that Younger is wrong to say the language in Bill 100 is actually friendly in this way – there’s always a risk that industry interests will dominate.
“There has been a huge push towards [what] we can measure is what counts, and of course when you’re talking about knowledge that [measurement] is really artificial… I think there’s a real risk that this could lead to bean counting that has no relationship with actual impact, social, economic and otherwise.”
Law Amendments Committee Disappointing
Speaking after the Committee, Baylis said that the experience had been disappointing.
“What you saw happen [at the Committee] is the antithesis of what should happen in a learning environment… the government just steamrollered over any kind of attempt to meaningfully engage with the Bill,” she told me, noting that the Committee members had made no attempt to engage substantively with the argument she and others had been making or propose amendments that would assuage their anxieties.
“[Their] response suggests to me that they don’t actually want to draw those kinds of clear distinctions.”
Younger also said that the government doesn’t expect the revitalization period to ever come into effect. But even if that’s the case – which at any rate casts doubt on the utility of the legislation – Baylis said it sends a signal to university administrators about what the government wants to see even before a revitalization period is necessary.
“It’s the orientation that you are legitimizing,… [administrators] can pre-empt the problem using exactly the tools that government has told them to use.”
Baylis is a philosopher. Her research is not readily made into a business opportunity without compromising her integrity as an academic, and her job is to foster critical thinking among her students, she said. Both Bill 100 and the government’s response to criticisms show the government’s ignorance, unintentional or otherwise, of this role for the university.
“[Bill 100] is not about education, it’s about economics.”
“Younger also said that the government doesn’t expect the revitalization period to ever come into effect”
Right, until the next funding crisis about a year from now when the next budget comes out.
If I were the Czar of all the Russias or just the Dean of all the Universities I would mutter about “core competencies”, grumble about “trimming the fat”, and take a chainsaw to the sports programs. And the business schools while we’re at it.
The exploding heads would be just an unfortunate externality.