An Open Letter to the University of Calgary’s Executive Bling & Swag Committee

I’m not sure if you’ve read the appalling story about the lavish upgrades to the University of Calgary’s executive offices. It’s worth casually leafing through–but essentially, it’s exactly what you’d expect (if you’re a pessimist) from the headline. The University of Calgary top brass has decided to squander $8.1 million on new grotesquely oversized office digs for its president and vice-presidents. Of course the vice-president of facilities, who gets an office the size of my old two-person apartment out of the deal, has naturally gone on record defending the deal.

(artist’s impression of the new digs)

To those of you outside of Canada, who see our nation in terms of Toronto and “the other stuff,” the University of Calgary is one of canada’s larger, more established comprehensive universities, and also one of its best. The work at the departmental and faculty level there is astoundingly good, sometimes amid very tough, very austere operating conditions. That hard work, and the outstanding reputation of this great place of learning, has been insulted by the executive decisions (pun intended) of a handful of administrators–administrators who, naturally, have trickled down from private corporations, rather than up from scholarship, to impose on the real working scholars their vision of what a university ought to look like. At a time when Alberta’s professors are lamenting the cutback-based erosion of quality Alberta’s postgraduates are facing, and flying completely over the head of Calgary’s excellent Faculty Association and all others with a concern in the university’s budgeting, this seems like an especially irresponsible decision, and one on which it’s the responsibility of any thinking academic to speak up.

Being a sessional instructor, and especially one on the Canadian job market, I sometimes feel it’s “unprofessional” to weigh in on these issues. It can be seen as a professional liability, depending on who reviews your job application, to be “found out” as someone who weighs in on academic controversies–as if outspokenness itself is unprofessional, and a cultivated ignorance of the politics of higher education is much to be preferred. On the other hand, there’s no professional responsibility greater than shepherding the ethical work we do: working in academia comes with enormous privilege, and the system built to contain the academic world is one far too easily exploited by administrators who run universities as if they’re Fortune 500 companies rather than student-driven institutions of higher learning. What’s needed is more academics, not fewer, speaking out on these issues; and if we let the fear of being “unprofessional” affect our discourse, we’re letting our silence speak for us. I don’t think I’m a “radical” by voicing displeasure over decisions that are negatively impacting the ability of an excellent school to keep up its own excellence; and the kind of academia I want to work in is one that provides a safe space for the expression of sometimes controversial criticism. And so, without further ado, I offer:

An Open Letter to the University of Calgary Executive Bling & Swag Committee
on the Occasion of $8.1 Million in “Upgrades” to Executive Offices

Dear University of Calgary Executive Bling and Swag Committee (hereafter the U.C.E.B.S.C.),

I’ll open by admitting my own blinders: during my last year as a university educator, my take-home pay has been $1247 per month; my tuition as an off-campus doctoral candidate (about $430 a month) comes out of this before I begin to live on it. So please understand when I say that I have no real competence when it comes to “properly” or “judiciously” spending eight million dollars. Allegations that I wouldn’t know precisely what to do with it are fair. The doctorate I go to defend in two weeks is in English Literature, not Business or Public Administration, and you may weight my comments accordingly.

That being said, let me turn to my expertise, and write you a story–a parable about two smart students who have come into a handsome scholarship. One divides the money up over four years, pays her tuition, lives modestly on it so that she need not work, or need work only minimally, at the food-service night shifts that would otherwise finance her degree while interfering with her ability to gain from it and excel in it.

The second student blows the money on a new Corvette for her pizza-delivering boyfriend. In part, admittedly, because he works in the Corvette, and everyone deserves a nice workplace, right? But mostly it’s because her boyfriend manages her finances for her, and has used his executive power over their shared finances to allocate the funds to a shiny new Corvette for himself.

The relationship dynamic here, like the relationship between faculty and administrators, should ostensibly be one of equals, even if they are doing different jobs. But if the dynamic here seems a little fishy, I would venture that this is ultimately the dynamic in which Calgary’s administration has chosen to spend $8.1 million of its budget to furnish only a handful of its executives—admittedly its top executives, a word I’ll come back to—with lavishly appointed palatial offices, all of which exceed the very generous allotments for such things as outlined in its own policy. I am delighted by the University’s ostentatious display of such prosperity: I was under the impression, from my past five years as a university educator, that Canadian universities were facing unprecedented fiscal challenges.

I was under the impression that the fiscal administration of a university was an ongoing exercise in damage control—an austere fight to keep programs open, positions and research funded, and enrolment affordable. No one is happier than I that Calgary clearly doesn’t have to contend with such problems. Any decision to gild the taps and doorknobs, to add walk-in closets larger than some faculty offices to the presidential ensuite, to build $150,000 (that’s a four-bedroom family home in Windsor) worth of cascading staircases to save vice-presidents the indignity of rubbing elbows with the vulgar masses in a shamefully public-access stairwell, would be utterly unconscionable while departmental budgets and the continued operation of a University’s research mandate remain in peril. It’s a load off my mind, then, that out of all the top research universities in Canada, Calgary alone has clearly managed to evade the sting of these hard administrative truths.

