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Alberta's new premier is committed to post-secondary education

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It has now been more than a month since Albertans elected Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party (NDP) Alberta's new premier.

Albertans elected Ms. Notley to the premier's office despite the efforts of the current chair of the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta, who held a press conference with four other Edmonton businessmen on May 1 to urge Albertans not to vote for the NDP.

Mr. Goss subsequently issued a brief statement claiming that the views that he had expressed in the press conference were "personal" and had nothing to do with his role as chair of the university's board of governors. He is certainly right to claim that he is free to express his political views to whomever he pleases. We all are. And if the media want to treat him and his corporate colleagues as if their views matter more than that of other Albertans that is the media's choice.

But how unfortunate that Mr. Goss should use his freedom of expression to inform Albertans that those who do not think as he does, as a member of the Progressive Conservative party, needed someone to make sure they were "thinking straight" before election day. Such a statement is not in keeping with the ethos of an educational institution. Faculty in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta, for example, don't teach students what to think. We teach them how to think for themselves.

The Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA) has issued two letters objecting to Mr. Goss's conduct. The first letter, issued on May 4, the day before the election, deplores Mr. Goss's inability to "maintain a non-partisan leadership stance" and declares the Association's commitment to working with any government elected by Albertans. In the second, issued on May 8, the President of the Association declares his non-confidence in Mr. Goss and asks Premier-Elect Notley to rescind his appointment as Board chair immediately. After a Friday meeting of the Board of Governors, Mr. Goss spoke to the CBC about his intention to remain on as chair of the Board. (The CBC's "raw" footage of that is here.) In the interview, Mr. Goss declares that the University of Alberta will find a way to "move forward" with the new government.

In all of this brouhaha the most pressing point is being missed. The point is that Albertans have elected as their new government a premier and a caucus committed (amongst other things) to the importance of post-secondary education in Alberta. The government that Mr. Goss didn't want elected should now move as quickly as possible to undo the damage that the party Mr. Goss supports has done to post-secondary education in Alberta during Mr. Goss's tenure as chair of the university's board of governors.

Let's be clear: as a result of the Progressive Conservatives' budget of March 2013, the University of Alberta has gone without millions of dollars towards its budgets for 2013-14 and 2014-15, a situation that continues for 2015-16. The Faculty of Arts alone, after already enduring several years of cuts, has been informed it must cut another $1.5 million from its budget for 2015-16. Cut from what? The Faculty of Arts has already lost dozens of faculty members under a "voluntary" severance program last year, and so-called "efficiencies" to administrative support had already been achieved in a restructuring of the Faculty's administrative services in 2011-12. Almost all of what has gone on will be largely invisible to the public, but the simple fact of the matter is this: as a result of the Progressive Conservatives' approach to the funding of post-secondary education and academic research in Alberta the university has suffered irremediable losses as faculty members were told to "do more with less" even as our numbers have been diminished. And then there are the impacts upon our students and our administrative staff. . . . 

But extraordinarily Albertans have voted out of government the party that had been in power for over 40 years and elected instead a government that has the power to change this state of affairs. Mr. Goss and his business colleagues may have dismissed the NDP as "amateurs" who don't deserve to govern but the NDP leader grasps a social truth that the budgetary choices made by the Progressive Conservatives suggest they do not: our public institutions and the public interest matter. (I have heard her speak on these matters more than once.) She also understands that amongst our public institutions Alberta's research universities play a unique role. They are drivers of social and economic prosperity not just for a few, but for all.

I know that we can expect radical change from the NDP because in the spring of 2013 the NDP team in the legislative offices helped the Coalition for Action on Postsecondary Education (CAPSE) formally table hundreds of messages written by University of Alberta students protesting the PC's cuts to post-secondary education. The NDP helped those students enter the historical record, and those students and their parents and sundry other Albertans have turned around and made another kind of history by electing the NDP to a majority government for the next four years.

