On the Margaret Wente Annual Anti-University Column

By Stan Persky | March 17, 2014
Columnist Margaret Wente.

Columnist Margaret Wente.

Margaret Wente, for those of you who don’t bother with this sort of trivia, is a veteran, conservative columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. She’s been with the Globe for 20 years and more, banging out a couple of pieces a week about the state of the world. Each year, Wente writes a column (some years, it’s two or three such columns) slagging universities. One year, the theme might be that most students aren’t smart enough to be in university and should be sent off to some nice vocational course. Another year, it’ll be that the stuff you learn in university isn’t worth knowing. Another year, Wente will argue that the whole thing’s a racket and a waste of public and private money. This year, the annual anti-university column is devoted to the notion that professors don’t teach enough. (Margaret Wente, “Professors are teaching less but not necessarily researching more,” The Globe and Mail, Mar. 11, 2014.)

Ordinary people believe that what university professors do, says Wente, is teach “our kids to think clearly and master a body of knowledge so that they’re prepared for a decent career.” But if you ask an actual professor what professors do, she continues, you’ll be informed that profs “are expected to do a roughly equal measure of teaching and research, plus a bunch of administrative and ‘service’ stuff on the side.” Teaching is “expected to take up only two-fifths of a professor’s time,” and while so little teaching may be a surprise in itself, in reality, says Wente, many professors “are doing a lot less than that.” Citing a recent Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) report, Wente says that the “typical teaching load of a university professor has dwindled to less than three courses a year — 2.8 to be exact, just 1.4 courses per semester.” A quarter century earlier, the teaching load was as high as 5 courses a year.

What are profs doing at “research universities”? Duh… research. What’s more, they’re well-paid for it, too — $100,000 a year or considerably more. Wente includes some obiter dicta on which research is most useful or most rewarded by government and business, to the effect that, in her view, science research may be acceptable, but humanities research is a waste, and the teachers of those softie subjects ought to get back to the classroom, pronto. None of this is exactly news, and hardly seems worth a column. The one little nugget of interest can be found in her semi-non-sequitur closing paragraph, which is about those often forgotten folks, undergraduate students. Says Wente, “The retreat from teaching means that today’s undergraduates are less and less likely to meet [professors], whose teaching duties have been increasingly assumed by graduate students and visiting lecturers. Is this really what we want? I don’t think so.”

There’s usually a half-grain of truth to Wente’s annual anti-university column, as is the case here, but the arguments tend to be a dog’s breakfast of thought, and she often misses the bigger point or problem, even though it’s right under her nose. Unfortunately, for readers who don’t get beyond the headline (and there may be quite a few of them), they won’t realize this is a somewhat arcane discussion of graduate schools and research universities, and will simply end up with the impression that teachers aren’t doing their jobs, a familiar right-wing trope about contemporary education.

Before I clean up the mess of this year’s university column, I should say a word about Wente herself, since she’s a phenomenon in her own right, the object of frequent controversy and reader rage. Though I seldom agree with Wente’s columns, and certainly almost never with her views on education, nonetheless, I like her writing, and admire her command of the column form as a genre. This is not to claim that her sentences always add up to sense, especially when it comes to education issues. Because of her conservatism, she attracts lots of criticism from the Globe’s more liberal readers. But it’s not just ordinary disagreement, it’s anger, spitting rage, contempt, uncivil vituperation, even, I’d say, hatred. I’m not sure why. I wouldn’t mention this normally, or waste a couple of paragraphs on the matter, but the intensity of reader dislike of Wente is unusually noticeable (of course, she has her supporters, too).

First of all, in a conservative newspaper (but one with a strong tradition of defending free speech and other civil liberties), it shouldn’t exactly be a surprise to find conservative columnists, nor should it be shocking to encounter strong opnions you might disagree with. Second, it’s true that Wente made a serious error a few years ago, that of presenting some material without citing the source (or plagiarism, as it’s known), but she apologised, her editor forgave her, and life went on, except for her angrier critics, who just can’t let it go, and bring it up at every opportunity. Ironically, plagiarism is one of the major sins in the field where I work, university teaching. If I can let Wente off the moral hook for an unrepeated error, which is what I often do with troubled students, why can’t Wente’s readers, as we say these days, move on? All of this plays out in reams of reader “comments” about Wente, usually nasty comments that the digitalized press thinks makes papers more “interactive,” and therefore, interesting. By contrast, I find a majority of the reader comments depressing, insofar as they’re a reflection of what’s on people’s minds. Ok, end of aside on Wente as lightning rod and back to the university seminar room.

I should first say that I have nothing against research universities as places where professors do research, teach mostly graduate students, and supervise graduate students’ dissertations, plus participate in the normal committee and administrative work. It’s a full-time job. How the research should be done, how much of it there should be, which disciplines should do more or less of it, I’m willing to leave to the professionals. Wente’s slagging of research profs, especially humanities teachers, seems, at best, only partially justified and a pointless cheap shot.

Mass lecture teaching.

Mass lecture teaching.

What I do, however, have against research universities, something Wente only mentions almost in passing at the very end of this year’s screed, is that these schools teach undergraduate students. They do it not just badly, but scandalously badly. The undergraduate students — students in first through fourth-year university — make up about 90 per cent of the university’s student body. Only about 5-10 per cent of undergraduates go on to graduate school after their bachelor’s degree.

