An Open Letter, Appended to a Petition

The struggle has come home.

I suppose it was inevitable, in the end. I have had the luxury of crusading for student and faculty rights at far-off schools all over Canada, places I do not work and, at this rate, probably never will. Like an institutional game of whack-a-mole, administrative bloat has reared up its head first here, then there, then somewhere else, as one by one bands of unconscionable executive administrators inexplicably go to war against the faculty and students who actually earn them their absurd fortunes. Most of the time, thankfully, they lose, if only because a king who makes war on his cooks has trouble getting a healthy dinner afterward.

But these institutional victories are really just momentary hesitations in what seems to be a steady trajectory, and at last, it’s come home in a very real way.

If you’re familiar with the “Sunshine List,” it’s Ontario, Canada’s public list of at least partially-taxpayer-supported salaries over $100,000. It’s a telling tool of public accountability, and as you’d expect, it certainly has its share of university folks on it.

Believe it or not, late-career Humanities professors can still occasionally crack the six-figure barrier. Every province I’ve worked in has had a Sunshine List, and I’ve had colleagues and even good friends who appear on it. To me it’s actually quite satisfying to see a fellow historian or literary critic appear on it: some small acknowledgment, maybe, that the world still considers the kind of things I do to be worth something, even if it doesn’t consider what I personally do to be worth much.

But my own university (of the moment), the University of Western Ontario, is now the latest to be hit by the scandal of top-heavy, greedy neoliberal misadministration. The undisputed Sun King of Ontario’s Sunshine List this year is Western’s President, Amit Chakma, who is presiding all the way to the bank with a salary and taxable benefits package of $967,244.

That number comes from the CBC, but keep in mind that even “taxable benefits” doen’t encompass the limits of what he gets, nor a shadow of what it actually costs the University to retain him. There’s also the matter of Gibbons Lodge, a palatial estate provided free of charge because hey, how’s a guy supposed to make rent on a paltry million-dollar salary, especially when he has to buy his own staples for—oh, no wait, I have to buy my own staples.

President Chakma’s contract also, by the way, grants him a free membership to London’s exclusive and mysterious London Club for no clearly stated reason, given the extraordinary range of lovely London pubs in which legitimate business can be conducted. I personally like to imagine that’s where the people who own London traditionally go to laugh loudly while clutching their hands in that classic “upward claw” shape. But what the contract really grants him—and herein lies the outrage—is a year off with full pay and benefits to do as he pleases. And what he pleases, apparently, is to double-dip, to take the money and run, but then to come back and take the money again a second time.

Faculty who refuse their sabbaticals, of course, aren’t allowed to double dip. But some animals are more equal than others, as they say; and the kind of contract Presidents approve for faculty is naturally not the kind they approve for Presidents.

At any rate, a petition of non-confidence in President Chakma, and in UWO Board of Governors chair Chirag Shah, has been circulating for a day or so, and has racked up 3,000 signatures (at the time of this writing), including mine. I am not alone among faculty, though of course those writing from the security of tenure are, by and large, much freer with their words. But as doors close and the academy succumbs to the endemic drain of which this scandal is representative, there is less and less reason to keep my mouth politely shut. The slovenly decadence of universities’ administrative élite is rapidly eroding the prospects of academics at every level, from the fresh-faced high school student to the seasoned postdoctoral scholar. To remain silent at this point would be to believe that our prospects aren’t declining as a direct result of absurd administrative excess, when we continue to see new examples every day that they are. I’ll take my chances with the truth.

So I wrote, with my signature, an 1,100-word letter to the University Secretariat detailing my reasons for signing. And with my prospects of working as an independent writer and teacher growing every time administrative absurdities like this quash another tenure-track posting or close another opportunity for me to do institutional work for which I’m trained, there is no reason for me not to offer my comments as an open letter. The stakes are too high to remain silent, and the carrot that was once used to bribe contract faculty into silence has been well and soundly eaten out from under us. I think it’s fair to expect more of what follows.

To the Western University Secretariat,

As a non-tenured contract faculty member of the University of Western Ontario, I am an eyewitness on the ground to the heartbreaking effects that Western’s administrative bloat is having on my students’ performance, experience, and future.

As part-time contract faculty, despite my PhD and eight years of progressive teaching experience, I am one of London’s “hidden homeless,” unable to make rent or support myself as an adult through the amount of work Western is able to provide me, despite the best efforts of clever, caring, and earnest departments and faculties. For all the ingenious ways they find to do more with less every year, there is just not enough money to treat students or contract instructors fairly, or even to provide them with fair opportunities. Programs are weakening, class sizes are exploding, students are abandoning traditional universities—rightly so, if this is indicative of how things are managed—and the whole University is in a period of undeniable and unprecedented decline.

