I welcome the new year with excitement over all the plans we have in the School of Graduate Studies…
January 4th, 2013

I welcome the new year with excitement over all the plans we have in the School of Graduate Studies, but also with some trepidation over the latest trend in university planning—or should I say prioritizing? Now there’s a word I’d cheerfully chuck into the dustbin of history.

Like the strain of flu in circulation right now, talk about the cost effectiveness of university programs emanates from southern Ontario–in particular, from the University of Guelph. Known on that campus as the PPP (Program Prioritization Process…would I make that up?), the idea is to review every program on campus, academic and otherwise, to determine which are the “mission-critical” ones—and which are not. Motivation for this approach can be found in phrases like “era of scarce resources and significant financial difficulties.” I don’t doubt that Guelph is facing some serious financial challenges or that the crowded competitive market in Ontario is a particularly vexed environment for university funding, but I do worry about the direction this has all taken. To date, three other universities have taken up the PPP approach, Regina, Laurie and Vancouver Island. That’s only four of 92 Canadian institutions, and so too early to call it a trend, but it definitely has the whiff of one.

Among other objections, a major one at Guelph is aimed at the blending of academic and non-academic programs and services. How does one compare, say, the cost effectiveness of parking to a philosophy program? This sounds extreme but the challenge of comparing cars to books is daunting, or should be. Good luck with that. Another understandable fear is that a cost-benefit analysis will lead to the promotion of popular programs at the expense of those with lower enrolments, and so we are talking about humanities and some social sciences programs, of course. Guelph already axed its Women’s Studies program in 2009 and so it’s not afraid to go where no university has yet gone before.

Memorial, like Guelph, has long been identified as a comprehensive university—one that offers programs across almost the entire disciplinary spectrum. We don’t offer law; they don’t do medicine, and so on, but otherwise our university offerings span the traditional range of arts and sciences and the less traditional offerings of professional programs. All comprehensive Canadian universities have been growing their numbers on professional programs, particularly graduate programs. This is a sign of our market-driven times, to be sure. Today the university feels a strong pressure from society and government to justify its costs—that is, to tie programs to employment prospects and opportunities.

We are a very long way from Cardinal Newman’s 1854 monograph on The Idea of a University. That used to be a bible of humanities discourse. It now reads like a dusty tome on the pleasures of studying as an end in itself. One might assign it a sentimental place on a history of ideas course, a course whose own legitimacy might very well be in question after a thorough PPP review.

Newman was writing at a different time, sure. He could never have imagined today’s public system, nor its attendant commitment to educate more than highly privileged men of means with lots of time to contemplate the universe—for its own sweet sake. But it remains very hard for us to abandon Newman’s essential argument about the value of a well-rounded education. Newman abhorred specialization in narrow fields, believing it led to the generation of even more narrow minds. Who can argue with that?

One of the reasons I am following astronaut Chris Hadfield on Twitter as he works in the international space station is that he knows how to humanize the whole mechanical adventure. He takes glorious pictures of us from space and beams them right back to us via social media; he plays guitar and writes songs about the stuff he is doing; he decorates his wee corner of the station with whimsy; he has a sense of humour. Unlike so many of those guys, he emerges as a personality, someone with a broader appreciation of the world beyond all the incredibly mechanical stuff he has to know to conduct experiments in a microgravity environment some 300 miles away from earth. I’d love to talk to him about his undergraduate education, and what informed his appreciation of life, science, and music.  Without it he wouldn’t even be visible to us; he’d be just another nerdy astronaut without anything inspired to say.

My analogy is obvious. We want our universities to have souls. The market is an unreliable measure of what university “mission-critical” is. If we, er, prioritize programs for the market we abandon the educational principles of learning and knowledge Cardinal Newman espoused and that, indeed, we still value. We don’t want our universities to be exclusively nerdy sites of mechanical knowledge.

You can bet we’re all watching Guelph and its imitators as it launches its PPP initiative. That’s a rocket that better return safely and whole.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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