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It’s never just academic

A personal tribute to James Downey

His recent death reminded me of the crucial role that The Consenting University and the Dissenting Academy: Binary Friction played in my academic and intellectual journey. This is a tribute to a man I never met and to a paper he wrote.

BY ALEXANDRE BEAUPRÉ-LAVALLÉE | MAY 04 2022

James Downey passed away on March 23. Who was James Downey, and why was he so important that his death is interrupting my series on academic freedom and the pandemic?

James Downey changed my life, and I want to thank him and pay tribute to him.

Have you ever read a work that changed your life? Or, to be a little less dramatic, strongly influenced your career path? If you’re reading this column, you’re probably in academia and can name that work in less than a second. I can too.

In 2007, I was a young student, completing a master’s of educational administration program, and I had decided that, come what may, my dissertation would be about university governance. Fresh from a term as full-time vice-president for academic affairs in a student union, I was obviously going to take a critical perspective on university relations. In this case, “critical” was going to mean a thorough denunciation of the transfer of power from the community to the evil administration under the yoke of managerialism and New Public Management. It might sound cartoonish, but I was dead serious.

There was no shortage of literature to back me up. I poured over the works of Robert Birnbaum, Burton Clark, Glen A. Jones, Henry Mintzberg, and others. That was the basis. Two books had a particular influence on me: Politics of Collegiality by Cynthia Hardy (1996), and the report of the Commission on University Government, better known as the Duff/Berdahl Report (summarized in the April 1966 issue of University Affairs). I encourage you to read them as they both still have great value, the first scientific and the second historical.

Interestingly, the Commission in question was a joint one comprising the predecessor of Universities Canada, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Can you imagine?

Then came the day that changed my intellectual, academic and professional paths forever.

I came across The Consenting University and the Dissenting Academy: Binary Friction, by James Downey (2003). It isn’t a peer-reviewed journal article, but a paper presented at a conference. Yet he presents the university with a passion mixed with a sometimes disturbing realism. It was the first somewhat serious text I had read that suggested another way of looking at universities.

Rejecting traditional, somewhat utopian definitions and their oddly polarized modern offshoots, Dr. Downey reframes the institution as a trinity of corporation, college and community.

The corporation is an impersonal legal entity that must comply with legislative and financial requirements and needs administrative levers to act because it cannot afford to function as a consensual community. To top it off, he concludes his definition of the corporation by noting that the corporation has no colleagues but only managers, employees and customers. Ouch. Exactly the managerial approach that was (and still is) denounced.

But then the paper asserts that the university is at the same time a college, echoing the conventional definition of it as a complex network of traditions, relationships and structures that empower faculty to control and direct the institution’s teaching. At the time, that gave me a bit of a boost: I was finally in familiar territory.

Dr. Downey concludes these definitions by clarifying what he means by “community”: it is, in his view, the most appropriate term to capture the fact that no social institution comes closer to being a complete community than a university. This completeness includes not only the organization of services and missions, but also human diversity in all its forms. The paper emphasizes the inherently bubbling nature of the culture of such a community and, more importantly, how this bubbling culture is an intrinsic part of the academic institution.

According to Dr. Downey, these three components are not mutually exclusive; you cannot even choose to ignore the existence of one in favour of another. They are integral parts of the academic institution, and…

That’s not a bad thing. Or, at least, there are benefits and opportunities for development.

It was that last part that knocked me for a loop. So it’s possible, first, to accept the co-existence of perspectives that the rest of the institution often sees as sworn enemies and, second, to take advantage of that co-existence for the benefit of all?

Wow.

All this didn’t detract from the authors I had already read. Not at all. Dr. Downey’s words simply opened my mind to other ways of looking at the university, to seeing it as something other than a place where power games are played, or through lenses other than those of cynicism or confrontation. Not that power doesn’t exist, or that conflicts aren’t legitimate, or that cynicism isn’t sometimes appropriate.

But on that day in 2007, I understood that there was far more to it and that the institution was much more complex than we sometimes imagine. If my thinking has evolved since then, it’s still thanks to this paper and the work of its author.

I have a bucket list, and “meet and talk with James Downey” was still on it until I learned on March 29 of his passing.

Dr. Downey, I raise my glass to you: thank you for that paper. And for everything else.

Postscript

While I was writing this column, the Quebec government tabled Bill 32 in the National Assembly, which could lead to the adoption of an “Act respecting academic freedom in the university sector.” I swear I’m trying to talk about something else, but current events aren’t helping.

Nevertheless, let me make one last attempt. The faculty of education at Université de Montréal has just created the first francophone training program entirely dedicated to higher education. The Specialized Graduate Diploma in Higher Education has two concentrations, one in teaching and the other in administration. Is that exciting? Yes. Am I using my column to advertise it? Absolutely.

ABOUT ALEXANDRE BEAUPRÉ-LAVALLÉE
Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée
Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée is an assistant professor in higher education administration at the Université de Montréal's faculty of education and a regular researcher at the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l'enseignement supérieur.
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  1. Greg Doran / May 5, 2022 at 08:08

    Dear Alexandre,
    Thank you for the column. I had the good fortune to meet Jim socially, and it changed the course of my life, putting me on a path to my career. Based on our meeting, I applied to and attended UNB for grad school. Jim was just finishing his term as president. Moreover, he was a professor in the English Department. I graduated from UNB with my MA and PhD in English. I am currently a full professor and the Chair of English at UPEI. Recently, I was thinking about Jim, so I was saddened to hear of his passing. Thank you for sharing your kind words about Jim.

    Sincerely,

    Greg

  2. John Goyder / May 5, 2022 at 10:46

    I was a faculty member at the University of Waterloo during the years that James Downey was president there. He was a decent, able, humane man who brought honour to the university, and I am sorry to see him gone although I believe he was in ill-health recently.

  3. Dr. Chris McGrath / May 13, 2022 at 18:43

    Hearing of Dr. Downey’s death saddened me. Thank you for this tribute. I remember his words of advice when I was a new undergrad at Waterloo, where he thanked us as new students for “showing up.” He then went on to share the importance of ‘showing up’ in our academic and professional careers — and now 30 years later, I still hear his voice in my memory reminding me of the same. I had the privilege of interacting with Dr. Downey during my time as a student leader, and I remember him then thanking me for ‘showing up’. As a senior post-secondary administrator, I am keenly aware not only of the importance for students to ‘show up’, but also for educators and leaders to do the same. His two words were among the most impactful of my entire educational career.