CAUT Bulletin: Failed by the ‘Star’ System

By: Patricia Rae, Mark Jones, Annette Burfoot, and Frank Burke

Excerpt from: CAUT Bulletin, June 2010

The federal government’s having allowed 13 universities to hire 19 “academic stars” without including a single woman, even in their shortlist of 36 nominees, is an obvious symptom of sexism (“All-male roster in academic star search ‘shocks’ Clement,” Globe and Mail, 20 May 2010).

The “total shock” on the part of Industry Minister Tony Clement, who immediately assembled an ad hoc panel of three female academics to reassure the public that there was “no deliberate attempt to shut out women,” makes it equally obvious that the sexism is systemic.

But behind these failings lies another that is not so obvious — that is our fetishization of “academic stars.” This is not just the language of the press; two of our new Canada Excellence Research Chair appointees are described as “stellar,” and two as “rising stars,” on the CERC website. The essence of the star system is to romanticize individual performers while (and by) underplaying the contributing role of their teams, institutions, and other support networks.

The prevalence of this system in popular entertainment and spectator sports can be blamed on the blindness of markets. There is no such excuse for its recent institution in our universities, which are supposed to be governed by politicians and administrators.

How wise are the existing Canada Research Chair program, the CERC program, and allied star systems by which our governors have channeled all direct federal funding to post-secondary education since the end of transfer payments in the mid 1990s? Let us count their failings.

Poaching experts from other universities does not produce expertise — it only moves it around. It may boost the research profile of University X, or even of Canada, but it nets nothing in new research. It is basically a high-level form of beggar-your-neighbour.

Concentrating funding (in this case $190 million) on a few stars also removes that funding from broad distribution — and ultimately from (a) teaching and (b) research among the “rank and file.” This comes down to purchasing ready-made expertise from elsewhere for short-term gains in lieu of growing our own for the long term. And it mistakes the primary purpose of a research university, which is not to house a few hotshots but to teach and develop critical and research capacities on a broad and continuing basis.

Those who are being taught and those who continue to teach and carry out 99 per cent of day-to-day university research include almost all of our younger scholars. They represent the real potential in our universities that has not yet had sufficient time to fully emerge. In diverting our (already dwindling) funds from this potential already in our own systems, we are not merely failing to grow our own, but may actually be hampering the development of potentials we have a responsibility to develop.

Conversely, the “stars” we are purchasing are known quantities. Given the costs to purchase them, they have to be. In some cases, their best work may even be behind them. The star-system represents an intrinsically conservative (in the sense of timid) ethos of betting on past winners.

Closely related is the fact that such lavish outlays ($10 million a researcher) are offered only for “specific areas that fit the government’s innovation agenda,” such as the auto industry. The problem here is not just that such agendas may represent more hindsight than foresight, but that we are talking about university research, whereas purchasing proven expertise with an eye to practical — and in some cases industrial — application is the corporate model of R&D.

The difference between the university model of research (which is, or should be, curiosity-based and critical of existing “knowledge”) and the corporate model (which is practical and applicative) is not just fundamental but should be sacrosanct. For if industrial research is the golden egg, the goose that lays that egg, the research that reproduces researchers, is the university.

Turning pure research into applied research will have certain benefits in the short term, but it will not foster “excellence” in the long term.

Then there is the question of loyalty. “Stars” who have to be lured to University X with money may be loyal to the money, but not primarily to University X. Even supposing they are contractually bound to stay, loyalty to an institution is not just a matter of remaining physically present within it; it also determines the level of scholarly commitment to one’s students, colleagues and community.

The case of the 19 awards, and short list of 36 proposals, in which not a single woman is represented exposes many of these weaknesses in the CERC program.

Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a member of the CERC steering committee, has defended the program to CBC’s “The Current” host Anna Maria Tremonti (20 May 2010).

In the specializations targeted in this competition, she explains, wo men at the “very, very senior level” are “very, very few.” But she adds that “when we look at the rising star categories, we have a lot of women … We are making progress, but it is slow.”

A little reflection might suggest that in this situation we should not be purchasing our talent from abroad at the “very, very senior level,” but should put our money on growing those “rising star categories.” This would serve both equity and “excellence.” By developing our ranks of “rising” domestic researchers, which do include women, rather than soliciting “very, very senior” researchers from abroad, we would strengthen our position in the middle and long term.

Maybe if we got rid of the CRC and CERC programs and used our funds to cultivate existing teachers and researchers, we wouldn’t need CRC and CERC programs to attract foreign researchers 10 years down the road.

—————————————————————
Annette Burfoot teaches sociology, Frank Burke, film and media studies, and Mark Jones and Patricia Rae, English, at Queen’s University in Kingston.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

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