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by Eric Henry, Saint Mary’s University and Pamela Downe, University of Saskatchewan

 

Note: On September 29, 2017, the CASCA Executive Committee sent a letter to the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, and Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, outlining CASCA’s objections to the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program and urging them to explore ways of celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary that provide greater opportunities for Canadian scholars. Dr. Hewitt responded immediately and has acknowledged our feedback and offered to engage with CASCA on future initiatives. The following outlines the heart of our objections.

 

In an age of shrinking university budgets and reduced funding for scholarly research, it’s nice to get a bit of good news now and then. The federal government’s new investment in the Canada 150 Research Chairs program (coming in at $117.6 million!) offered a potentially fresh breeze in an otherwise stifling environment. After all, as report after report by faculty and labour organizations have shown, universities in Canada have gradually shifted away from a model of full-time employment for tenured faculty towards one of casual, temporary and precarious labour. This trend ultimately compromises both the educational mission of the university itself and the lives of those who must labour under this new neoliberal regime. The creation of up to 35 new full-time positions should pose a boon for students and faculty alike.

Alas, the good news quickly soured. As a June 21 press release from the Minister of Science made clear, “Attention international researchers: We are hiring.”

Why is this bad? First of all, someone may wish to give the Government of Canada a quick lesson in optics: celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada by offering jobs to those outside Canada isn’t necessarily the best move. But even beyond its image problems, the Canada 150 Research Chairs program is a lesson in how to weaken, rather than strengthen, Canadian universities.

The argument put forward by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, is fairly straightforward: this is a program meant to import knowledge and expertise. Making research chairs available to international scholars (which may include Canadian expatriates abroad) is intended to bring in the very best international talent to train Canadian students who will, it is presumed, also excel on the international stage. And there is a lot of international talent out there. The problem is that there is also a lot of Canadian talent right here that isn’t being utilized.

In 2015, James Waldram and Janice Graham published an analysis in Culture of hiring patterns in Canadian anthropology departments. They noted that, “two-thirds of Assistant Professors obtained their degrees from U.S. universities, and almost 80% hold PhDs from a non-Canadian program!” Moreover, “Five U.S. schools are responsible for 38% of all Assistant Professors of anthropology at these Canadian universities.”

There are at least 14 universities in Canada that currently offer a doctoral program in anthropology. These programs often attract the best undergraduate and master’s students Canada has to offer. Yet the graduates of those programs are often effectively excluded from the Canadian academic labour market, obligated to go overseas or forced to work as non-tenured sessionals and adjuncts in favour of graduates from top American schools. This is not to say that Canadian jobs should be reserved only for Canadians. We should, however, ensure that Canadian graduate programs remain viable as potential avenues to employment. The Canada 150 Research Chairs puts one more nail in the coffin of Canadian graduate programs.

It is not just our programs that are under threat; principles of collective governance are also at risk. Most universities undertake academic hiring through the faculty and student collegium rather than imposing a top-down process common in the for-profit corporate world. This means that, when an academic position opens, current faculty discuss the curricular and research needs of their departments before beginning a search, ensuring that new hires fulfill actual program needs, do not overlap with existing areas of expertise, and will contribute to the long-term development of departments and programs.

In contrast, the Canada 150 Research Chairs program puts power directly into the hands of university administrators who have a tendency to favour trendy or high-profile disciplines that attract media attention and grants but do not necessarily advance the academic mission of the university. Funding levels for these positions (up to $1 million per year) are likewise geared towards technology, biomedicine and other fields that require substantial investments, further draining support for more modest – but by no means less effective – programs.

And these funds do not last forever; they expire after seven years. With no indication of how the Chairs and their research programs are to be integrated into university budgets afterwards, future institutional support will likely be drawn from existing programs, exacerbating the budget constraints and funding crises engulfing so many Canadian universities. Or the scholars recruited at such great expense may simply migrate to the next million dollar offer. This is a steep price to pay then for an initiative that was ill-conceived from the start.

In the end, funding schemes like the Canada 150 Research Chairs treat academics like commodities, to be shipped and traded around the world with the hope that Canada will get the highest quality global product on offer. The “Made in Canada” label just doesn’t seem to be good enough anymore, and may be why more and more aspiring graduate students are being counselled not to waste their time on Canadian institutions. This is a threat both to our universities – which must either lower their graduate program admission standards or find ways to recruit abroad – and to CASCA itself, as Canadian graduates find themselves leaving while new hires are more connected to American and European scholarly networks.

Imagine what could be done with $117 million dollars. More funding for SSHRC grants to conduct high-quality Canadian research, maybe even funds aimed specifically at non-tenure track faculty. Stronger support for research partnerships with indigenous communities and the hiring of indigenous scholars. Establishing “diversity chairs” targeting female, transgender, and minority scholars from under-represented groups in the academy. Every one of these alternatives would create stronger programs, better opportunities for students, and revitalize Canadian anthropology departments. Instead, we’ll get more of the same.

