EDUCATION

Assault on the ivory tower

A firebrand takes aim at Nova Scotia’s universities

VICTOR DWYER May 23 1994
EDUCATION

Assault on the ivory tower

A firebrand takes aim at Nova Scotia’s universities

VICTOR DWYER May 23 1994

Assault on the ivory tower

EDUCATION

A firebrand takes aim at Nova Scotia’s universities

She moved to Nova Scotia less than two years ago, but that has been time enough for Janet Halliwell to rack up a long list of detractors among the province’s academics. “She’s a bully,” says John D’Orsay, executive director of the Nova Scotia Confederation of University Faculty Associations. “She doesn’t know the meaning of the word collegiality,” says Dalhousie University vicepresident Deborah Hobson. Undaunted, Halliwell seems resigned to being the object of hostility: as chair of the Nova Scotia Council on Higher Education, her job is to ferret out overlap and duplication in the province’s system of 13 degree-granting institutions. Last month, following the council’s first recommendations, Education Minister John MacEachern announced that teacher education programs at three of the eight schools that offer those degrees will close in September, and that the future of two others will be reviewed within a year. The cuts have drawn MacEachern into a war of words with university officials—which, it seems, has made Halliwell more defiant than ever. “Universities are run by groups of people who know lots about collegiality but less about direction—and even less about accountability,” she says. “And they are driving our universities into the dust.” Adds Halliwell: “The council’s job is to turn that around.”

In an august world built on timehonored principles of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and lifelong tenure, them’s fightin’ words. But even as Halliwell’s critics line up to defend the independence of the academy against the boldest attempt yet made in Canada to rationalize a system of higher education, others in their ranks are grudgingly conceding that her actions are as inevitable as they are unpalatable. With seven full-scale universities and six specialty college/universities, Nova Scotia has far more degree-granting institutions per capita than any other province. Together, they serve about 30,000 full-time students—about as many as the Université de Montréal, Canada’s second largest.

Few people question the high quality of the system—it attracts 27 per cent of its students from outside the province, compared

with an average of eight per cent in other provinces. And Halliwell herself says that she has no immediate interest in eliminating entire universities. Still, many argue that a firm hand is needed to maintain high standards in tough times. “None of us wants an excellent system destroyed,” says Elizabeth Parr-John-

‘No programs, policies or practices are sacrosanct’

ston, president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “And although in the best of all possible worlds I wouldn’t want the council to be doing what it is doing, the fact is, this is not the best of all possible worlds.”

In fact, it was the universities themselves, through the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, that petitioned the government in 1992 to empower the Council on Higher Education, then merely a co-ordinating body, to identify ways to rationalize the system.

That request followed about two years of meetings in which the presidents had attempted, on the orders of Joel Matheson, then minister of advanced education, to do away with unnecessary duplication. Despite some minor successes, the process became, in the words of St. Francis Xavier University

president David Lawless, “a swamp.” With the screws of recession tightening, and with the discussions only intensifying rivalries, the presidents asked Guy Le Blanc, who had since become minister, to authorize the Council on Higher Education to, as Dalhousie’s Hobson puts it, “divide a pie that was unable to divide itself.” Later that year, Le Blanc recruited Halliwell, at that time head of the now-defunct Science Council of Canada, and known in the university community for her work, during the 1980s, as director general of research grants at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. She in turn appointed University of Toronto education professor Bernard Shapiro, who is to become president of Montreal’s McGill University in July, to head a team to examine the council’s first subject: teacher education. Based on his report, and the council’s assessment, MacEachern announced last month the closure of the education programs at Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s in Halifax, and the a Nova Scotia Teachers’ College in ^ Truro. â Although Shapiro’s team had also recommended eliminating similar programs at Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and at St. Francis Xavier, in Antigonish, the minister gave them a temporary reprieve. Tiny Université Sainte-Anne, in Pointe-de-L’Eglise, will continue to offer the province’s only French-lan-

guage education degree, while Mount Saint Vincent and Acadia, in Woliville, will also remain open—and, in fact, have approval to create more comprehensive, and somewhat expanded, education faculties.

Having achieved what the presidents could not, Halliwell has unleashed an academic tempest. Leading the charge has been Dalhousie, where Hobson has alleged that Shapiro’s team—which based its evaluations largely on self-examinations provided by the schools—failed to establish which programs were academically superior. Says Hobson: “Whole careers ended up hinging on brief impressions.” But Halliwell makes no apologies. “This is a high-level strategic review of what the province needs, overall and in the long term,” she says, noting that Shapiro also examined employment projections for education graduates. “That,” says Halliwell, “is exactly what never got accomplished before.”

At the same time, Halliwell is also facing criticism for failing to confront a major obstacle in the way of rationalization. University charters, as well as most collective agree-

ments, require that all academic decisions be approved by university senates. Those bodies are largely made up of professors and deans from across campus—people who are generally loath to put fellow academics out of work. Anticipating a senate veto of any move to discontinue education, Hobson vows to ignore the recent provincial orders. ‘We will be obliged to keep paying our faculty,” says Hobson, “so we intend to admit students for them to teach.”

Such tough talk is causing minister MacEachern to begin responding in kind. “We may not be able to make the ultimate

academic decisions,” MacEachern told Maclean’s. “But we control university funding, and we control the certification of teachers, and you can be sure we will cut the first, and withdraw the second, to effect the changes we want.” Those threats, in turn, are causing some university presidents to question whether academic freedom—widely regarded as a cornerstone of democracy—is effectively on the chopping block. Contends St. Francis Xavier’s Lawless: ‘The government is basically saying, ‘Times are tough, to hell with you all.’ ”

Ironically, some observers say that MacEachern’s decision to give St. Francis Xavier another year to prove its worth—despite Shapiro’s recommendations it be closed—shows just how little things are changing in Nova Scotia. MacEachern earned his own education degree at St. F. X. And Hobson and others say that it was because the university put up a fight that it was given a stay of execution. “It was clearly a political decision, not an academic one,” insists Hobson. Lawless bristles at the accusation. “We certainly made the point loud and clear that if they closed this department, they were closing education for all of Nova Scotia, northeast of Halifax” he says. “I think a lot of the MLAs heard that and acted.” Asks Lawless: “Is that political? I guess it is.”

As the conflict rages, Halliwell is preparing to announce recommendations for reform in engineering and computer science. And she will soon launch a search for someone to chair a committee to examine the province’s business programs, the two biggest of which are located at archrivals Dalhousie and St. Mary’s—“a very tense axis,” as Halliwell describes it. “I will want someone for that job,” she adds, “who can walk on water.”

Meanwhile, a draft copy of a soon-to-bereleased analysis that she has prepared on the longer-range issues facing Nova Scotia universities is turning up on campuses across the province. It reads, in part: “There are no... programs, policies, or practices... that are sacrosanct,” and calls for a “full, ‘wartime campaign’ style approach to tackling the renewal and restructuring needed in the university system.” And although that report makes little mention of Nova Scotia’s support of so many out-of-province students, a council committee is examining that and other issues.

Amid the din of battle, Halliwell strikes an optimistic note, insisting that she views her role as transitory, if not always comfortable. “Ultimately, I would like to pull back, and see the universities become more self-correcting,” she says. “In fact, I would like the system to be like the evolving Europe on its better days: with overarching policy coherence, but with decision-making at local levels, and with local cultures securely maintained.” That is a noble goal—but for now Nova Scotia’s academic community is looking less like the modem Europe than the former Yugoslavia.

VICTOR DWYER