When I moved west with a 22-month contract in my pocket in July 1997, I was determined to make myself by the end of that time mayor of the city of Lethbridge. I soon discovered that the burghers of southern Alberta had little interest in being led by a young English professor, but I found that there were other ways to help make myself indispensable to the university community: I threw myself into university service. I became faculty adviser to the department’s literary journal; I helped organize poetry readings; I even stepped forward to maintain the English department website, though I knew little about the Internet.
Then, as now, this was viewed as busywork – useless distraction for a young scholar, who should have concentrated on publishing. I soon realized that a pleasant colleague, even one who did all the chores no one else wanted to do, could be passed over in favour of a better teacher or researcher. I never really believed that we should be able to volunteer our way to tenure.
On the other hand, the dangers of embracing service have provided lessons to generations of colleagues who now lack all interest in self-governance. Instead we rely increasingly on non-academics whose input defines the identities of our postsecondary institutions. We are who they reveal us to be.
I do not wish to be misinterpreted: loyal staff and a skilled bureaucracy are essential to our well-being as academics. But individuals in these roles must work with us, not instead of us. In my administrative post, I have learned much from communications specialists who know how to reach out to our stakeholders. Indeed, I have no interest in resuming my old job, displacing a web team that can make my computer sing. And, just as I dread looking at my own investments, why would I think that I could manage an endowment?
But by suggesting that everything outside the classroom or the laboratory is a distraction to us, the professoriate has relinquished its voice to the people who speak for us. Rather than embodying our values, they have, largely from necessity, begun determining them, as well. I have too often heard that something that is pedagogically sound cannot be implemented because the bureaucracy is unable to accommodate it. I have even heard it whispered that curricular adjustments should better complement existing processes; if only we wanted to change a certain major, how much easier it would be to promote it.
Ultimately, these internal workings shape the public face of our colleges and universities, but the character of each institution can only ever be the sum of its faculty and their work. The best experience I ever had with a marketing professional was with a genuinely curious woman who took the time to get to know faculty members and understand their research so that she could explain to prospective students and their parents why we do what we do. Her endeavor was in spite of the input of colleagues who believe that we have no business lowering ourselves to undertake promotion. Is there any wonder that we suffer from sending out alone, to represent us, staff members who have never seen postsecondary education from both ends of the lecture theatre?
A colleague once told me about a presentation he gave in a small town in the cradle of the old Reform Party. He was asked to explain how “liberal education” had nothing to do with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy. No one can convince me that anyone but us should address such a question, providing an answer that might alter, for a decade or more, the postsecondary choices of every high school graduate in that catchment area.
The new strategic plan for our institution commits us again to “community engagement,” and when speaking to my colleagues on the subject I have encouraged them to see this as a renewed call to service.
During the question period following a speech delivered by the provost of a major Canadian research institution, I rose to ask him what role he saw for rank-and-file faculty members in mentoring students, promoting our institutions and participating in recruitment. “Nothing,” he said, without hesitation. “Leave it to the pros.”
Funny. You see, I thought we were the professionals.
Craig Monk is associate dean of arts and science and associate professor of English at the University of Lethbridge.