The Borg are here

We call them university presidents.

Does anybody remember the Borg from Star Trek? The Borg were a race of high-tech cyborgs who flew around the galaxy at dizzying speeds, looking for new races to conquer and turn into more cyborgs and so on. Once assimilated by the Borg, whatever light was in your human or Klingon or Vulcan eyes went out. Fitted with wires and components, you became a mindless drone working for the super-efficient collective. The Borg ships were incredibly powerful, but dim and ugly. Try to tell the Borg you don’t like their vision of the future? They dismiss your concerns as irrelevant, and they claim that they are the ones that see the real truth. And then they infect you with nano-probes.

I remind you all of this, because something like this is, as far as I can tell, is what Canada’s university presidents are trying to do to our institutions of higher education. Consider, for example, this horrifying article by two of them, Pierre Zundel and Patrick Deane. Here’s how the Borg Presidents make first contact:

success, though, will depend upon our managing to escape from the essentially nostalgic mindset that has hampered real pedagogical progress in our institutions for at least the last decade. We have been incapacitated by a witches’ brew whose ingredients are familiar to all – escalating costs, declining public investment, rising enrolments, proportionately declining faculty complements, and so on – yet we have failed to heed the advice we would normally give our students in such circumstances: to reorient ourselves to our goals and explore alternative or even radically different ways to approach them.

Resistance, as the Borg like to say, is futile. You will be reoriented.

Actually, what I teach my students is to question authority and notice the way they write and speak. Consider, for instance, nominalizations like “declining public investment.” By referring to it as a thing and not as a series of actions, the agents disappear and so does the moral responsibility. What is being elided here is that public investment didn’t just “decline” on its own; governments cut funding to universities because they decided other things were more important.

But the Borg don’t listen and they don’t turn back. They adapt and they keep coming.

Universities have typically responded to resource pressures with the simple expedient of cost reduction on the input side of the educational equation.

You see the new verbal weapon, here?  Universities responded? No, university administrators responded. You responded. It was your idea to cut faculty and make bigger classes. You acquiesced, you sold us out, you failed to raise the alarm, you made the deal with the devil. Don’t pretend it was universities in general.

So what do we have now? Bad teaching. Because we have too few professors? No,  because:

In this model (as in the famous Figuier depiction of Aristotle instructing Alexander the Great), the knowledge expert (the professor) tells the novice (the student) about his discipline. The former does the teaching, the latter does the learning, and, as the context for this encounter has worsened under pressure of declining resources, it is questionable whether either does so effectively. Even in the best circumstances this approach trivializes the role of the student and exaggerates the professing function in the learning process. The teaching technology model brings to mind some old industrial processes, before the discovery of catalysts, in which a huge amount of fossil fuel was consumed to provide the activation energy for chemical reactions.

Incredibly, the Presidents place the misbegotten origins of our ineffectual higher education system in Ancient Athens, the 19th century, and the early 20th century all at once (apparently platinum has been an industrial catalyst for around 50 years or so, though I don’t know if that’s the one they are thinking of). It’s worth noting that the modern university did not develop in any of those periods. And out of this historical mish-mash comes the incredible conclusion that the very act of being taught is insulting to the student and gives professors big egos to boot.

So what is to be done? The Borg know. Your technology is out of date. You will be assimilated:

The professor is not the only person responsible for helping the student learn. Others can be involved, including the students themselves, their peers, community members, community organizations, societies and institutions. We, the teachers, become more concerned with what the students are actually doing. We begin to think more broadly about the kinds of situations in which students learn. For example, other cultures and environments become a resource for helping students learn when we take part in international internships. The challenges of professional practice or the problems of certain social groups become opportunities to engage in problem-based or service learning.

To the extent that any of this makes any sense, it’s meaningless, because it’s what we are doing already. We already think about how students learn. We already involve the community and use problem-based learning. And we always have been doing these things.

But that’s not what the Borg really want. They want to destroy our individuality and add us to their perfection. And then the real attack begins:

Service and experiential learning require coordination and a new or greater commitment of staff time; this may change the ratio of academic to professional staff. Faculty members bring their scholarship and experience into an altered dynamic in which they contribute significantly as designers and facilitators rather than mainly dispensers of formal declarative knowledge.

Can you believe it? All we have to do to fix the Canadian university system is get rid of more professors and hire more administrators! Left to their own devices, our university presidents will have the most efficient universities in the world. There just won’t be anyone actually teaching anything. But don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of coordination.

In Star Trek, humanity fought against the Borg, and we have to fight now before it is too late. Because, of course, all the empty talk is designed to mask a sinister and destructive mission.  The real problem with universities today isn’t the use of the lecture format. A great lecture can be a revelation — ask anyone who’s been to one. The problem isn’t the model of professors and students — people who know little need to get in rooms with people who know more. And the problem is not a lack of creativity — spend some time with actual teaching professors (something university presidents do little of) and you’ll see that.

The real problems are well known. The public education system does not adequately prepare students for university.  Tuition fees are too high which has led to increased interest in marketable credentials rather than real, deep learning.  Big universities place too much emphasis on research while small universities put too little emphasis on it.

University presidents could help fix these problems if they wanted to, but they have already been assimilated into the mindless collective that prizes efficiency above all else.

Shamelessly, the Presidents go on to give examples of how “in many institutions of all sizes across the country, faculty members make use of problem-based learning to help students develop content mastery, reasoning, and research and social interaction skills” even though they just finished saying that the problem with universities is that we don’t do these things! The Presidents claim that these things happen only in “pockets” and that expansion is what is needed.

Yes, expansion. So administrators can worry about “learning” and not “teaching,” as though students can learn just as much from their uninformed peers as they can from their more educated teachers. As if service is the same as study. As if all that matters in a classroom is the paradigm that’s in place.  With professors deemed irrelevant, universities can be filled up with less expensive, more efficient, “coordinators.”

It makes sense from the point of view of efficiency. It’s also  an outright attack on humane values, delivered without a shred of remorse. We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.

And we know what the result will be.  A university with few or no professors is not a university in any way that matters. Like humans in the Star Trek world, we are the ones who explore and think and invent and create. A university without a large number of dedicated, independent professors will be like  a Borg ship, an awesome and efficient nightmare.

In the movie First Contact, Captain Picard is pushed to retreat from a Borg attack and refuses. They advance, he says, and we fall back. They take more, and we fall back. The same thing is happening to universities now. They talk about “new realities” and we fall back. They refuse to promote the arts and humanities and we fall back. They seek more and more corporate involvement and we fall back.

Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!

People who care about real, humane higher education in this country must fight for it, for it is in grave peril. We can no longer pretend that people who talk like Zundel and Deane are not the enemy. Whether they realize it or not, they are monsters and they will destroy us if we let them. Resistance is not futile. But first you have to resist.