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4 thoughts on “Canada 150 Research Chairs and the Devaluation of Canadian Talent

  1. Pingback: President’s Welcome / Mot de bienvenue de la Présidente | Culture

  2. This essay is full of unsubstantiated claims and projections and no data to support the arguments! They seem to know little of how Chairs are selected and even less about the costs of research or what 117 million spread across the country would buy! Not much without matching funds from the provinces, industry or other benefactors! University research is NOT a parochial pursuit. There is no such thing as CANADIAN math or biochemistry or anthropology. Value and merit is adjudicated by the internatuional community! Indeed we need much more money committed to basic research across the board to every province …..maybe by a “Tobin” tax on electronic transactions by banks! …and while they’re at it a few billion to deal with deferred maintenance issues across the country. Universities do teach in those hallowed crumbling buildings
    ……And those tenured stars from abroad do contribute more than just glitz to those inward looking denizens of “ O Canada!”

    The essay gets a C+ in my class!

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  3. I think this “essay” has struck a nerve with Prof. Visentin, a former university senior administrator! First off, this is a position paper in a newsletter; it is not an “essay,” nor is it a refereed article in a science journal. I am pretty sure that similar items in biology, his field, also are exempt from providing “supporting data” and citations, working instead to spark discussion. However, this piece does indeed cite the relevant research to support their point that few Canadian-trained PhDs in anthropology are getting permanent positions in Canadian universities. There are also ample data publicly available to support the contention that there are many skilled scholars in Canada who are underemployed, but perhaps a symptom of the severity of the problem is evident in that a former university president is apparently unaware of this situation (or, dare I suggest, does not care about the precariously unemployed?).

    Rather than simply disagreeing with the authors of this commentary, Prof Visentin chooses to insult them by suggesting that they are ignorant of how universities, research chairs, and research funding works. Certainly they have not been university presidents, but I think this gives them valuable and less myopic insight from the ‘shop floor,’ where the heavy lifting occurs (and at salaries significantly lower than what our presidents earn). I hope this is not how Prof. Visentin responded as president to faculty at his university with whom he disagreed! Are we not allowed to question federal initiatives? Are we not to suggest that federal money perhaps could be better spent by contributing to research funding for current faculty? Are we not to question an initiative to bring international scholars to Canada while so many of our own languish as sessional instructors? Are we not allowed to ponder where the money for all these international scholars will come from once the federal money ends? Are we not allowed to question, Prof. Visentin?

    That he would assert that there “is no such thing as CANADIAN … anthropology,” suggests he is also uninformed here as well. Since he likes “substantiated claims” in newsletters, here is one place to start:

    https://www.ubcpress.ca/historicizing-canadian-anthropology

    There IS an anthropology department at his former university, of course, but perhaps he was unaware of that during his presidential tenure, or just never bothered to learn about the field. But I give him kudos for somehow bumping into an article in a Canadian anthropology newsletter, and even taking the time to set all us Canadian anthropologists straight, knowledge notwithstanding!

    Grade for Visentin’s response? Naw, that is childish. This is a serious matter.

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  4. I’d like to thank Dr. Visentin for taking the time to comment on our article – the worst that could happen is for this issue to be ignored. I would, however, like to counter a few points.

    First of all, there is ample data to substantiate our arguments. On the question of academic precarity, I will refer the reader again to the reports by CUPE and ANSUT linked to above. Furthermore, CAUT published just this month the latest data on contract faculty in Canada (https://www.caut.ca/bulletin/2017/10/numbers-contract-academic-staff-canada). Clearly this is an issue that isn’t going away.

    It is true that we have no information on how SSHRC will select individual research chairs, but the application process itself and the distribution of funds is transparently provided on the application website (http://www.canada150.chairs-chaires.gc.ca/program-programme/cpan-pccs-eng.aspx). The application specifies that it is not individual researchers, departments or faculties that submit requests for these funds but the institutions themselves. A quick online search of open Canada 150 Research Chair positions easily reveals that applications go directly to vice-presidents of research where the decisions will be made (see, for instance, the job advertisements posted by UBC, Carleton and Waterloo).

    I will also note that a similar program, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, awarded no funds to social scientists and, of its 26 awardees, only one was female (http://www.cerc.gc.ca/chairholders-titulaires/index-eng.aspx).

    If Dr. Visentin doubts that $117 million, “spread across the country,” would go very far, he might be surprised to discover that social science research is rarely funded in partnership with industry – our grants from SSHRC are typically all the funds we receive and also all the funds we require to actually do our work. Given a typical Insight Grant award in the amount of $50,000, I calculate we could fund 234 research projects with that amount. That would go very far indeed.

    There is, as he notes, a critical need for more basic research funding and for sustaining universities as institutions (perhaps less money for flashy new buildings and more to repair our existing infrastructure). In this case, though, the Canada 150 Research Chairs will satisfy neither of those goals.

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