It’s pretty easy to rattle off a column about the university when I’ve spent the last two weeks mulling over my time here. Now more than ever, I tend to vacillate between sentimentality and cynicism about my time at Mount Allison. I’ve met a lot of people I respect and admire, I’ve taken a handful of classes that have made an immediately perceptible impact on how I view the world, and I’ve enjoyed a number of beers in a variety of places across town.
Still, my time here leaves me somewhat unsatisfied. It often feels as though life on and around campus isn’t organized in the way that most students, faculty, and staff would have it. I’m afraid I can’t point to a specific incident, policy, or budget line that I dislike or disagree with that can totally explain this feeling. Instead, I think in order to interpret this feeling it’s important to read the university like a text—by placing it in its historical, social and political context.
We could – and often do – say something about how the Mt. A community is more than the sum of its members. I agree, but probably not in the way that we might like to think of ourselves. Whatever the other aspirations of the university, it began as, and remains, a training ground for the ruling classes. It doesn’t much matter that many of us find that function somewhat distasteful—the university will continue to fulfill it. As Karl Marx wrote, “The traditions of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
The institution carries a lot of baggage: it was built on unceded indigenous territory, was the source of cannon fodder in an imperialist war, and has trained generations of future lawyers, physicians, ministers and bureaucrats to take places as functionaries of a pretty brutal social order.
At some level, the “memorial echo” now standing next to the Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts is a symbol of how we do things at Mount Allison. Despite the ostensible “support of our troops” by the institution, the Memorial Library was demolished. I’m not much for the compulsory commemoration of the First World War – which was, in my understanding, a slaughter conducted in service of competing imperial interests – but I think studying the library’s fate can tell us something about the university.
First, it should be noted that it’s a memorial to a memorial. Even if you’re not trained in a discipline largely concerned with the cultural objects produced by postmodernism, that should strike you as a little odd.
This leads to some complicated questions. Is the “aura” of something taken to be sacred transferable to another monument? How many times can a monument can be torn down and rebuilt before it loses its commemorative function? While a memorial is always a performance of commemoration that doesn’t have any real, material relationship to the events or people it memorializes, this seems to take that divorce to an extreme.
If the administration had considered the original memorial to be something sacred, as many alumni do, it would not have commissioned its demolition. In this debacle and the alumni protests that ensued, we can see a fundamental contradiction between some of the differing social functions of a university.
In this case, we see the university’s classical role as preserver of tradition giving way to its newer role as a business that needs to advertise new buildings such as the PCCA to attract new students. While I’m not fond of the role of the university as a bastion of the martial values of feudalism that it froze in time – honour, discipline, obedience – we can see how they necessarily come in conflict with the university’s desire to appeal to the market of students looking for a university.
What we do here is in many ways more about appearances than substance. Perhaps Mount Allison – and universities more broadly – could learn from my high school’s motto: “To be rather than to seem.” That is, there is a fundamental conflict between the running of the university as a business and its functioning as an educational institution. Rather than existing for its own sake, or for the sake of its students, faculty, and staff, it is managed so as to draw in students, more concerned with the appearance of substance rather than its actual presence.
In order to teach and learn unobstructed, we need to place the governance of the university in the hands of the people who work and live on campus—not an arms’-length board or imported administrators. On campus, as elsewhere in our society, we need a deepening of democracy before the institution can actually become greater than the sum of its parts. As the university continues to change, it must begin understand that governance and management can’t be taken to mean the same thing.