Given the seven-percent cut in the University’s operating grant from the Province of Alberta this year, your conspicuous affluence at the top level of administration is even more remarkable. It’s a balm on this poor sessional’s heart to know that the program and funding cuts this will force across every level of the university won’t cause so much as a ripple within the freshly marbled-off sanctum of MacKimmie Tower.

I have applied this season to three early-career professorships at three outstanding Canadian universities, whose names I won’t embarrass by associating them with my personal opinion here. Before considerable benefits are taken into account, the salary floors of all three positions are north of $70,000. This may not sound like much to university administrators (the salary of your President alone, next year, will outweigh the combined salary of my entire present department). But to those of us who perform the research and teaching that constitutes a university’s raison d’être (that means “reason to exist”), it’s rather a lot of money. If I am lucky and deserving and competitive enough to land such a position, my workload will double, while my practical income will increase by a factor of six or seven. My classroom practices, and the net value of the service I provide to my real employers (the students), will not appreciably change as a result of this promotion. Effectively I’ll be doing the same work I’m doing now, except that my time will suddenly be worth three times as much to administrators.

Why, then, don’t all sessional lecturers and adjuncts demand compensation and benefits equal to the jobs they perform? Or at least something a few steps closer to it—something approaching a living wage, in exchange for our dozen years after high school acquiring world-class expertise and teaching practice? Why has there been no concerted push for adjuncts and sessionals to unionize? Why is fully half of all post-secondary teaching provided at bargain-basement rates by these qualified and brilliant leaders in scholarship? Why do sessional lectures choose to bestow such extraordinary charity on their seemingly affluent employers?

One answer, and the answer I most believe, is that higher education in Canada is in perpetual danger of collapse, largely because of the runaway excess of increasingly corporatized adminstrators. When deans and department heads–administrators who come up from scholarship, and still recall what it’s like and how it works–collapse the faculty positions of retiring professors, and replace them by making part-time offers to a slew of contract sessionals, they are making hard sacrifices, staving off this collapse the only way they can. We sessionals, too, are staving off the collapse of the university system by accepting those jobs at those salaries, agreeing to teach advanced courses at the best schools in the country for a fraction of what we’d make in the private sector. In some cases I have seen, this is done begrudgingly, but in general there’s very little hostility on either side of the sessional contract. This is because each party to the contract is embarrassed by it, and each side sympathizes with the other’s embarrassment. In many cases, departments are as embarrassed to offer us these deals, at these numbers, with straight faces, as we are to accept them.

I’d like to remind you of your commitment, at least on paper, to the academic excellence that has long been the real source of Calgary’s lasting prestige. The Eyes High strategic direction booklet that ostensibly drives your administrative decisions proclaims:

“in this spirited, high-quality learning environment, students will thrive in programs made rich by research and hands-on experiences. By our fiftieth anniversary in 2016, we will be one of Canada’s top five research universities, fully engaging the communities we both serve and lead.”

If this mandate is being carried out at all, it is through the work of your faculty and mid-level admins, your sessional teachers, your graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; and it is on the merit of their efforts alone that you will meet, exceed, or fall short of this ambitious goal. In light of this, I cannot imagine a larger slap in the face to your own strategic direction, to your foundational commitments, to your purpose as leaders in higher education, than to allow your administration’s steadfast commitment to conspicuous consumption to drive policy at the expense of a University whose core content providers—researchers and adjuncts—are desperately suffering to support not only your continued survival, but your ill-managed excess.

Perhaps, coming most recently from corporate rather than academic accomplishments—from fields rich in money rather than understanding—your executives can be forgiven for bringing with them the corporate hubris which mistakes the idle personal trappings of power for power itself. Or perhaps your Board of Governors’ Proposal can be blamed, as it advertised some sugar-coated “reputational risks” when it should have said “absolutely guaranteed reputational damage.” But regardless of who takes the blame for this little bit of policy steering, if your goal is to grow institutional prestige rather than ridicule, to be taken seriously as a sound ship of learning rather than a neglected scow foundering under the sagging weight of its captains’ self-ordained medals, this is, speaking conservatively, charting a course in the wrong direction. By privileging conspicuous opulence over pragmatic substance, a handful of executives have sent a powerful message to their University and to the academic community at large that the goal of being a leader in Canadian research is not nearly so important as the goal of looking like a leader when certain VIPs come by the office for a handshake and a fat cigar.

