by Jeremy Richards
Thoughtful people must not cede all power to politicians and business interests; we must make our voices heard across the full range of professional, social, and civic circles.
(p. 95: Karr, J.R., 2008, Protecting society from itself: Reconnecting ecology and economy, in Soskolne, C.L., ed., Sustaining Life on Earth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 95-108)


Comments are welcome, but are moderated.
Please see guidelines at the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Does anyone know what happened to the UofA Microstore? It seems to have been deleted.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Big increases in "market modifiers"?

The Edmonton Journal reports that large increases (up to 58%) in "market modifiers" are being considered for some UofA courses. It's not clear from the article where these proposals come from (presumably UofA Faculties), but Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education will rule on them by the end of the year.

The commercialization of university education continues apace.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Get the yak out of here!

I will be glad to finally get back to Canada at the end of the month, after two months of almost continuous travelling (full disclosure: some SPA, some research, one conference, and even a short vacation). Air travel today involves a suspension of personal rights and dignity that seems to get more extreme each year, mostly justified on the general grounds of security or safety, or “just because”. People with apparent authority to issue commands that you “must” obey range from airline check-in staff, gate agents, and flight attendants, to security screening staff, and people with “real” authority such as immigration agents, police, and military. A recent case in the US of a child being forced to pee in its seat because the seat-belt sign was on and the flight attendant wouldn’t let the child go to the washroom raised the question as to what extent such people really do have the power to command. Apparently flight attendants can only “advise” that the seat-belt sign is on, not actually forbid someone to get up and go to the washroom. But such advice is commonly delivered in a way that looks and sounds like a command, and stories of people being trussed up by flight attendants and handed to the police on arrival for minor infractions abound on the news. So where is the line?

I try hard to stick to the rules of flying, but the rules keep changing (to keep would-be attackers on their toes, we're told), so it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’re bound to be subjected to some new indignity. This year’s travels in various countries involved the following new restrictions:
  1. No batteries in checked luggage (all must be in carry-on luggage, presumably so when they catch fire in the overhead bin they can more easily be extinguished).
  2. No spare guitar strings in carry-on luggage.
  3. No rocks in carry-on luggage (but I’m a geologist — I always carry rocks!).
  4. No carry-on luggage with metal handles.
The last three prohibitions, the first two resulting in actual confiscations and loss, are presumably because I might garrotte, bludgeon, or stab the pilot, although the fact that I still had six perfectly serviceable strings left on my carry-on guitar didn’t seem to register — no doubt next year I’ll have to take all the strings off that too. The last prohibition, flying out of one city in Asia, was because the previous year someone had indeed tried to attack a flight crew with the handle of a rollaboard. The attack was foiled, however, by 20 off-duty policemen who also happened to be on the plane on the way to a conference!

This is a long-winded preface to an apology for not being very active on this blog for the last couple of months. It goes without saying that, along with loss of personal freedoms while travelling, the internet is either not available or is censored in many countries, and Google and Blogger seem to be top of the list in many such censorial states; and VPN sometimes doesn’t work either. Interestingly, Google Apps seems to have shut down access to itself of its own volition in some countries. Half way through my visit to Iran, where I had previously been able to access my UofA e-mail and Blogger through a VPN service, access was suddenly denied. The following error message appeared:
Google restricts access to some of its enterprise services in certain countries, such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Certain Google services, such as Gmail, might be available in these countries for personal use but not for enterprise use.
I am enjoying a brief window of VPN availability to post this message, and to approve a backlog of comments (apologies for the delay). I'll be back in Edmonton next week and normal service will be resumed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Drying out in Iran

I'll be giving my liver a rest for the next couple of weeks while on fieldwork in Iran. Internet can be iffy in Iran, and Blogger is blocked, so unless my VPN can get around the censors I may not be able to post or moderate comments for the next little while.