The undergraduates are the students most in need of broad-based, good teaching that will support them in becoming critically minded, culturally well-rounded, competent citizens and productive working members of society. Yet, about 75 per cent of undergraduate teaching (these are the most recent figures I’ve seen, from the U.S.) is performed not by regular professors, but by “adjuncts,” “sessional lecturers,” and teaching assistants who have weak connections to the institution. Worse, the teaching takes place in mass lectures, where 500 or more first-year students can be crammed into an amphitheatre. It’s no surprise that the replacement of these impersonal mass lectures by mass online teaching made possible by computer technology looks increasingly attractive. Nor is it surprising that many former students, who have been “educated” in these mass lecture halls by teachers without much connection to the school, reflect bitterly on their experiences.

Classroom size.

Classroom size.

Ideally, younger university students should have the advantage of relatively small classes taught by regular professors from the university. In such small classes, the prof knows who each student is, personally marks the students’ papers, and the size of the class permits more than a few questions at the end of the lecture (if it is a lecture class), but some actual discussion whereby the students not only get to challenge the teacher but also get to talk in public to each other (which is one of the undertaught skills in current edcational practice).

But is such an alternative way of teaching and learning (or “delivery mode,” as it’s known in the ugly official lingo of the education business) really possible, or is it just some idealistic pipedream? Or, is it just a nice idea, but fiscally utterly impossible in these days of enormous student debt-loads and the “corporatization” of the university? “Corporatization” is the fancy term used to describe how universities are more and more being required to adhere to business and profit models that may not have much to do with education.

This is one of those questions that isn’t rhetorical and has an answer. The answer is yes. In British Columbia, several years ago, former provincial politician Geoff Plant’s Campus 2020 report (2007) proposed that the province take some of its colleges and designate them “special purpose teaching institutions,” or “regional universities.” You’d think that all universities would be designated “teaching institutions,” but let’s not confuse matters with mere common sense.

The idea was more or less accepted, i.e., put into law, by the “liberal-conservative” provincial government of the day (although there’s considerable controversy about the implementation of the regional university policy). The idea is straightforward: the regional university is not a “research” institution, it’s a teaching-and-learning centred university. The professors teach. Unlike the profs teaching 2.8 courses a year at research universities, the profs at regional universities teach 8 courses a year, or 4 courses a semester. What’s more, the class sizes tend to be about 35. The students know their teachers, and vice-versa. If the profs want to write books in their spare-time, their industriousness is welcomed (and there’s some provision for some research activities, though it’s limited). The profs tend to get paid about a third less than profs at research schools, but before you click on the “donation” button, recall that they do get nice, long summer holidays and “professional development” time (about 4 months of it a year).

How do I know all this? I didn’t learn about it reading a report. Yes, you guessed it. I teach in one of those “teaching institutions.” In fact, I’ve been teaching in teaching institutions for more decades than I care to admit. I can report that this system of post-secondary education works pretty well. It’s not perfect, it’s kind of old-fashioned and, as with anything else, it can be done poorly. It’s not hopelessly anachronistic — I mean, we have computers and other digital devices, and we use them, but when you have a situation where people can read books and talk to each other in discussion, you just don’t have as much need for bells-and-whistles as the mass online courses require, although I don’t have anything against online courses, as long as the students can figure out how to stay motivated enough to complete them.

The face-to-face small class “delivery mode” works well enough that I’m inclined to say that all undergraduate education, or the majority of it, ought to be done this way. It’s the preferable alternative to both mass lecture and mass online teaching (and it doesn’t require a nice tekkie person to set up a “Skype student circle” so that the students will have, at least, somebody to talk to). At this point in the conversation, somebody is bound to say, Yes, it’s a very nice idea, but can we afford it?

The frank answer to that question is, I don’t know. That’s what we have economists, accountants, and budget-making politicians for. It’s true that we increase productivity in regional universities by teachers teaching more and being paid less (but paid adequately), but maybe those productivity gains are offset through research universities teaching in mass lectures and paying non-regular teachers peanuts. That is, they achieve productivity through loss of quality.

But I think this is an issue where the fiscal question ought to come second to the values question. As we say in philosophy talk, this is one of those cases where essence ought to precede existence. We should figure out what we want. That is, I think governments ought to be committed to quality education where we foster the development of those critical-minded, culturally well-rounded, competent citizens and productive workers I mentioned earlier.

The alternative system I’ve described is, I think, the best way to achieve those aims. Since the quality of education will determine the quality of our democracy over the decades., this is clearly a public issue. We already fund university education to a large degree, indicating that we value it. How much we fund it is a social question. Paying for the educational method we prefer is a matter of adjusting government budgets, and determining proportionalities of how much comes from the state and how much from individual learners. That’s a political and practical issue that I leave to the people who know most about it. The crucial issue, in my view, is one of morality and values. At present, and here I agree with Margaret Wente, we’re not doing right by undergraduate students. Instead of just griping about universities, maybe she and others ought to look at the positive alternatives. Class dismissed.


Berlin, Mar. 17, 2014.







  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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