The Value of the University Is Not Measurable

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 10th April 2012

After more than a year of fierce public opposition to drilling for natural gas in this province, the University of New Brunswick has announced that it is joining the debate. It is touted as a good thing. University faculty members in departments such as geology and chemistry will provide valuable scientific information to give New Brunswickers a greater capacity to judge for themselves whether the costs and benefits of shale gas development are worth the risks. A conference will be hosted sometime in the near future and presumably will also feature faculty from other public universities in New Brunswick.

But should universities – as institutions – be required to take on this role or is this some new quixotry that we see emerging from their cloistered halls? The reality is more prosaic and mundane. Suggestions that public funding should be directly tied to the university’s ability and willingness to undertake efforts at public engagement are an ominous sign that universities are being dragooned into this discussion. But universities have been pushed down this road for some time.

In the culturally and socially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, both right- and left-wing movements began to undermine the meaning of education, at all levels, by burdening the university with the profligate task of engineering technical perfection in all individual and social life. The putative winners of this battle were education radicals whose cardinal assumption was that all social and economic ills would be overcome by participating in the project of endless transformation. At the university, departments of economics, public administration and business were not at the core of this project but were key beneficiaries in the drive to find its practical expression in the lexicon of competitiveness, increasingly on a global scale.

One of the consequences of this project was to isolate universities from the community. Traditionally, the tenets of commonsense judgment vindicated the everyday decisions of ordinary men and women, whose knowledge was neither expert nor superlative, but were the middle degrees of capacity. For the vast majority of the public, participating in society meant exercising judgment and moral sensibility which in turn provided the confidence that their everyday experiences in the world were intelligible.

Today, the responsibility for an increasing number of political, social, economic and corporate problems is being laid at the door of the university where commonsense judgment is seen as a quaint throwback to more primitive times. At the behest of far-ranging corporate interests, the traditional principles of the university are being repudiated and overturned under the banners of “value for money.” We are allowing the independence of the university agenda and its principles to be trumped by economics.

Critics complain that much of the university is irrelevant and unsuited to the demands of the global economy. They would prefer that the university be used in the service of those skills whose universality and flexibility permit them to be jettisoned whenever circumstances demand. Instead of providing the foundations of intellectual life, universities are at risk of becoming theme parks promoting competitiveness.

The rationale for New Brunswick to continue to invest approximately $200 million a year in universities does not lie in whether universities are effective organizers, facilitators of public engagement or even whether all of the benefits accrued by New Brunswick’s universities to the public can be made measurable. It is true that in the absence of continued public investment, the future of New Brunswick’s universities would be in peril. Without universities, much of the intellectual and social infrastructure that undergirds New Brunswick’s identity would be in grave jeopardy. Universities are seriously endangered by the constant pressure to transform to reflect corporate values that are inconsistent with their purpose and mandate and this threat is growing.

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