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Canada 150 Research Chairs and the Devaluation of Canadian Talent

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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