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Canadian universities shifting to top-down, corporate governance are reading from the same playbook

Image: brocku.ca

On June 28, 2013, the then-president of Brock University, Jack Lightstone, posted an open letter online and via email to the Brock community titled "The Need for a Program Review."

In this letter, President Lightstone dictated that Brock was to undergo a "Program Prioritization Process" (PPP), similar to the one completed at Guelph University, University of Regina, York University, Wilfrid Laurier University and attempted at University of Saskatchewan.

Like these other administrations, Brock University claimed the PPP was an evidence-based approach to university financial management that implements rigorous methods of quantification in order to enact necessary "resource reallocation."

In reality, PPPs are campus-side austerity measures, designed to usurp any democratic form of collegial governance.  

Although PPPs can take on many names, such as University of Saskatchewan's tacky euphemism "TransformUS" or Brock's more practical "Program Review," they are all derived from the same core tactics.

These tactics are primarily composed of the establishment of a president-appointed "task-force," which is graced with autonomous authority over the entire PPP project. It is thus left to this task-force to define what an academic program is (ranging from specific courses to parking); establishing "appropriate" criteria of measurement, which consists mostly of economic "inputs" and "outputs"; the campus-wide collection of data on all the previously defined programs; and finally the ranking of each program into certain hierarchical categories based on task-force-defined measurement values.

Given that the task-force is graced with supreme power over the PPP, it makes sense that what followed the initial letter at Brock University was a year-long battle between a group of tenacious senate members and aggressive, albeit negligent, administrators over the right to democratically elect members of the PPP's task-force.

Extensively outlined by Professor Larry Savage here, a group of senate-elected BUFA members were able to organize and successfully challenge Brock administration's claim of sovereignty regarding the appointing of task-force members within the governing body of the Senate. Savage notes that although an ideal response would be the outright elimination of the PPP, what occurred at Brock was nevertheless a small success and an important one for the development of future strategies of resistance.  

Other Canadian Universities that have undergone PPP policies, including Guelph University and the University of Saskatchewan, also provide useful insight into resisting PPPs. At Guelph, administrators were able to complete their PPP implementation in relative obscurity, so that only after it was finished did campus organizers begin to respond. Unlike Guelph however, the University of Saskatchewan was not able to keep its PPP implementation secret, and fell victim to a scandal that revealed the true draconian nature of the PPP policy, which inevitably ended with the entire program being scraped.  

All the cases mentioned here emphasize that resistance to the PPP process is dependent upon generating pressure through grassroots organization as well as through on-campus governance. By doing this, both Brock and U of S were able to take advantage of crucial administrative missteps resulting in the slowdown and even outright destruction of key PPP functions.  

The go-to handbook for PPPs radical restructuring of university governance is a dryly titled book by Robert C. Dickeson, Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance.

Dickeson's book was cited by both Brock University and the University Of Saskatchewan as a basic how-to guide for implementing PPP policies. Ironically enough, this means that his book also acts  as a handy tool for understanding common PPP policies -- and how to resist them.

Here are five lessons Dickeson's book offers activists:

1. Emphasize that the PPP movement is a radical movement

Like most administrative technocrats, Dickeson uses casual, interpersonal language to present a radical transformation of campus governance. It is therefore important for campus organizers to make clear that any implementation of PPP is in fact a top-down restructuring of campus governance that will replace any current form of democratic participation with quantification.

It is crucial for activists to go to town hall meetings, call hotlines, write letters to the provost and publish in campus newspapers to make clear that PPP policy is a radical political realignment rather than a policy based in natural cause and effect.

2. Make it known that students are the largest political group on campus and have the most to lose.

Most forms of student governance breed cynicism and this is exactly what Dickeson and other PPP pushers depend on. Even at Guelph University where it was kept relatively secret from students, administration did arrange general town hall meetings as possible outlets for student participation. The key is that students need to seize these opportunities for dialogue and generating momentum, because the PPP is dependent on keeping the largest body of the campus community -- the students -- dormant and out of the conversation.

3. Demand evidence of past successes and other claims made by PPP pushers.

Do not allow administrators or their supporters to use first-hand experiences as credible evidence. Dickeson does this throughout his whole book, where citations are rare and the most crucial arguments are usually supported by personal anecdotes or even hearsay without names of actual universities. This style of argument furthers the technocrat's agenda of positioning themselves as experienced professionals, while also preventing any possible follow-up or research on their claims.

4. Use accreditation and interdisciplinary programs to build solidarity across departments.

Dickeson despises complexity. One of his most recurring critiques of universities, is their endless entanglement of networks and relationships. This makes sense given that in order to quantify programs you need to be able to clearly distinguish between them, and in order to cut programs with minimal consequences it is best to have fewer stakeholders invested in them. Therefore the more students and professors are invested in a program the less likely it is to be cut and the more complex the data will be.

5. Resist falling into the trap of using the language of the market.

Dickeson depicts students as consumers, whose only rights are to voice the demands of the market. If this role is blindly accepted, then universities are destined to become nests of superficial programs and flashy gimmicks. It is one of the reasons why PPPs are meant to be part of an ongoing cycle, so that programs and goals can be constantly redefined according to the latest demands of the almighty market.

Luke Kalfleish is a PHD candidate in the department of Psychology at the University of West Georgia, where he spends his time thinking about critical psychology, psycho-linguistics and Spinoza. Luke was also a student at Brock University during the time of its now-infamous program review.  

An earlier version of this article identified the wrong group responsible for leading the fightback against PPP at Brock University. This error has been corrected.

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Image: brocku.ca

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