The talk that we have heard over the last few years about our supposed need to "free" the University from "dependence on government" must now end. We should never have needed to be "freed" from "dependence on government." We should always have had a government in power that believes in the importance of post-secondary education and academic research. We need such a government precisely because our public institutions must remain public in every sense of the word.

What we have seen at the University of Alberta, instead, of late: a willingness to alter the ratio of funding received from the government versus the ratio received from private and corporate donors. (I have written about this in earlier posts.) Up until just a few years ago, the University of Alberta had the highest percentage of funding from the government of any university in North America. This should have been a point of pride for the University and the government of Alberta. What a marketing gift, amongst other things! University administrations are always looking for something to define the "brand," and this University already had what truly distinguished it from other public universities in Canada and the United States: with the highest percentage of support from any government in any jurisdiction in North America, the University of Alberta was properly speaking the most public of North American universities.

But in the face of the blow to Alberta's post-secondary institutions that the PC government delivered with its budget of March 2013 the ratio has changed. As government gives us less, the funds received from private donors and corporations are proportionally greater, and it is funds from private donors and corporations that the university’s new "Advancement" office, under an annual budget of millions of dollars for its activities, has been pursuing.

Why does it matter if the university spends money to obtain money from private donors and corporations? Well, the province got a good taste of why it matters when Mr. Goss and four business colleagues sat down in what the Edmonton Journal called a "highly unusual press conference" in which they "pilloried" Rachel Notley and the NDP's policies in their attempt to tell Albertans what to think and how to vote ("Businessmen attack NDP 'amateur' policies").

According to the Edmonton Sun, one of these businessmen went so far as to suggest that if an NDP government were elected corporations' charitable support for public institutions such as the Stollery Children's Hospital would be withdrawn. Our public institutions must not be dependent on the resources of the wealthy. All of the research at Alberta's public universities must be entirely free from corporate interests precisely so that Albertans in general are free to think as they will, and free to do so through those academics that it funds to do research on their behalf. We live in a democracy, not an oligarchy, and the teaching and research at our public post-secondary institutions must be autonomous. This necessary academic autonomy can only be achieved with the strongest possible support from the public purse.

It is sadly far too late for Alberta to recover from the losses imposed by the cuts executed by Ralph Klein during his term as premier in the 1990s. A generation of Albertans has already suffered from the decisions of Klein's government, and everything that the province might have achieved in relation to social and technological progress and economic diversification across the subsequent two decades is forever lost. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to take any empirical measure of what does not exist.

Alberta can, however, recover from the devastation wreaked by what the PC finance minister Doug Horner called, in 2013, a "once in a generation" budget. In that "once in a generation" budget a generation was dealt an immense blow, with cuts of $147 million to post-secondary education in Alberta -- cuts of a magnitude not seen in Alberta since the Great Depression. But Albertans have now voted for radical change to how the province is run, and that radical change must involve a restoration of the funding cut from the budget for post-secondary education in 2013, with its cascading effects. The NDP's restoration of the cut funds will permit the current generation of Alberta faculty and students to create, participate in, and learn from the publicly funded research that will help shape a new, and newly democratic, Alberta.

Oh, and as for the charge that the NDP are "amateurs": let's remember that the premise of democracy is that we are all equally capable of governing. On this point turn to Aristotle's Politics, or Jacques Rancière’s 2006 book Hatred of Democracy, or myriad political theorists in between. I, for one, am really proud not only that Rachel Notley is an alumna of the University of Alberta's Political Science department but also that one of my own former students has been elected as an MLA. 

Speaking of democracy: let us have the Association of Academic Staff and faculty associations across Alberta work with the NDP government to arrange for membership to university boards that properly reflects the ethnic, economic, cultural, and political diversity of Albertans. Has the University of Alberta's board, for example, ever had a member from one of the province's Aboriginal communities? Why not? Why aren't we requiring representation from our various communities? Let's have boards that truly represent Albertans, and not merely the interests of corporations, or any one party.

 

This article originally appeared on Carolyn's blog, Arts Squared. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image: Flickr/Connor Mah

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