Thirty-six years, but who’s counting.
After 36 years as a faculty member and university administrator, first at the University of Alberta and then at the University of British Columbia, I am retiring. Add to that excessively long time the 10 years I spent as an undergraduate and graduate student at Queen’s and Toronto, and I realize just how programmed my life has been to the rhy-thms and culture of academia.
Every September the world speeds up and comes alive with the arrival of new and returning students. Every May signals a slightly quieter, more reflective time for research and reading (and a little down time). In between are all the patterns that become so familiar – anxious students, lectures that go well and lectures that don’t, brilliant and idealistic students that challenge and students who, it must be said, have no clue why they are in university at all.
Somebody asked what I will miss and what I won’t miss about this alternate universe of university life.
I won’t miss the piles of term papers, where getting one that is really bad is almost as good as getting one that is good – just for the variety. I won’t miss the students whose main goal seems to be to maximize grades rather than learn and, in my time as an administrator, I won’t miss that small percentage of faculty and staff who demand a disproportionate amount of attention.
On the other side, I will miss the contact universities provide with bright, talented and enthusiastic people. Some of our colleagues in academe are exceptional talents and have done amazing things. Most are truly unselfish in their commitment to research and teaching. The students are – sorry if this sounds corny – generally a joy to be around. For one thing, they keep you young.
Indeed, a university campus is sort of like a living version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, except that I am the picture. When I first started teaching I was part of their generation. Each year, however, they seemed to get younger and younger. The only alternative, that I am getting older, is patently unacceptable.
I remember what a shock it was the time a student told me I had taught his mother. It is even more of a shock to know that by the time the current generation of students was born, I already had several years as a professor under my belt. Still, the continual renewal of the campus with the next generation of students is one of the great things about our profession.
Then there is the importance of the university culture itself. There are, it is true, elements that are maddening. Collegial governance and a highly developed sense of autonomy among faculty mean that the system is almost as inefficient as the U.S. Congress (but not quite).
Academic freedom is occasionally used as a defence for entitlement and egregious behaviour. The argument that standards are under threat is employed somewhat like the way McCarthy used communism – as the great bogeyman to stop all rational discourse.
For all that, the culture of the university in Canada is overwhelmingly positive. I have been fortunate to learn and teach at some truly great universities.
It is a testimony to the Canadian system that our country has a wide range of strong universities that are important to our nation. Canadian universities are vital in two ways.
First, unlike in some other parts of the world, the universities provide the heart and soul of research and innovation in Canada, whether cultural, creative or applied.
Second, our universities remain vital to the exchange of controversial ideas and intermediation of clashes of values. Yes, we have occasionally wavered in the face of external pressures or internally to the forces of political correctness but the pendulum does not swing too far before the counter-forces take hold. It is important to ensure that this remains the case.
University funding and university autonomy are always in competition with cries from other public-sector institutions and from demands for accountability. That won’t change in the next decade or the next generation.
Yet for those of us who have spent our lives in this strange, exciting and occasionally frustrating world, it is important to recognize that our world is both privileged and important. If we don’t effectively communicate why it is important we won’t preserve the privilege.
Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian. This is his final column for University Affairs.
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