Universities in Crisis: A Mediaeval Institution in the Twenty-First Century


302 pages
ISBN 0-88645-034-9




Edited by William A.W. Neilson and Chad Gaffield
Reviewed by Chris Redmond

Chris Redmond is Director of Internal Communications at the University
of Waterloo.


The 16 contributors to this volume have obviously rewritten their material since delivering it at a University of Victoria symposium in 1984. It’s now thick with footnotes, long quotations from seminal authors, and diction which would never have survived oral delivery, and the contest for pre-eminence between name-dropping and statistic-dropping is a tough one.

Finding a “crisis” in universities is easy; many books have managed it in the past few years. These authors find more like a dozen crises — changes in population, in economy, in political philosophy, in the “information environment,” and public attitudes, even in the ozone layer (as symbol of what science can do to hurt us as well as to help us). Describing challenges more than prescribing cures, they digress in all directions. Oddly, the most hopeful essay of the lot is Ian Winchester’s report on how universities, having survived a thousand years’ social change, are likely to keep their mediaeval shape quite satisfactorily through future upheavals.

Margaret Fulton, a former university president, speaks of “soul” and cries for universities to give attention to values as well as to facts. Morris Berman appeals to “magic,” by which he seems to mean something much the same; the word “holistic” figures largely. Louis Vagianos concludes that “continuing process’ is really the only product universities have to market,” and Donald Michael adds that the goal is “a true learning experience.”

Such clichés are familiar to those who have been reading the prolific literature on similar subjects in this decade. Of course the authors throw off ideas like sparks; the book, and the symposium, presumably will have been successful if some readers and listeners from the academic world catch fire from one such spark on another. Certainly the book makes no pretence of giving a comprehensive, or even consistent, program for solving the present problems or facing the future’s big challenges.

Canada is mentioned a number of times, and there are some European insights by way of perspective, but the general tone is American. The clearest, perhaps most interesting, essay in the book, Albert H. Meyerhoff’s brief report on conflicts of interest in scientific and agricultural research, describes an American situation which it would be dangerous to accept as equally true for Canada. All the essays are in English, though the book has a summary preface in French.


“Universities in Crisis: A Mediaeval Institution in the Twenty-First Century,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/35417.