A Tale of Two Universities

One of the ways that business schools and universities like to promote their contributions to society is to emphasize their external connections. These connections take many forms. There are formal relationships such as co-op placements for students, program advisory councils, and participation in external community and academic organizations. Less visibly, there are also connections such as researchers collecting data from or conducting research for organizations, and businesses providing opportunities for students to do class projects or case studies.

However, to paraphrase George Orwell, it appears that at some universities all external connections are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The University of Leicester recently announced a round of “redundancies” affecting its faculty members, allegedly due to overall financial problems at the university. According to the union representing faculty in the university’s School of Business, many of the 16 faculty members whose jobs are at risk are those whose research and teaching involves critical management studies. Critical management studies is a field of study that has roots in other academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology – and, as its name suggests, it questions basic and often overlooked assumptions about how management and business work. Since the world is currently experiencing a pandemic whose effects have had much more impact on low-wage workers and workers of colour, research that critically questions why businesses and organizations operate as they do could be extremely valuable in changing situations such as this.

The University of Leicester, however, doesn’t see it that way. Gibson Burrell, one of the most prominent critical management scholars in the world, was informed by university administrators that his work was “not in areas aligned with school strategic priorities”. This decision was allegedly based on a review of 70 faculty members’ research records – a review carried out by administrators with no background in either critical studies or political economy, the other subject area in the School of Business targeted for redundancies.

The university seems remarkably clueless about the widespread condemnation of these potential redundancies – and not just the threatened redundancies in the School of Business. Last month, the university’s PR department sent out a Tweet celebrating the 2012 discovery by Leicester researchers of King Richard III’s remains; it has also told all its Middle English language and literature experts that were part of that discovery that their jobs are at risk of redundancy too.

The university’s union has asked for a global boycott of the University of Leicester by academic workers elsewhere, and faculty members are currently engaged in a partial work stoppage in which they are not marking or assessing student work. The redundancies are scheduled to take effect in August.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, Laurentian University in Ontario has filed for bankruptcy protection under the federal Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act. (This is the first time a publicly funded Canadian university has taken this step, which should raise some questions about the competency of Laurentian’s administration and board of governors in carrying out their legally mandated responsibilities.) As a result, Laurentian has announced significant cutbacks to its programs, many of which serve marginalized groups such as French-speaking Ontarians and Indigenous communities.

One of the Laurentian programs that was cancelled was its Workplace and Labour Studies program. The program had particularly strong connections to its communities because Laurentian’s main campus is in Sudbury, the site of one of the largest mining operations in the world, and the steelworkers’ union had contributed funding and scholarships to the program. The program’s website explicitly invited students to “partner with workplaces, the labour movement, and community organizations to conduct local research, and engage in public policy debates [and] study issues such as low-wage work, disability rights, and equity”; it’s hard to imagine a program more community-focused than that.

The university hasn’t given a clear rationale for cutting the 70 programs that were eliminated, other than general financial challenges and allegedly low enrollments in some programs and courses. The Workplace and Labour Studies program was part of the Faculty of Arts; the School of Management lost its programs in Entrepreneurship and International Management. The cutbacks took effect this month, leaving students in cancelled programs with very few options to finish their degrees.

It’s more than a little suspicious that when both of these universities ran into financial trouble, among their primary cost-cutting targets were programs that implicitly or explicitly challenged the ideas that business is always good for society and that workers are always treated fairly by management. If universities truly want to produce graduates that are well-rounded and are ready to be productive and active citizens, eliminating critical perspectives from their institutions is a huge mistake.

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