By Brad Evoy
“I wanted to see the university inculcate in those students the entrepreneurial factor — to take a chance, to build something, to invest …”
— Premier Tom Marshall,
The Western Star, Aug. 6.
Dear Editor: Clark Kerr wrote in his famed Godkin lectures that the modern university was a new institution compared to those that came before it, that “it is neither entirely of the world nor entirely apart from it.”
While I don’t agree with Kerr’s analysis of the past entirely, he highlights a key tension in university life in particular. There are many within the university, all universities, who see themselves in the mode of being a world apart from the rest of society and those, like our premier, who see it as subservient to the wills of society (or, in less positive but more accurate terms, the ruling party). Both subsets of the community are wrong-headed in their approach, but one can address that shortly.
Now, I want to take a brief aside here to say outright — if you didn’t get my sense of this — that I have no intention of arguing for the economic value of the university, as an engine of development or anything of the sort. Let those with such ends debate such things, what I’m on about — I hope —is much more fundamental.
This more fundamental idea is that the university is both independently autonomous, but still a construct of wider society, simultaneously. As part of society, the university does indeed respond and shift as society does itself. One cannot respectably claim in light of the wider history of such institutions, particularly the historic growth of the Grenfell Campus, that such macro-level change does not occur.
However, this doesn’t mean that such matters are a one-way street.
The university, as it is a distinct institution embedded within society, can serve as an engine of counter-narratives and dissent from other forces, including that of the government of the day. As well, it is not only the government that defines the whims and wills of society, no matter their power over the state.
Premier Marshall seems aggrieved by the resistance to projects of the government from the Grenfell community, but he should not be so surprised. The actions of the Grenfell community in the cases of tire-derived fuel and fracking were in support of a wider dissent from the government’s designs and just as part of society as his own economic desires.
Desires which, mind you, oversimplify the purposes of the university to an incredible degree and do a disservice to the community-minded educational mission of this particular campus. Marshall, in my dealings with him, had always seemed supportive of these wider goals, so I am disappointed to be proven so wrong. Instead, Marshall has shown himself to be more conservatively populist in the modern sense, than progressive.
Yet, it seems, Marshall is not alone in this. A few months ago, at a national conference, Minister Charlene Johnson dually waxed poetic about the boon of the new Newfoundland and Labrador student grants program and the need to lower taxes to encourage economic growth. Talk of post-secondary was bolstered with the need to further extraction industries and maintain youth retention — not unfamiliar refrains to those who’ve worked in the sector, but notions that illustrate a point here.
Our government couldn’t care less about the mission of the university or its unique position in society, instead what matters is their populist ideology. What Marshall is truly concerned about is that the actions arising from Grenfell defies some of their keystone ideas and, in turn, represents part of society standing opposed to their aims.
So I ask: Is it truly the failure of the Grenfell Campus to promote economic growth, or is it rather that the government has failed to utilize the mission and strengths of the university to societal ends?
Is it truly the fault of the campus that it is a site of resistance or is it a failure of government to require such resistance in the first place?
Knowing Grenfell as I do, the premier’s words will be taken by some as a chilling effect — even as some state otherwise — but one must take heart.
No matter the desires of the premier, one cannot solely wholly determine or control the direction of the university or the whole of society.
Such systems are simply too complex. This is, perhaps, a lesson our government needs to learn.
Brad Evoy is an alumnus of Grenfell Campus, Memorial University and masters student in social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto). His current work focuses on the history of higher education and institutional governance. He is also a former executive of both the Grenfell Campus and University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Unions.