The 2016 Calgary Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada: Some thoughts on the university as a community

The 2016 Calgary Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada: Some thoughts on the university as a community

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Guy Laforest, President-Elect of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor, Departement of Political Science, Université Laval

This blog was published on Guy Laforest's website on May 25th, 2016

The University of Calgary, placed at the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, will be the host, from May 28 to June 3, 2016, of the congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. More than 8,000 participants, representing over 70 scholarly associations in the great family of the humanities and the social sciences will hold their annual meeting in the economic metropolis of Alberta, united around a federating topic: energizing communities. In a country as immense as Canada, these meetings enable scholars and intellectuals to fraternize for a couple of days with their colleagues, to imagine new paths towards collaboration while taking the pulse of their respective academic disciplines. Clearly, in 2016, people will be searching for ways to express their solidarity for the community of Fort McMurray, recently ravaged by terrible forest fires.

Using the opportunity of this great meeting of persons and minds in Calgary, I shall attempt here to reflect about the nature of the university as a community.

The idea of the university as a knowledge-oriented community has over time been hardly reconciled with the concept of equality. In the classical (Aristotelian and Thomistic) tradition of the university, the notion of hierarchy embraced disciplines as well as relations between categories of people. Theology and philosophy reigned supreme. Such was the institutional spirit for many decades at the place where I teach, Université Laval in Québec City, a house of higher education founded in 1852 by the leaders of the Séminaire de Québec, the great Catholic educational jewel founded by François de Montmorency Laval in 1663. In the managerial university of the twenty-first century engineering, alongside the medical and administrative sciences, appear dominant all over the world. In such an environment professors become human resources and students are seen as clienteles (to be conquered, kept, evaluated and maintained on the lists of donors for the duration of their lives). Everywhere, instrumental or utilitarian rationality is the dominant language. Ambitious scholars need to couch their research in the discourse of economic usefulness and social innovation.

The social sciences look more at home in the positivistic university of the nineteenth-century, although it needs to be stressed that the latter was far from being egalitarian. Aping the master disciplines (the natural sciences) does not mean one gets equal consideration. There were hierarchies as well in the humanistic university, despite its lofty appeals to Goodness, Beauty and Truth. In my judgment, this remark applies equally to the universities of the Renaissance and to those steeped in the tradition of the Humboldtian ideal in nineteenth-century Germany and elsewhere, where the goal was the shaping of human beings called to develop harmoniously their freedom and all their faculties.

In those times, the university was not a democracy. It still is not. In this institution, professors have a privileged role. They are the vanguard of the university as a knowledge-oriented institution. Quite frankly, I see nothing wrong with this. The university must respond to, and be controlled by, a democratic regime. It is quite appropriate to demand that the governance of universities be more enlightened, more transparent, shielded from corporatism, clientelism, cooptation and favor-seeking. Nevertheless, I have always believed that it was a mistake to invoke the mechanisms of representative democracy or the ideals of participatory democracy to reach such objectives. Our governments are of course perfectly legitimate when they demand explanations about the ways in which universities spend public funds and deliver on all their obligations, while not disturbing the spirit and letter of academic freedom. This may appear somewhat conservative. Around universities, I believe this makes sense.

All in all, I believe the university can be an authentic, human, admirable form of community. This remains an inspiring ideal. On the basis of my own experiences I shall give here a few examples, in the hope that they may be useful towards the realization of this ideal in other milieus.

The university is an authentic community when, in the circumstances of hiring a new colleague, all members of a teaching and research unit study all files thoroughly, debate about the whole matter with rigour and fairness, knowing that the upcoming decision is crucial to both the future of their group and, above all, to all human beings whose careers and lives are about to be transformed.

The university is an authentic community when, after a lecture, many students remain in the classroom with their professor, to pursue the discussion about an argument made during the lecture, or simply for the pleasure of conversing about current news or related topics.

The university is an authentic community when professors give of their time to replace in the classroom one of their colleagues who needs to be away for professional duties or personal emergencies.

The university is an authentic community when, overcoming the spirit of internal competitiveness, colleagues are generous the ones with the others, congratulating those who have made notable achievements, or simply identifying ways in which they could better round-up their arguments or deepen their investigations.

I have been working around universities for about thirty years. The first authentic community I have been fortunate enough to encounter was the department of political science at the University of Calgary, where I thought between 1986 and 1988. Led at that time by Tom Flanagan, this department was characterized by its great devotion towards students and the teaching of political science, by its great spirit of collegial emulation with good humor and generosity. Faculty members were Keith Archer, Doreen Barrie, Donald Barry, Barry Cooper, Mark O. Dickerson, Stan Drabek, Shadia Drury, Thomas Flanagan, Roger Gibbins, Bohdan Harasymiw, James Keeley, Ronald Keith, Rainer Knopff, Tariq Ismaël, Ted Morton, Neil Nevitte, Leslie Pal, Anthony Parel, Carol Prager and Donald Ray. I wish to express my gratitude to all of them for everything I learnt in their company, notably with regards to the theory and praxis of the university as a form of community.