Courage, Brains, and Heart: Lessons on Chakmagate From Oz and Ozymandias

This letter began several days ago as a plea to UWO’s senators to support a motion of non-confidence against President Amit Chakma and the Chair of the Board of Governors. It began as a symbolic indictment of two key figures: the man responsible for drafting a toxic, corrupt administrative contract that disrespects the core values, mission, and purpose not only of Western but of any university; and the man responsible for signing it. But like two vast and trunkless legs of stone, they both represent much that is not so easily seen. And like Ozymandias before him, it is equally hard to look on President Chakma’s works without a measure of despair.

Now the vote is over; the motion failed; both the figures and their values remain officially unadmonished. The time for attempting to solve the matter by reasoning with our senators is past: forty-nine of them, including (naturally) every one of President Chakma’s fellow administrators, have thrown in their lot with him. In doing so, they have tied their reputations and professional fate inextricably to his, accepting ownership (however reservedly) of his years of assault on UWO’s mission, vision, tradition, and strategic direction.

These forty-nine, with or without personal misgivings, have publicly declared their support for a key and ongoing source of Western’s administrative problems. They have demonstrated that those problems are rapidly metastasizing. In effect, they demonstrate how little a vote of non-confidence would have accomplished: the removal of a diseased organ accomplishes very little, after all, once the disease we are trying to purge has already progressed into the purple bloodstream.

Perhaps we are fortunate, then, that these forty-nine have decided to cling to their foundering figurehead with abandon, to remind us in the clearest possible terms that our wide-ranging administrative problems are not merely presidential, no matter how succinctly the President has come to embody the spirit of those problems. They have come to this decision before the very eyes of a school that will judge their choice—not just in the years to come, but today and tomorrow— and find it unconscionable. It is sometimes great loyalty, and sometimes pride, that prompts sea captains of higher integrity and better character to go down with their ship. It is mad hubris alone, however, that has transformed Western into a ship so fiercely determined to go down with its sinking captain.

I write these remarks not just as a precarious contract faculty member, but as a Western alumnus (BA Huron 2003; MA English 2004) whose history with this school stretches back more than fifteen years. I write as someone intimately familiar with Western’s long history of excellence, and the extraordinary success it once commanded under the saner, gentler, stronger leadership of President Chevalier Paul Davenport, OC. I have been a member of the Western community since 1999—only a year after Amit Chakma, then Dean of Engineering at the University of Regina, got his first taste of misusing executive power when he completely disregarded the advice of not one but two search committees to instill Lana Nguyen at his own whim, a phony professor whose criminally fraudulent credentials didn’t seem to pass muster with anyone else.

My sixteen-year history with Western University may be long, but President Chakma’s history of making dictatorial, anti-academic, disrespectful, and monumentally unsound decisions as an academic administrator is longer still. To put this in perspective, he has been abusing his academic power to damaging effect since before the movie Titanic came out on VHS. He now proposes “100 Days of Listening” as a panacea for nearly two decades of offense against the principles and values of higher education. And this, it seems, has been enough to satisfy forty-nine senators who would rather we didn’t call their judgment into question as well.

As a contract faculty instructor in the height of student-essay season, I have a keen nose for sniffing out unattributed sources; as an academic watchdog of sorts, I feel it’s my duty to point out (since to my knowledge no one has) that even Chakma’s contrite answer to widespread disdain for his leadership, his “100 Days of Listening” plan to which this “Alternative Listening Tour” is responding, is hardly his own initiative. A cursory Google search (which, bafflingly, no one seems to have done) confirms it’s actually the brainchild of Dalhousie University’s president, Dr. Richard Florizone, who devised the model in 2013 not as a band-aid solution to a foundering governance, but as a proactive first step upon ascending to the presidential chair.

