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Premier’s ‘ivory tower’ comments irk local faculty

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Premier Brian Pallister’s recent comments about university professors haven’t made him any fans among Brandon University Faculty Association members.

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This article was published 30/05/2020 (974 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Premier Brian Pallister’s recent comments about university professors haven’t made him any fans among Brandon University Faculty Association members.

Earlier this week, the province announced a $25.6-million transitional support fund for post-secondary institutions to help them move to a post-COVID world.

That announcement came with the caveat that to access the funds, institutions must “align programming to labour market demands” according to Economic Development Minister Ralph Eichler.

Bruce Strang

Asked about criticism surrounding the announcement during a press conference call on Thursday, Pallister was blunt.

“It’s an opportunity to be embraced,” he said. “If some tenured professors don’t want to embrace the opportunity, I think that simply strengthens the argument that their ivory tower attitude is counterproductive to the best interests of the rest of us.”

Brandon University Faculty Association president Bruce Strang said on Friday he was “very disappointed” in the comments.

“It seems like the premier is trying to pick a fight here with faculty members and faculty unions,” Strang said. “We all should be on the same page here. The idea that as a faculty member that I don’t teach my students job skills is kind of an incendiary comment, but that’s precisely what I do and what my colleagues do.”

Strang said that all of his colleagues, whether they teach history, geology or nursing, teach their students marketable skills and that the last thing they would want to do is teach their students a set of skills that aren’t useful.

“We feel that universities are aligned with our students’ job priorities and with the current marketplace. The idea that we’re ivory-tower academics and we’re not aligned with economic opportunities is really an unfortunate comment on the premier’s part. It suggests that he really doesn’t understand what we do. I, for one, would be happy to sit down with the premier and talk with him at length with how we prepare students with job-ready skills.”

One of Strang’s colleagues at Brandon University, economics professor Joe Dolecki, agreed with that stance.

“It is obvious that the premier doesn’t seem to understand that universities already heavily subsidize the employee training costs for employers — in both the public and private sector — by promoting and developing a multiplicity of analytical skills in our students,” Dolecki said.

“It is also obvious that the premier has an ingrained, ideologically based disdain for the concept of academic freedom — and particularly for the concept of tenure and the role that it plays in ensuring academic freedom — which is the foundation of the scientific and scholarly achievements that have characterized human intellectual development in Canada and elsewhere. This is not a matter of ‘ivory tower attitudes’. Rather, it is a matter of intergenerational intellectual development and knowledge creation. It is this, not ‘job training’, which is in the public interest, the interest which universities serve. The premier doesn’t seem to understand this either.”

According to Strang, he and his colleagues have put in hard work to adjust to distance teaching in a short time during the pandemic only to be met with what characterizes as threats and interference against universities from the premier and his government.

Bruce Strang

He also questions why none of the members of the Premier’s Economic Opportunities Advisory Board set up to help guide Manitoba out of the COVID-19 pandemic toward a return to normalcy are connected to a university.

“These folks are eminent people, I’m sure, in the business field, but he didn’t appoint a single representative of the universities to this board,” Strang said.

Asked if his union has approached the premier or his office to discuss the situation, Strang said that they haven’t but he doesn’t think the offer would be successful given previous experiences.

“Based on past issues, we don’t typically get a response from the government when we reach out to try to talk to them,” he said. “But that’s a good idea. We should reach out though the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations to ask him to come to the table with us.

» cslark@brandonsun.com, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press

» Twitter: @ColinSlark

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