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'Excellence in commercialization'? Alberta university 'mandate letters' are dumb, but unlikely to mean much

Campus Alberta Logo

There's really no need for Albertans concerned about higher education to get their knickers in a twist about the provincial governmen's "mandate letters" to post-secondary institutions or the premier and her deputy's maunderings about the state of political science and engineering education in this province.

Nothing much will come of these ambiguous notes, even if anyone can figure out exactly what their authors had in mind.

Anyway, it's said here they're just a diversionary tactic to distract voters from the real scandal: the deep and destructive cuts in post-secondary funding, especially the $43 million hacked out of the University of Alberta, which will go much farther than jargon-rich and barely literate mandate letters to reduce the institution from its present international status to that of the third-rate provincial technical school the Redford Government apparently has in mind.

"Hey," the letters practically scream, "we're not like that premier Ed Stelmach guy! This time we've got an actual plan!" And it involves "excellence in commercialization." Really! I'm sorry to report I didn't make that up.

But instead of getting mad about the fact the plan in question seems to boil down to cutting the crap out of every course that's not endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Pipeline Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers, plus making sure the "Campus Alberta" logo is displayed everywhere, tout le monde Alberta has been in an uproar about Premier Alison Redford's slapstick comment that "in order for us to be excellent, we can't be mediocre everywhere."

Well, God knows, though, we're trying!

Redford asked, presumably rhetorically: "Do we need to have a political science faculty at every university, at every university and post-secondary institution across this province where every single one of them is aspiring to be the same? Do we? I don't think so.”

This was apparently taken as a grave insult by political scientists everywhere, except most likely the ones at the University of Calgary's cult-like "Calgary School," until recently home to former Wildrose campaign manager Tom Flanagan, who probably reckon they’re a deadbolt cinch to become "Campus Alberta's" single grand unified province-wide economics and poli-sci department.

(If this works out, maybe we can extend the idea to primary school and just have one Grade One reading class for the entire province, delivered by TV right after the Pepsi commercials. No wonder the Alberta Teachers Association signed off so peaceably on years of zeros!)

Where was I? Oh yeah, there was a similar uproar when the Deputy Premier and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, a former schoolteacher himself, started to ramble about the state of the province's five engineering schools. "You don't want to have five mediocre engineering schools. You're better off having two really good engineering schools. There's no doubt about it."

Since, as my fellow blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out on his Daveberta.ca blog, there's also no doubt about it that there are actually only two engineering schools in the province of Alberta, a lot of Alberta engineers took this to mean that premier's deputy took their work for, like, mediocre.

I wouldn't know about that, although observation suggests their work stands up better than the loony theories of the Calgary School's publicly paid ideologues.

There's not much danger of anything much coming from these risible mandate letters because in every community where there's a university with a campus and a history -- and that would be all of them except Athabasca, where the university is only a virtual entity -- there's a community of well-connected and well-off people, many of them graduates and lots of them Tories, who will fight tooth and nail to protect it.

So it is preposterous to suggest, as the University of Alberta's mandate letter does, that universities' boards and administrations will sign on to anything much in the letter, whoever's signature is forcibly affixed to the bottom on their behalf.

It's even more preposterous to say, as Lukaszuk apparently did, that the whole scheme is not negotiable. Well, we'll see about that!

Like bureaucracies everywhere, university officials will refuse to co-operate, drag their feet and argue publicly and vociferously with the government's largely misconceived plan to somehow meld 26 universities, colleges, technology institutes and what have you into a bizarre Great Plains version of the University of California, only with higher fees, inferior offerings and no palm trees.

Indeed, the University of Alberta Board of Governors is already mailing out open letters.

They'll keep it up until the nuisance goes away -- which the way Redford and Lukaszuk are going about things, may not take too long.

And if Redford and Lukaszuk try to slap them down, graduates, students, faculty members, retirees, local business types and other dear friends will step into the breach with alacrity.

They'll even, mark my words, resist about the only good idea in this whole dumb scheme -- complete transferability of student courses between the institutions of "Campus Alberta." Although, in fairness, you'd have to forgive a legitimate economics department for questioning the credentials of a "Calgary School" student who's been taught Ludwig von Mises was an economist or Ayn Rand was a philosopher!

Expecting this to actually happen makes about as much sense as making under-funded universities guarantee they'll ensure "Alberta's economy is competitive and sustainable" -- one would have thought that was the government's job -- or that they will develop "engaged critical thinkers, ethical citizens, entrepreneurial spirit."

And don't forget the need to "enhance your work with business and industry to maximize the responsiveness to regional economic and social needs." Like, I guess, producing of compliant and obedient low-wage workers -- so scratch "engaged critical thinkers" above!

Then we get to the really important part: "Actively engage in and promote the Campus Alberta brand, including the Campus Alberta logo on all institutional correspondence."

Got that? Keep your eye out for the Campus Alberta logo. Especially as the next election draws nigh.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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