As conceived by Dr. Florizone, the 100 Days of Listening campaign is a sign of an administrator deeply engaged with his students, his faculty, and the community he serves. As reimagined (without credit, without citation) by Chakma, this admirable model is instead rendered too late as an empty and ephemeral gesture to the relationship Western ought to have had with its President all along. The relationship between a President and his or her University, after all, should be like a marriage – a partnership founded on equality and respect in which each party supports the other in good times and in bad. I suppose that’s what forty-nine senators think they’re doing when they stand by their man. As implemented by Dr. Florizone, the “100 Days of Listening Model” is a little like a wedding ring: a shiny but ultimately substantial gesture, representing a commitment to work together, to start off a happy partnership on the right foot. But as repurposed by Chakma (without mention, again, of its source), this “100 Days of Listening” is so much junk jewelry, desperately given to appease a battered university whose eye has already been blackened by his leadership, offered only now that we’re ready to leave him over conduct he has considered, until now, to be perfectly appropriate.

Listening to the concerns of the community should be part of a President’s job all the time, not a special hundred-day gesture trotted out condescendingly in times of unrest as if he’s giving us a gift. Admittedly, President Florizone’s 100 Days of Listening is a pretty good model for President Chakma to copy hastily in his desperation. But is this how the President will respond to every trouble he has brought on himself? Must we look to some other university’s innovations every time we fall victim to administrative crises of our own making? Will Western commit to a ten-year Strategic Plan of looking over Dalhousie’s shoulder any time we’re stumped for an answer? Is that even ethical governance, much less effective governance?

Forty-nine of our Senators have cast their lot indicating they believe it is. Let us remember it is they who have tried his judgment and found it sound. It is their judgment that is also on trial, now.

In his speech before the Senate, President Chakma addressed these concerns (and by “addressed,” I mean “read off a prompter without looking up”). He did so from behind a downcast, pursed-lips mask of supposed contrition—an expression most of us have only seen on TV. Our undergrads have seen it recently on Rob Ford; our postdoctoral fellows will remember it from Bill Clinton; our eldest tenured professors may remember it on Richard Nixon’s face. It’s jarring to see that expression in the flesh because it’s an expression we associate only with the great scandals of our time. It is the expression of a man who deeply, and sincerely regrets having been found out and caught.

What the dozens who turned their backs on him could not see was that he dared not look up from his teleprompter while speaking. Truth comes in at the eyes; falseness comes out there, too. The illusion of his contrition, even filtered through the desperate exertions of his public relations team, is the most fragile thing in the world. To engage him in the flesh—where he is no more or less than a fellow human being, albeit in a slightly more expensive tie—is to burst the bubble of his spin once and for all.

Western’s Dr. Allan Pero, in his nuanced personal blog post “Chakma as Symptom,” has likened the exposure of Chakma’s humbuggery to the Wizard of Oz—a particularly apt comparison, given his weird fondness for those gigantic floating-head advertisements plastered all over Western’s exterior walls. The Great and Powerful Oz, too, ruled not just through a giant floating head, but through a despotism founded in absence, disengagement, aloofness, and empty theatrics. When seen in the flesh, of course, the Great Oz was nothing but a cowering, selfish, delusional carnival huckster—a man so poorly furnished with courage, heart, and brains of his own that it seemed both ironic and sad to hear his brave, kindly, and smart petitioners ask him for any.

I mention Dr. Pero’s comments, first, because there ought to be not just shouting about the injustices at Western, but dialogue. We should listen to one another, acknowledge one another, build on one another. We should be aware of all else that’s being said, and know we are far from alone in our discontent. We should see our outrage not as a cacophony, but a chant. Every voice of non-confidence added to the collective rejection of the President makes the formal vote a little more moot.

I mention them, second, because they frame so perfectly the President’s first actions in the wake of the vote that graciously and foolishly threw in our lot with him. It should surprise no one that at the very first moment following the vote, the President began his 100 Days of Listening in exactly the manner we should have expected: by fleeing—physically fleeing—through a side door alone, away from our students, our staff, our faculty, including all those tricked into supporting him. Those present had the opportunity to juxtapose his words and actions. His very first action as President, following a narrow and controversial survival, was to show us his mettle as explicitly as he could, by turning his back on all of us and literally running away into a waiting elevator as if it were a getaway balloon. Escaping through no magic but a little hot air, perhaps, is the next logical extension of Dr. Pero’s lovely Oz metaphor. Judging by the days of supposed reconciliation that have since passed, escaping by the magic of hot air may still be his plan.

