November 12th, 2009
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. So says a character in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Okay, maybe not all of them. Maybe not the ones who are helping our universities muddle though campus complaints and the growing culture of accusations and counter charges. More to this point coming up….
I just returned from the annual Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) conference in Halifax. Deans and administrative staff and graduate students involved in graduate studies gather together annually in some Canadian city to discuss relevant matters, socialize, and network. No matter how good the sessions, the best parts of these events are always the socializing/networking opportunities, where with a glass of decent plonk in hand we get to catch up with colleagues, compare campus notes, and welcome the doe-eyed newbies.
This year was deemed on balance to be a highly successful conference. I wasn’t able to attend last year, but I am still hearing complaints about the Edmonton venue, the quality of the sessions, and so on. This year the conference hotel was located right down by the waterfront on the renovated historic properties section of Halifax, impressing the U.S. visitors muchly. It even snowed one morning, shocking the cowboy boots right off the observers from Huston, Texas. I could have done without the flurries myself, but if it’s good for tourism, sure, I can put up with some white stuff for a day or two.
The best sessions are those that appeal to universal problems and challenges, naturally, not just to, say, the concerns of the province of Alberta or Quebec. A particularly lively plenary focused on recent court decisions following from appeals, usually by graduate students and usually about some perceived or real slight, violation of due process, or unfair practice. A very articulate and well organized Diane Kelly, Legal Counsel at Queen’s University, offered some fascinating summaries of recent case studies, all sobering examples of what can happen when bad things happen to good people—and vice versa. Kelly is one of those lawyers I’d like to keep, not kill.
Deans, staff, and students –we are all in one way or another familiar with the cases she raised, in duplicate or in variation, and the more assistance we can get about how best to deal with them, resolve them, and avoid escalation of these situations the better we will be. None of us is really trained to deal with what often turn out to be densely litigious matters. We are often learning on the fly, full of good intentions but often not equipped with much more than a wing and a prayer. It occurred to me we might someday evolve a nation-wide panel of investigators, through CAGS, to look into the most serious allegations on some of our campus, especially those involving misconduct or fraud or discrimination. On the one hand, I hope it won’t come to that; on the other, I worry about our increasing incapacity to be arm’s length enough to deal with these problems on our own campuses. The model would be the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which has its own procedures for investigating campus-based matters, where and when necessary.
One recurring observation of this plenary is that the courts in Canada tend to refer many cases back to the campus institutions. When the charges are deemed to be of an academic nature, and rely on the judgment of scholars and the determinations of experts in the fields, then the courts don’t want anything to do with them. Before hiring a lawyer, complainants should heed this precedent and save their time and money. I argued in Halifax for a nation-wide database or web resource age we could all search to find out just what these precedents say. I could probably get by with a little help from my friends across the country, if only I knew what they were all doing.
The legal session was probably the one that appealed to everyone at once. But I often wondered what our graduate students in attendance were thinking about so many of the discussions that really didn’t involve them directly, discussions about provincial quality assurance (yawn) or the tri-agency updates (zzzzzz). Notable, too, was the relatively small number of grad students in attendance. I am proud to boast that Memorial always fully funds at least one student for a CAGS conference, but may other schools don’t, which is a shame, and I would say even a sign of neglect. I recall CAGS conferences where the students comprised about a third of those in attendance. Not these days. Is it expense? Shrinking travel budgets? Indifference? Next year I will be encouraging more graduate student participation. Students, as always, keep us on our toes, and help to focus the agenda on what really matters.
Next year’s meetings are in Toronto, which generally means higher participation across the board. It’s costly to fly anywhere in this country, but until prices are really prohibitive we don’t want every conference to be held in Toronto—just some of the time, thank you very much. I do admit I am looking forward to hearing those Texans accounts of riding up to the top of the CN Tower.