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UVic’s green gloss can’t cover corporatization

The Martlet by Renée McBeth 10 February 2011

The attractive image on the front of UVic’s Strategic Plan is a testament to its appeal: a vivid high-angle shot of a green campus surrounded by ocean, forests all down the peninsula and an awesome view of Mount Baker across the sea.

The university, with no more bunnies in sight, will face pressure to renew its image in the revision of the strategic plan described in the Martlet article, “Strategic plan looks for community input” (Jan. 27, 2011). But UVic’s drive to keep up a peaceful “green” image may be the precise issue in question.

The administration continues to spout the rhetoric of sustainability and consultation, yet has unilaterally eliminated over 800 bunnies, forcibly disbanded and charged the lawn-disturbing gardeners and has seemingly rejected all suggestions to turn the empty field by Cedar Hill Cross Road into a university farm.

If the central administration doesn’t want people to think they are just greenwashing the campus, they will need to pay attention to what students, staff and faculty are saying and be accountable for their actions. They ask for our input and appear to hear our concerns. But are they able respond to those concerns? Or are they incapable because they are too busy looking up to recognize us down below?

Technically speaking, universities are created by the B.C. government and are accountable to it; that accountability includes producing high-level risk assessment and strategic planning documents. Functionally speaking, the university is an organ of local government whose legitimacy comes from responding to the wishes of the people who make the university work. A crisis of legitimacy may be upon us.

The Automated? Project’s forums that took place at UVic last summer called attention to related concerns, not exactly about bunnies, lawns and gardens, but rather about the top-heavy structure of decision-making at UVic and the increasing prominence of a corporate business model for North American universities.

In the fall, the Automated? Project conducted a survey of around 400 students, staff and faculty, who answered questions about the impacts of these processes on the work they do at UVic and on the ability of the university to achieve goals outlined in its Strategic Plan.

Information from the forums and surveys could provide UVic’s President David Turpin with a great deal of input for the Strategic Plan. But the forums have also noted that the rhetoric of strategic plans tends to sound the same everywhere; the gloss is part of the problem. By making abstract promises in a planning document (e.g., “be green”), the university can claim to be doing these things already, and that makes it more difficult for others to claim that such work still needs to be done.

The strategic planning process is one way of policy-ing UVic. But this process asks us to put our comments in a box and assume that the managers of this quasi-corporation will do the right thing with our concerns. We need to be attentive and attempt to reshape how corporatizing and centralizing trends will impact us all. Such conscious efforts have made UVic the unique campus environment that we so value.

Renée McBeth is the Coordinator for the Consortium on Democratic Constitutionalism at the University of Victoria.