No statement I can make about the President’s leadership could be more descriptive, no condemnation more articulate, than the image of him fleeing from the very people he is overpaid to lead. Am I offering here a blanket criticism of the “going rate” for a University president? At my pay grade, I ought to. But the pay itself is not, and never was, the issue. It would be worth every penny of his $440,000—even, perhaps, worth his astronomical double-dipping salary rate—to have a President whose idea of accountability, listening, and learning from errors consists of something other than scurrying from the room, mere moments after droning through a prepared statement about his willingness to listen and engage. Within moments of this farcical retreat, it could not have been more clear that forty-nine senators had just expressed their confidence in a man who expresses, embodies, and demonstrates before any and all public scrutiny, zero confidence in himself.

These are not the actions of a man willing to stand behind the borrowed words of his teleprompter. These are the actions of a man who knows a contentious and divided vote will not save him from the kind of oversight, scrutiny and accountability against which weak leaders can mount no defense. He knows that the hostility and disdain he has truly and thoroughly earned in this community will not be switched off by a senatorial vote that will galvanize, rather than cow, the public opinion against him.

He must know, too—and perhaps more of his supporters ought to—that votes alone do not change fact: the plummeting enrolment at “Western,” particularly following the most aggressively colonialist rebranding in its history, is not correctable by vote. The University must remember, as its faculty does, that its primary function is not the gratuitous and superfluous employment of energy-sector millionaires. Its primary business is the education of smart people—and smart people like our savvy students (or as the administration calls them, “customers”) are not easily fooled.

The administrative machinations that maintain a status quo can endure only as long as the money keeps rolling in; and let me put this in the only vulgar language executives are wont to understand: Western’s continued faith in Amit Chakma will cost it millions upon millions of dollars in profit. He is bad for branding. He is bad for business. He is bad for all the things Western’s administrators care about, even long years after they have ceased to care about students, or research, or knowledge, or other trifles best left for the University’s labouring-class academics to worry about.

Over the succeeding years, Amit Chakma will keep running. He will keep dodging public accountability. He will keep suffering the urgent questions of a betrayed university in mugging silence. He will continue to let his very expensive purple tie be the camouflage by which he pretends to a familial relationship with us. He will continue to let the giant, grinning poster serve as his chief means of interaction while cringing behind the figurative curtain of a locked and mostly vacant office. The University will continue to cough up his salary, and continue to put him up for free in a heritage mansion on thirty acres of urban forest in the heart of Masonville. They will continue to trot him out once a year so that convocating undergrads a hundred thousand dollars in debt can kneel at his feet in a display that acknowledges and represents the values of Western University and its administration in more ways than they know. And later, ultimately, whether ousted by a non-confidence vote or not, he will simply move on to greener pastures when the great purple trough runs dry.

It’s important to recognize this latter point as a balm against the fear that a failed vote of non-confidence somehow means we’re stuck with a permanent problem. We who are deeply planted in Western’s soil, who have invested ten or twenty or thirty years in laying down roots, and whose fates are truly tied to the fate of the university, forget how easy it is for an aloof administrator to wander locust-like from field to field, gorging for a time, then moving on when the blighted crop no longer feeds them. Waterloo had a Chakma problem, once. Before that, there was Regina; before that, Calgary. All survived him, and none of them needed a vote of non-confidence to do it.

So this vote was never really about removing President Chakma from power. He is merely a distracting figurehead—a symbol, and increasingly a fall guy, for administrative problems that run deeper than any one humbug behind a curtain. The vote was about rejecting (or in Western’s case, blithely accepting by 49 votes to 30) a corporatized and inferior model of education founded on neoliberal and neofeudal principles. On those grounds, forty-nine senators (including every executive administrator) had no choice but to rule against it, because—Chakma or no Chakma—this approach continues to support the framework that enables them. It continues to define the university space as a space owned by businesspeople, and not by students, researchers, scholars, professors. The system, these businesspeople believe, only has to keep chugging along until they retire, after all—until they have wrung every drop of profit possible from the bleeding university and can walk away from its desiccated husk with their pockets lined with student gold. What happens to Western after they’re done with it is of little concern to them, however strongly they must protest otherwise in the intervening years until their golden parachutes open.

