Where have all the academics gone?

Writing in today’s Ottawa Citizen, Lawrence Martin observes that Canada’s academic are “missing in action”. That is, almost totally silent on the critical issues facing the country- everything from the “declining state of our parliamentary democracy” to the tepid response to the Federal Government’s muzzling of federal scientists and starvation of key research institutions (for more on this, check out Carol Linnitt’s scathing indictment of the Harper Government’s attack on science).

Martin’s point is a good one. Canada’s professors and intellectuals have been oddly quiet on the scandals plaguing multiple levels of government, or the abuse of evidence and science in Canada today. But for me, the strangest silence has to do with the attacks on the central institution of Canadian academic and intellectual life – the university.

The attacks take many forms. On the one hand, the persistent (and debunked) austerity agenda has seen governments slowly starve universities of needed funds, while at the same time pushing them to grow. On the other, a growing cadre of pundits are questioning the relevance of a university education, claiming that our higher education institutions are out-of-touch, out-of-sync, and out-of-style. Together, these trends are pushing a faddish devotion to empty buzz-phrases like the “skills gap” and an irrational exuberance for untested and half-formed technologies, like massively open online courses (MOOCs).

If allowed to continue unchallenged, under-funding, narrow “job training only” focus, and technological solutionism threaten to undermine the diverse missions of our universities and the many public goods they produce. This is as close to an existential threat that Canada’s universities have ever faced, and yet those who call the universities home – the academics – have yet to challenge these destructive trends. Faculty members are justifiably focused on their research and teaching, and engaged in the life of their disciplines and fields. But unless they can also turn their attention outward to engage with both the critics and the wider society, the universities they love may be stolen out from under them.

It’s time to speak out. The stakes are too high to stay silent.

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