It occurs to me, as a complete novice in the field of university administration and investment, that 8.1 million dollars could have accomplished any of these things to raise the University of Calgary’s already strong research profile:

  • Provide conference endowments to support and fund as many as 8 international annual academic conferences in perpetuity. This could be divided up among academic conferences, graduate conferences, lecture series, colloquia, workshops, and so on.
  • Provide permanent endowments for up to 5 new research chairs or professorships, one in each of 5 different departments–positions which would contribute handsomely to the school’s research output, improve student-to-teacher ratio, and dramatically strengthen the teaching and research going on in departments without even touching their operating budgets
  • Award 10 new need- and merit-based scholarships, in perpetuity, to cover the entire cost of four years’ tuition, to attract the best and brightest students and ensure the quality of their study is not compromised by juggling full-time research with full-time work, making the school’s undergraduates more competitive at the SSHRC/NSERC level and more likely to continue on into oustanding graduate work.
  • Provide a discretionary fund, in perpetuity, of more than $400,000 for projects which connect the academy to the community, to such ends as promoting literacy/numeracy, harm reduction, social justice, and otherwise connecting the academy to the community in a meaningful way that benefits the city as well as the academy.
  • Provide funds to operate and maintain, also in perpetuity, up to 2 major historic sites/scientific facilities/education hubs, of the size and scope of Victoria’s recently shuttered Center of the Universe and Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

I think that any one of these might have increased Calgary’s academic prestige in a fundamental, tangible, lasting, and future-proof way. Instead, to extend my original analogy, dear executives, you bought your boyfriend a Corvette—blowing what would have been a considerable and permanent endowment, in an age when such things are scarce, on some gratuitous wood-veneer furniture, a three-piece bath, a gated-community stairway for super-elite use, and a few other architectural baubles that will depreciate to worthlessness in the coming years. Enjoy them while they’re shiny, I suppose—but this business of shiny objects, this gaudy cultivation of appearance at the expense of academic substance, is a funny road to prestige. From exactly whom do you expect this prestige to come, and why?

Critical readers in the humanities, especially the very clever ones trained within your walls, will not be tricked by mission statements of vaguely worded platitudes which go unheeded in practice. Scientists who know the difference between corporate-funded hypotheses and evidence-based results will simply not believe that real prestige will be brought about by a handful of shallow architectural niceties, particularly given how very exclusive the admission to those niceties is likely to be. Engineers and architects from your celebrated and world-renowned Shulich School, whose much-needed renovations and technical upgrades have been pushed back to 2016 while the tiger-striped executive office doors were being newly polished, are especially well-equipped to recognize the vulgar opulence of a workspace blinged-out to “Pimp My Ride” proportions, and to know at whose practical expense it has come. Economists and business administrators need not even see the facilities — they will just read the numbers, do the math, and laugh.

That laughter, I think, is healthy. It’s a sign that they recognize the inherent cant of your architectural posturing—your commitment to administrative bloat rather than student and faculty success, to vanity rather than to knowledge, to slavish compulsion as consumers rather than empowerment as thinkers. It is an insult, and more than a merely ceremonial one, to Calgary’s mission to remain competitive with other graduate research universities, most of whom come by or maintain their “top-five” status by funding research projects rather than private baths and executive stairwells, when given the chance. But for that reason it’s sympathy, not laughter, that the University most needs under the pestilent affluenza of a few key decision-makers, and so it’s sympathy (and no small measure of solidarity) that I write now to provide.

I sympathize with your deans and your tenured faculty, leading thinkers and doers who have chosen your institution as the seat of their lifelong careers; who are tasked with the heavy responsibility of driving your school’s academic excellence; who expect, demand, and merit first class support in achieving that excellence, only to be confronted with such concrete and lasting displays of your top-down disdain for the value of the work they do.

I sympathize with your sessionals, that embarrassed and desperate vanguard in world thinking and teaching, those young people exploited all over North America to maintain the integrity of the university system, whom you have lost the moral authority to exploit on the excuse that you can’t pay them a living wage for their modest service of keeping the classrooms open and the tuition dollars flowing.

I sympathize most of all with the students themselves, who don’t yet have the critical reading skills to properly cross-examing the marketing brochures about your commitment to excellence, and now go about your campus largely ignorant of how their money, money they’re starting their adult lives deep in debt to entrust you with, is being abused. I sympathize with all 32,000 University of Calgary students, and imagine how much better they might eat this Christmas, or how much warmer they might be in that famous Alberta winter, if $250 of each student’s tuition hadn’t just been blown on making the extreme privilege of your top executives even more offensively obvious.