The result of this vote has been to expose their powerful agendas: what an interesting precedent it sets that these hearings, once held in the University Community Centre, are now held in the Ivey School of Business—a gesture toward administrators who perceive and operate UWO as a Business rather than a Community. It is this attitude, and the people who embody it, to which the galvanized opposition to President Chakma must now turn its attention. The irony, of course, is that the Ivey School has plummeted under Chakma’s watch from 26th  to 97th place in the Financial Times of London’s standings: if the school fares better now as a meeting place for established millionaires than it does as a training ground for the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, President Chakma’s leadership—or the senate-meeting remarks of Ivey’s Dean Kennedy likening poor grad students to cute puppies—may begin to show us why.

My own contract at Western expires in one week, and is not up for renewal; sessional postings never are. I slip back into Western’s pool of excellent and loyal contract faculty, all of us fully qualified for the tenure-track, and all of us fighting eighty hours a week for the right to keep providing our students an education of the quality they would have had before Amit Chakma began his assault on Western’s image, standing, and reputation. I have witnessed in recent weeks, in my own department and against the wishes of nearly all those who work in it, the elimination of the second-language from a graduate program, due in part to budgeting challenges compounded by executive salaries, and due in part to the enrolment challenges that must necessarily follow the decline of Western’s reputation. Western’s ten-year strategic plan, which speaks to “Achieving Excellence on the World Stage,” is directly at odds with these effects of the administrative mismanagement to which we have been subjected. After five years of President Chakma’s “strategic misdirection,” we are positioned to achieve little more than dysfunction. We are well on the way, under his leadership, to producing communicators who are worse at communicating and businesspeople who are worse at doing business.

Department chairs and Deans are telling the truth, fairly and sincerely, when they say there’s not enough money to renew my annual salary of $11,654. They are duly embarrassed to tell me this while Chakma’s $967,000 contract is garnering public attention—but they’re not making up the numbers. For some mysterious reason that may or may not be compounded by its executive administration’s bafflegabbing attempts at scholastic leadership, Western is facing a pronounced decline in Arts & Humanities enrolment whose challenges continue to worry me as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a concerned community member who knows all too well the value of an educated population.

Make of it what you will that Western’s overall success in the numbers game is a statistic heavily skewed by enrolments in President Chakma’s home discipline of engineering. The exodus of students from Western’s Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences progrem has, until now, been universally heartbreaking—it was neither understandable, nor promising, nor a statistic with any silver lining. We have condensed and overpopulated our classes as much as we dare to fund the executive’s excess with our austerity; and even so, we are plagued by empty seats.

If the scandal surrounding this administration has provided me with any hope at all, it is the realization that each of those empty seats represents a student who has not fallen victim to the empty rhetoric President Chakma has literally plastered to the side of our buildings. Each empty seat represents one fewer student who refuses to be indentured to student loans until nearly middle age to help fund the phony sabbaticals of executive administrators. Every empty seat represents one young prospective student who took one look at Western University, thought critically about its governance and its direction, weighed the price of a degree against the quality of education it seems inclined to furnish under President Chakma, and made the shrewd decision to accept an offer elsewhere.

The outcome of this Senate’s vote leaves me able, at least, to feel a bittersweet and vicarious happiness for those students who choose not to take their chances at Chakma U. The confirmed direction of this administration is one of a University in its twilight, and one to which faculty and staff must immediately attend if we are to save it in spite of itself. We are academics in a post-academic society, and our would-be students have more options in this brave new post-ac world than we do. We who are deeply invested in Western’s success, who respect its achievements and are old enough to recall its academic integrity and true values from the days before they were mothballed away, have a very short time to right things. Most of us can’t simply jump ship to another University, as so many of Ontario’s graduating high school students are quite wisely doing. We must right this ship, and quickly, or we will go down with it.

And this ship cannot, and must not, go down with its captain.

Luke R. J. Maynard

Assistant Professor Ephemerus (Limited-Duties)
English and Writing Studies


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