Meanwhile, despite the highest tuition rates in its history, the University’s plutocratic CEO is thriving at the expense of providing adequate support for students. I am immensely proud of the work I coax out of my students every term; but President Chakma deserves exactly zero credit for what they do. When I watch as a man pulling in 79 times my annual salary (before such benefits as “a free mansion to live in”) receives further bonuses in part for, as the CBC reports, meeting “key benchmarks in…student grades,” I marvel at just how poorly the University values the incredible work and stress my students undergo to buy the President one more box of whatever earthly luxuries he covets with the sweat and literal tears they shed at their keyboards.

My students’ surprising and admirable academic success within an increasingly hostile climate of post-secondary exploitation comes not because of President Chakma’s mismanagement, but rather despite it. The system which credits a remote and largely ceremonial figurehead for their hard work in the real classroom (and, in a not much lesser part, my hard work) is nothing short of fraudulent.

I am watching firsthand the decline of programs; the withering of enrolments; the wholesale administrative abandonment of the principles upon which this university was founded by anti-intellectual executives who have long since abandoned any pretense toward the values of sound learning. I have watched the blighted death of a second-language requirement from a graduate program while glossy, elegant, donor-pleasing pamphlets trumpet Western’s facetious strategic goal of “Achieving Excellence on the World Stage.” Having seen the manner in which the University has pursued its strategic vision under President Chakma, I can only conclude that “Excellence on the World Stage” is not something it wants or cares about for its students, its staff, or its research; rather, it seeks to elevate its executive administration to the rarefied and outlandish company of those domineering Rockefellers who sit like feudal barons atop their own dying, top-heavy universities, figureheads who boastfully compare behind closed doors the silky texture of their premium business cards, and consider their own personal boasting rights the real measure of their schools’ success.

It is a sick mind that measures the achievement of thousands of young people by the pocketbooks of the old, particularly when the profits they boast are flayed from the backs of thirty thousand students who will be working for decades after graduation to support such absurd and insidious mathematics of scale. The shame and hubris of President Chakma’s astronomical, unjustifiable, and undeserved rockstar salary adheres to every signatory to its terms. Not since the Great Pyramids has there been such exploitation of real hard-working multitudes for the vanity, glory, and creature comfort of the few. Nor, indeed, since the Great Pyramids, has such an edifice of proud history and cultural importance been crowned by a lump of stone with no more or less intrinsic value than any one of the other stones supporting it.

I have no job security, no ability to speak my mind without endangering my ability to work here ever again. But I will have even less job security if this University cannot get its house in order: a University that refuses to take the concerns of this Petition to heart will not long outlast me in any case. When faculties convene to wring their hands in worry over declining enrollments, I can only say that it is to our misfortune that today’s prospective students are savvy enough to see when they’re being so brazenly and thoroughly exploited, and wise enough to avoid it. How can I fight declining enrollment in good faith, when I see this kind of travesty and wonder if the students who blackball a University held hostage by its own administration are making a very sensible choice?

In four short years, the debt students will accumulate in an uncertain market may keep them working for decades to pay it off; and make no mistake: it is these countless thousands of man-years of student and alumni struggle which feed, drop by laboured drop, the trough of endowment from which President Chakma’s gluttonous salary is drawn wholesale by the bucket. Students are literally indenturing themselves, not only during their time at Western but for many years after, to support the foppish opulence (fopulence?) of this administration. President Chakma’s glaring presence as the Sun King at the very top of this year’s Sunshine List speaks volumes about the unconscionable exploitation and fiscal idiocy that are poisoning higher education in general. As students of our new and excellent Medieval Studies program will be the first to observe, this is nothing less than a reinstatement of peasantry, and we should all of us be ashamed for our role in it.

I cannot in good conscience stand in front of students on this campus and lie to them about this administration’s interest in their education or their future. It is clear to me in the wake of this scandal that the administration’s only interest is in sustaining at any cost its own continued malfunction, its continued status quo of executive excess and exploitation of the young people who still believe, against all the objectionable colours our administration shows them, in what the spirit of higher education used and ought to be. The only thing that can redeem this travesty is swift, decisive, and lasting action to rein in the upward hæmorrhaging of what little money the University has left. I write not in outrage so much as in desperation: if the kind of mismanagement we have seen here continues, it will make of this school—like the Pyramids before it—a disinhabited house of bones, a glaring architectural tombstone to the kind of education it yesterday offered, today pretends to, and tomorrow might yet aspire to, if we can save it from itself. If not, however, neither the students nor the free-roaming contract faculty who have supported this abhorrent executive decadence all through its long decline will stick around to be caught in its impending collapse.

The University of Western Ontario has been an excellent, collegial, and kind home for me, first as a student and now as a professor (of sorts). I and every member of the Western community on this petition will fight as hard as we can to save it. If this University will work to purge itself of the serious malaise of which this petition is a necessary symptom, I will work as hard and as selflessly as I can to keep it the extraordinary first-class institution it still wants to be. If not, it’s your university, and I wish you the best of luck with it while it endures. Please consider this petition not as a list of signatures, but as thousands of individual pleas not to make a ruin of our great University through complacency and inaction.

Yours, with hope and concern in equal measure,

Dr. Luke Maynard

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