In the meantime, read the Economist's article on the fate of universities in its June 28-July 4 issue ("Creative destruction"), then go to the jobs page!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A response to IS on "academic freedom"

Mark Mercer, a Professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, has penned a letter to the Prince Arthur Herald in response to our President Samarasekera's recent statements and writings on the post-UofS definition of academic freedom. Mercer quotes Samarasekera's attempt to differentiate between academic freedom and freedom of expression:
"Academic freedom is so hopelessly misunderstood. Academic freedom is there for you to be able to speak about things you absolutely are an expert on. We’re talking about free speech, here." [CBC News website, 29 May 2014]
He points out that the caveat about academic freedom only protecting you when you are talking about something you are an "expert" on does not appear in the UofA collective agreements, or most others, and seems to be something that IS "wishes" were true rather than actually is. Differentiating academic freedom from freedom of speech simply muddies the water, and opens the door to a dilution of the rights of academic freedom, one of the last real benefits and protections of being an academic.

Monday, July 14, 2014

AASUA Council approves release time for committee chairs

I have heard unofficially that the petition to grant release time for all AASUA Committee Chairs was approved by Council at its emergency meeting last Friday. (I was not able to be present for the meeting, so I don't know any further details.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

More on land-lease and fundraising

The Edmonton Journal has an update on the UofA's decision to lease some of its lands to generate revenue.

In principle I support the idea of making the University's surplus lands work for it, but as always the devil will be in the details, and there are many.

The article also mentions the plan to launch a $1bn fundraising campaign. President Samarasekera says the money could be spent in three ways:
  1. Student support.
  2. Hiring more exceptional professors.
  3. Setting up research partnerships that lead to “breakthroughs” at other universities.
Apart from the odd wording in (3) (why would we only support research that led to breakthroughs at other universities, and not the UofA? — probably a transcription error), IS goes on to say: "We need to have more professors and more in the top one-to-five per cent." I suppose I agree with the first notion of more professors (so long as it's accepted that they can earn a decent salary, and won't be overworked and nickel-and-dimed), but it's that old statistical thing again with the top 1–5%. And also the notion that the other 99–95% are not really wanted.

Time for a vacation — I may be offline for a while, so please be patient if posts are infrequent and I don't moderate comments immediately.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two members of AASUA Executive Committee quit

Two members of the AASUA Executive Committee have quit this month: Prof. Malinda Smith (Chair of the Equity Committee) resigned after the turbulent Council meeting of June 5; and now Prof. Carolyn Sale (Chair of the Academic Faculty Committee) has also quit. These are major losses to the Association.

The details behind these resignations are not known, but one can guess at the climate that led to them from some of the earlier comments on this blog (this post is closed to comments, by the way), and accounts of the various Council and Executive meetings that have taken place this month. I found myself in a similarly untenable position a few years ago and quit from Executive as a result (you can read the history of that incident in some of the first posts on this blog). Oddly enough, I feel much better for it, and I hope Malinda and Carolyn will eventually feel the same way! But something is wrong when a volunteer organization like AASUA puts such personal pressure on people. It certainly doesn't encourage active participation.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


The Faculty of Science's new spinoff company Onlea states that its function is to:
Produce and market quality online and blended courses powered by pedagogy, assessment, research, and innovation for post-secondary, professional development needs for industry, community service, and K-12 for Canada and internationally. [i.e., MOOCs]
The company is stated to be not-for profit; it has three "founders" (Jennifer Chesney, Glen Loppnow, and Jonathan Schaeffer), and one person named under "operations" (Jim Armstrong), who appears to be an external consultant (he is listed as an "Executive In Residence" with TEC Edmonton, but does not appear to be a University employee).

Given the number of comments about Onlea under a previous post, I thought that a new thread on this topic would be useful. Some questions arising include:
  1. Is Onlea part of the Faculty of Science's mission to generate new external revenue (in response to recent budget directives from Central)?
  2. If so, how can it do this if it is not-for-profit?
  3. How does Onlea function financially? How and by whom are losses underwritten? What happens to profits? How was it initially financed? What stake do the financing parties have in the company?
  4. Who does the work of the company, and how are they paid?
  5. If faculty members do work for the company, is this part of their normal work as professors, or is it SPA? Do they get paid?
  6. If University employees work for Onlea, how will conflicts of interest be managed?
  7. Who owns the intellectual property of Onlea products?
  8. What are the long-term goals of Onlea? As a spinoff company, what links does it maintain with the UofA, and what benefits does it bring to the University?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Presidential salary debate continues in the US

The debate over the scale of university presidential salaries continues, with an on-line dust-up in the New York Times: Lofty Salaries in the Ivory Towers

… and now on CBC 6 o'clock radio news!