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Whistler to get the university it deserves

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At some point today, Whistler village council will receive a proposal for a private post-secondary institution to be built near 2010's old Olympic Village. The for-profit Whistler U would accept 1500 students and include a private high school on the premises.

Cynics who think that the chances of receiving a decent education in the Disneyfied aesthetic of B.C.'s most churlish resort town are slim will scarcely be reassured by the way project leader Doug Player described his motivations for the project.

"Whistler needs an economic boost and it needs to diversify its economy," Player said on CBC's Early Edition this morning. "It's a clean industry that fits the brand very, very well." In case you missed it, that "it" refers to the university itself. A brand-friendly clean industry and economic diversifier. Yes, he's talking about education.

With our appetites duly whetted, Player continues: "the intent is to offer programs which support the industry here, which would include tourism [and] sustainability studies, because that's a brand Whistler has created very well." Er, sustainability is not a brand, Doug. It's science.

Other clean industries (i.e. courses) offered by Whistler U include culinary arts, a leadership centre for executives (!) and, which in-no-way sounds like an afterthought, "some First Nation studies as well." Way to cover your bases, Doug!

I wish I could say that Player probably doesn't realize that he sounds like he's simply building a tourism worker factory rather than an institution invested in the intellectual commonwealth of its local citizens, but that doesn't appear to be the case. After "diversifying the economy," the "vision" of Whistler U includes "[adding] to [Whistler's] workforce without putting additional pressure on employee housing." Inspirational indeed.

It's not that I don't think Whistler should have a university. On the contrary: residents of Sea-to-Sky country deserve the opportunity to pursue higher learning closer to home in an institution which reflects their distinct interests. However, that includes a robust arts and science curriculum not wedded to industries as exploitative as the tourist industry (hopefully Whistler U will include a course on the ethical treatment of animals). "We're not entering into that kind of program," Player unfortunately assures us.

It's tempting to say that Whistler is getting the university it deserves, but that would unfairly target residents who don't fit the idle rich or retiree caricature normally associated with Whistler. Local non-resort towns like Pemberton or Lillooet would doubtless benefit from a public university, as would workers in the largely underfunded service industry who remain unable to find affordable housing or secure living wages. And Whistler itself would benefit from the influx of students, staff and faculty a university would invite.

But Whistler U is looking for a much different sort of prospective student. Part of Player's business plan is to target international recruits, which sadly is in line with most public institutions' strategy of raising money on the backs of foreign students who find themselves increasingly marginalized and under-supported in the schools they fund.

If I've got this straight, a town usually criticized for being home to rich tourists wants to build a university which attracts rich tourists to train them to become leaders in the tourist industry, eschewing a humanities and science education for vague appeals to sustainability -- and (time permitting) the odd course on Aboriginal history. As long as I can take the Peak-to-Peak Gondola to class, I'm in.

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