half-naked skateboarders and university professors

This past weekend one of my kids turned thirteen.  My stressor was how to turn a UBC campus scavenger hunt into an epic event for thirteen year old boys.  Turns out the weather took care of that for me.  It poured!  We scavenged.

Along the way, my son says they ran into a skateboarder making his way across the campus with his shirt in hand.  As he sailed past them he cried out, “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”  An appropriate question.

Its the question that university professors should be asking.  “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”

Buried within the text of David Suzuki’s 1989 publication, Inventing the Future, is an article entitled, “Prostituting Academia.”  His concerns voiced 22 years ago are just as relevant today.  The article raises a question for me:  Are tenured professors meant to be the voice of conscience for the university?

Are tenured professors uniquely positioned to be able to ask us all, “Hey young ones, what are you doing out here?”  To do so, though, in an age of competitive funding from business, industry and government may cause them to loose their shirts.  Are they willing to loose  their shirts and call out to us, “Hey what you are you doing out here?”

Here’s an excerpt from David Suzuki’s article:

I don’t deny a role for university faculty in the application of new ideas.  Our top-notch people are Canada’s eyes and ears to the world’s research, and good people will have ideas that can eventually be exploited.  But the deliberate and urgent push to economic payoff distorts scholarship within the university and subverts its thrust to the will of those who have the money.  Profit and destruction are the major reasons for the application of science today, while environmental and social costs are seldom seriously addressed.  That’s why we need scholars who are detached from those applications.

I remain a faculty member of UBC and because I care so much for the university I am compelled to speak out in criticism.  Tenure confers the obligation to do so.

I don’t condone but can understand why university scientists, who have been underfunded for so long, are welcoming the Faustian bargain with private industry.  But I fail to comprehend why philosophers, historians and sociologists who should know better are acquiescing so easily.

The headlong rush to industrialize the university signals the implicit acceptance of many assumptions that have in the past been questioned by academics themselves.  For example, free enterprise, like most economic systems is based on the unquestioned necessity for steady growth–growth in GNP, consumption and consumer goods.

Steady incremental growth within a given interval is called “exponential growth,” and any scientist knows that nothing in the universe grows exponentially indefinitely.  Yet economists, business people and politicians assume the explosive increase in income, consumer goods and GNP (and inflation) of the past decades must be maintained to sustain our quality of life.  Historians know that this growth is an aberration, a blip that must inevitably stop and reverse itself.  But how can the fallacy of maintainable exponential growth be seriously challenged when the university is busy selling the myth that it can maintain such growth?

Scholars in universities represent tiny islands of thought in society.  They are sufficiently detached from the priorities of various interest groups like business, government and the military to point out flaws in our current social truths.  But by focussing on issues that are socially relevant or economically profitable, we lose sight of the broader context within which that activity falls; we forget history; we become blind to the environmental and social costs of our innovations.”  p. 75-76

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