Why we shouldn’t celebrate the Maple League

On Nov. 9, Bishop’s University’s President Michael Goldbloom stood in front of a room of distinguished guests at an elite Toronto event hall and announced that the U4 League was transitioning into the Maple League of Universities – a name which, he admitted, is “a little bit of a nod at the Ivy League.”

According to the presidents of all four universities – Bishop’s, Acadia, St. Francis Xavier, and Mount Allison – the partnership is intended to better communicate to the public the immeasurable benefits of attending a small, primarily undergraduate university. In looking to confront shortfalls in their enrolment numbers, the universities will hit the recruitment trail together, fanning out slick brochures side-by-side in an attempt to attract many of the brightest high school graduates from across the country and around the world.

Yet, once again, while the presidents of our liberal arts institutions busy themselves boasting to national newspapers of our acquired ability to think critically, they’ve failed to recognize that when students acquire these skills, they use them.

So while on the surface the Maple League of Universities appears to be an ambitious project with somewhat respectable goals, beneath its shiny façade, it’s nothing more than a concrete example of the increasing corporatization of Canadian universities.

Let’s put aside the fact that the partnership openly admits to drawing inspiration from the most elitist post-secondary schools in the world, and consider what this rebranding exercise tells us about the priorities and the distribution of power at these universities.

Amid financial constraints, institutions across the country are responding by shrinking academic programs’ budgets and rolling back their tenure-track positions—a response that Mt. A students and faculty know all too well. Yet, suspiciously, the resources being funnelled into administrative ranks are rarely being cut in these times of purported financial distress. Instead, funding allocated to university administrations has remained steady and, in many cases, has even grown. But what could possibly justify the expansion of administration at the expense of full-time faculty? Well, initiatives that look eerily similar to the Maple League.

In order to validate and strengthen their roles, administrators across North America are channelling their energy into projects like the Maple League that redefine the mission of the university to better serve their administrative interests. As political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says, “college administrators imitate the practices of their corporate counterparts,” and what’s more corporate than a good rebranding exercise, buoyed by administrative conferences, gala dinners and weekend retreats?

The creation of the Maple League is arguably little more than an image-polishing project that fits into a larger trend of employing media relations staffers over full-time faculty, and prioritizing the creation of glossy magazines over rigorous course syllabi.

Yet, perhaps the most sickening part of the entire partnership is its willingness to co-opt the political orientations and social justice commitments of its students and faculty to the benefit of corporate expansion. As Ginsberg puts it: “Issues that to many professors represent moral imperatives have been transformed into powerful instruments of administrative aggrandizement.”

While a few of the initiatives deserve our applause, the ability to video-conference into courses held by partner institutions should be met with skepticism. The ability to learn Mik’maq should exist at every institution occupying Mik’maq land. But what will compel Mt. A to finally hire Indigenous scholars – or diversify its faculty at all – when it’s able to piggyback on the offerings of other institutions?

Finally, in boosting the partnership, President Robert Campbell told the Globe and Mail, “If you look at schools like ours that are deeply wedded to liberal arts and science, but also very collegial … [students] are more likely to develop sensibilities that are not going to tolerate racist or sexist arguments.”

Now, in considering the long list of racist and sexist aggressions that take place everyday at Mt. A, I find it deplorable that such predominately white institutions would leverage anti-racist sentiment for marketing purposes, while simultaneously failing to address such issues on their own campuses.

If our universities are truly committed to having exceptional learning environments with diverse student bodies, they will recognize that the key lies in tearing down financial barriers to student access and increasing full-time faculty contracts, not in booting up Skype and rolling out flashy recruitment videos.

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