Monday, December 8, 2014

Sexism, universities and the crisis of legitimacy

This weekend the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business made headlines when a first-year MBA case study featured a ditzy female needing advice from a much-less-ditzy male friend on which compensation package to select. Said ditzy female was apparently too distracted by the bright shiny objects sold by the fictional employer (I’m not making that up).

Cue outrage. Then this:
(The) professor of the capital markets class, later apologized verbally for the assignment, which was he said written by a teacher’s assistant. He then advised the class to think carefully before speaking to the media, according to students. 
One student, who asked not to be identified over concerns of reprisal, said some classmates started to clap after the professor suggested against commenting to the press. The student also expressed concern that, for some, protecting the Rotman brand appeared to take precedence over offence caused by the assignment.
Basically, the professor changed the channel on the discussion—away from his misbehaviour to the purported inadvisability of publicly outing sexism at Rotman. Now, to be fair, the prof may well have been earnestly trying to make this a teachable moment for the students.

The interesting thing is that some of the students clapped when the prof turned the table on the student and blamed the victim. What’s happening here is that a relatively powerless group (the students) with much at stake (the reputation of the institution from which they are getting a degree) are prioritizing the interests they have in common with the U of T over the interests they have which differ from the university’s (which, one presumes, includes a sexism-free environment).

This kind of Stockholm syndrome is often seen in relationships of power, like employment. But not all the time.

For example, Alberta post-secondary institutions are once again hearing that budget cuts are coming. At Athabasca University, we got a missive from Interim President Peter McKinnon on November the 26th that said, in part:
I genuinely regret to advise you that our initial review of the budget projections for next fiscal year is far from positive. 
We had previously projected a potential budget shortfall in 2015-16 of $9 million. Based on more recent information, we now see that potential deficit being at least $12 million. This does not even take into account any new budget requests. 
…Additionally, our analysis shows that, if the recent provincial labor settlement values flow over to the post-secondary sector, and are coupled with our current annual merit system, our compensation increases will amount to more than $13 million over the next three years. 
…My own view is that we cannot afford in the long term to keep stripping away our capacity to compete by not focusing on much needed investments now. We must take bold steps to generate additional revenue and contain costs, both current and future. Everything needs to be on the table, including the compensation bill, which makes up 70% of our operating expenses.
The response of AU compensation costs… errrr…. employees has been mixed. There has been some discussion of ideas about how to generate additional revenue as well as save money via operational efficiencies.

There is also some pretty frank skepticism. Many staff question how the university could not sort out its financial problems despite 100 fewer staff (a roughly 15% reduction in full-time employees through a mix of layoffs and attrition since 2012) and a two-year wage freeze.

The last time we heard this rhetoric was also the last time the unions were negotiating for wages increases (a coincidence, I’m sure). At that time (2012), there was there was a very vocal group of workers who argued for wage freezes, salary rollbacks and days off without pay.

So far, that narrative has not emerged. This may reflect a bit of “boy who cried wolf” fatigue (as one colleague said: “Oh, we’re going bankrupt again, are we?”).

That there is actually a wolf at the end of that parable isn’t lost on employees. But, I think staff have reached the point where, if the province doesn’t want to adequately fund the institution, then parts (or all) of it will close down. This fatalism is likely reinforced by the complete absence of a compelling plan to go forward.

And then there is the deep skepticism that the powerful in Alberta will say whatever gets them what they want. This crisis of legitimacy gained root during the Premiership of Alison Redford and continues under Jim Prentice (who promised to restore PSE funding but is now looking to cut it—shades of Alison Redford…). One effect is that it limits the ability of administrators to achieve their goals through persuasion and forces them to act more coercively.

Since that is dreary, here is some Ellen on the issue of sexism.

-- Bob Barnetson

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