I am, as I said, neither an economist or a policymaker. I am a sessional instructor, an earnest volunteer in the imperilled world of academia. I do this work on the cheap in good faith, because I trust in the judgment, the values, the integrity, and the shared goals of my administration. We all want the same things: we want the best education possible for our students, and the best research possible from our faculty. We want to do great things with knowledge—this in an increasingly consumerist corporate world where knowledge has become a prohibitively expensive commodity. When I accept a contract “subject to budgetary approval”—and then, mere days before I start teaching, when an apologetic dean or department chair comes to me and says, “we just don’t have the money to run your course this term”—I genuinely believe it. It may send me scurrying to the food bank, or to the desperate nickel-dime industry of private tutoring, editing, car washing, dog-sitting, and all the other odd jobs for which an English PhD has provided me not with qualifications, but with professional experience. But I am fortunate enough to have worked only at schools that are square with me about such things, honest about the difficulties of keeping the ship afloat, candid about what can and can’t be done—and most of all, sensitive to their responsibility, and it is a sacred responsibility, to manage their dwindling resources with the care, concern, and respect owed to all those who believe in them and work hard to hold the ship together in this storm of austerity.

That luxury—the combined luxury of honesty, responsibility, respect, and a shared value system—is no longer a luxury University of Calgary sessionals have. When a sad-faced administrator tells them “there just wasn’t the money for it,” that administrator is handing down a lie that was foisted on them by a remote executive. There was, in fact, the money to make knowledge happen. The price of excellence was still in the bank. Of course it was. It’s just been pissed away on executive vanity—pissed away in every sense of that word, flushed forever down the gleaming white commode of a presidential ensuite. It was a powerfully foul decision; let’s hope the builders flushed twice to get rid of the stink.

But congratulations on your tasteless executive renovations, dear Bling and Swag Committee. I hope you are satisfied with the junk prestige they bring you. The story has picked up enough press that every academic in Canada, no doubt, has heard just how very prestigious you are. I wish you every good fortune in becoming one of the top five research universities in Canada by 2016. But Calgary has long been one of the best universities in Canada–forget this loaded notion of tophood; it has been one of the best. It has been renowned for its academic excellence, and that is a prestige made of actual substance. It is that prestige you imperil by embodying, with scene-chewing accuracy, these few stanzas from my long poem Don Quixote:

In Babel’s streets, some dive close by the Tower,
A one-room flat, aspiring not to Heaven,
Might have been spared. But ever lust for power
Has driven us to rise, to climb, to leaven                                                        20
Like bread unsalted. Risen from base flour
We fancy ourselves cake, and wrest ungiven
The icing of the gods. What bitter hurts
We taste in recompense are just desserts.

But Babel was too old and dull a story                                                                25
To earn the interest of our hero Quixote:
He had no taste for worn-out allegory,
Knew nothing of cement, nor how to mix it,
Nor how fools thought an everlasting glory
Could be achieved with towers or with bricks. It                                           30
Might well have seemed to him a measure newer,
That sad belief—though not a whisker truer—

If he had seen the richly ivied walls
Of his soul’s mother, counted on her hills
The growing host of stark half-finished halls.                                                     35
The school possessed a blooming hoard of bills,
More than a glut of benefactors’ balls
Could answer for. But Pride wants what she wills—
And here, she seemed to manifest a need
To birth more souls than she could hope to feed.                                              40

As walls were raised with fatal magnanimity
(A mason’s feint to a queen’s reputation),
Quixote saw walls walled ’round with walls; no limit, he
Perceived, was set, to virulent foundation
Of structures to intimidate the timid. He                                                             45
Mistook (as many do) this escalation
For grandeur, as the small school spawned a city
(With lavish lunchrooms for the Walls Committee).

Indeed, the most formidable facilities
Were in those days erected with the aim                                                         50
Of luring scholars of the best abilities
(Though typically, the middling students came,
Then left). Our hero Quixote was not ill at ease:
He deemed himself a squire, come seeking fame,
and stormed its halls, too blinded by his mission                                             55
To mark its ceilings, high as its tuition.

The landscape of a school is in the minds
That meet and fill its halls, however Spartan,
With reason and reflection. Motored blinds,
Whole ballrooms curtained in their donor’s tartan,                                       60
The Pepsi napping-hall, with desks by Heinz,
The President’s new villa in Saint-Martin…
Excepting rooms with access ramps and doors
To let minds in, such things the mind abhors.

There is nothing to be done about it now, I suppose. The work is done, the funding is spent, and taking a jackhammer to the finished offices will not restore the endowments that could have been had. If there any hope that you have bought your school something of lasting value, it is couched in my hope that you have bought it what will, in days to come, be an important history lesson. In the meantime, I wish your school continued success in spite of your wounds to it from the top down. Its faculty, students, and staff remain the best in the world, and I have every confidence that long after “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” are all that remain of your renovations, the school will go on fulfilling its mandate, with or without the support and respect of its CEOs and big stockholders–just as academia has always done.

Luke Maynard
Doctoral candidate (ABD), sessional lecturer, and concerned citizen


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