Saturday, February 2, 2008

Canadian "Academostars"

The Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper) ran a long feature in today's edition on the "academostars" in Canadian universities, titled "We Will Rock U". The article describes the rock star-like attention a few academics are garnering and the millions of dollars that Canadian universities are paying out to lure these academostars (and the profits they generate) to their campuses.

The corporate university atmosphere blends nicely with the entrepreneurial approach of most academostars, which is bad for higher education in public interest. Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University teachers says in the article: “Increasingly, the federal government is acting in a manner consistent with the private-sector approach." Turk points to the 2,000 Canada Research Chairs endowed by Ottawa at a cost of $300-million a year to help universities arrest the brain drain of their top academics and attract big names to Canada from the rest of the world: “Only 20 per cent of the chairs are in the social sciences and humanities, even though half of our students study in those areas and half of our faculty teach there.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist who wrote about the academic star system in The Ingenuity Gap—and has now become a (reluctant?) academostar, having recently been poached from his post as George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at U of Toronto to help create Balsillie School of International Affairs at the U of Waterloo (drawing on a $33-million donation from BlackBerry pioneer James Balsillie)—believes the phenomenon is "a reflection of the Americanization of the Canadian academic world. "

But it's not really "Americanization" at all, even though "academostars" started making headlines in The New York Times way back in 1997 and The Minnesota Review famously devoted its 2001 volume to the topic. Rather, as Canadians are sometimes wont to do, they characterize a disagreeable phenomena into an American cultural export when, in fact, it is a global economic trend that just happens to have swept the US prior to moving north of the border.

[Another example of this confusion in education is the test-driven bureaucratic accountability movement in elementary and secondary schools, which transformed US schools into test prep factories as the result of neoliberal thinking applied to education policy. As the testing craze invades the Canada, many people see it as an "American" pheonomenon, rather than a global economic phenomenon. And it's important to note that this same accountability movement is creeping into North American colleges and universities.]

The problem, of course, is that the when academostars (or accountability movements) are misunderstood as mere cultural phenomenon rather than the outcome of the neoliberalism applied to the education sector, critical analyses are likely like to miss the mark.

The complete article from The Globe and Mail can be accessed here.

1 comment:

Claus Emmeche said...

The Globe and Mail had a follow-up to this story by Richard Florida the following week (can be seen here) trying to present a broader notion of an economic role of the universities: "Economic development today turns on three Ts — technology, talent and tolerance — and universities nurture all of them".