The Current Crisis in the Universities
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 5 Dec 1974, p. 138-148

Williams, Dr. David Carlton, Speaker
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The third crisis in three decades. A review of the others. A statement about the plight of universities today, with regard to maintaining a "policy of openness and accessibility and to maintain and improve the system, while on the other [hand] we face imposed budget restrictions, plus the impact of external events, i.e. inflation and altered government policy." A review of the current situation with regard to budget cuts. Problems this has caused, but short- and long-term. Suggestions from those outside the universities, and a refutation of same. An analysis of the profession from the University of Western Ontario. The significance and importance of universities. A plea for support.
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5 Dec 1974
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Full Text
DECEMBER 5, 1974
The Current Crisis in the Universities
CHAIRMAN The President, Sir Arthur Chetwynd


Distinguished head table guests ladies and gentlemen: An eminent British jurist, who is also the High Steward of Cambridge University, the Right Honourable Lord Devlin, said some years ago: "So many men have lit so many candles . . . but the age of candlelight is passing . . . the time has come when the light must come out of the lives of men."

In recent years, higher educational matters have certainly produced a lot of heat, but in the opinion of some, not much light!

I wonder if our speaker today remembers those words of Lord Devlin, as his gentle, cultured voice spoke them in the opening scene of a film entitled "Light for the Mind", which I had a hand in producing for the University of Toronto in 1963. Dr. Carl Williams was then a vice-president at the University of Toronto. The two of us, together with others at the U of T spent many hours in the development of that film project which I am happy to say became an awardwinning production.

After survival, education in its broadest sense has always been vital to human progress. Higher education and research in many ways will decide the future of mankind. To cope with our ever-increasing problems we look to the products of education for solutions. At the same time the financial requirements are staggering. The taxpayer's ability and willingness to support the costs of Canadian universities, in recent times, have come under severe question.

The very select group of men and women who are charged with the responsibility of leading our modern universities have an enormous and frustrating task, one might even say dangerous at times, judging by some of the methods used to express freedom these days!

I have had the privilege of knowing Carl Williams for many years and at times worked with him and for him. He is one of those rare human beings who is at once an intellectual, as well as being a very down-to-earth person.

He is a first-rate Canadian product. Born in Winnipeg in 1912, he received his high school and his initial university education in Canada's "friendly province" with a B.A. from the University of Manitoba in 1932. He took his M.A. at the University of Toronto in 1937 and obtained a doctorate in Psychology in 1940 at the same university. As recently as 1969 his original alma mater, the University of Manitoba, honoured him with a doctorate of law, partly, perhaps, in recognition that as a young man he travelled east, instead of further west, to teach those "pesky" easterners a thing or two.

In 1940, World War 11 had just started and Canada was involved, and in need. Dr. Williams joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. (I understand our once proud R.C.A.F., which indeed did go "through adversity to the stars", now under the guise of the "combined forces" has the rather prosaic name of "Air Element"--a real grabber of a title!)

Dr. William's list of academic accomplishments and appointments is long and distinguished. Many of the enormous changes that have occurred at the University of Toronto are the result of his planning and influence during the '60s when he worked closely under the then President, Claude Bissell. He was appointed to his present high position on July 1st, 1967. He also serves as Chairman of the Council of Ontario Universities. He is the author of The Arts as Communication (1963), and University Television (1965), a report for the Committee of Universities and Colleges of Ontario. In 1957 he founded one of Canada's original projects in educational television, the Metropolitan Educational Television Association of Toronto, better known as META.

I am most honoured to welcome and to present to you Dr. David Carlton Williams, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Ontario, who will at this time tell us about "The Current Crisis in the Universities".

Ladies and gentlemen--Dr. Williams.


As perhaps you may know, it was originally my intention to speak to you on the topic "The Red Carpet Treatment-Impressions of a Visit to China". However Mr. Auld's disturbing announcement, indicating a level of government support for universities far below our needs, effectively pulled that carpet from under me and made it imperative that I take this opportunity to put the case for the universities. I hope to persuade you to help us since, in the last analysis, those who will suffer most from the deterioration of the university system will not be you or me, but our children.

My new title, therefore, is "The Current Crisis in the Universities". I say "current" because the universities of the province are now being asked to cope with their third crisis in as many decades.

The first, you may recall, was that of the fifties when we repeatedly warned the government and the public of the impending onslaught of students and of the need to prepare for it. This had little or no effect until it was almost too late. Universities were few in number, low in budget, and small in enrolment. Since they had always been that way it was difficult to persuade people of the dramatic change that was pending. Finally we were able to do at least some planning and to have some of our machinery ready to go. The government once persuaded quickly took action and resolved that crisis.

The crisis of the sixties was the precise opposite of its predecessor--that of coping with enormous expansion. In one decade, student numbers in Ontario went from 29,000 to 111,000, a four-fold increase. Established universities expanded enormously and new, instant universities were created overnight. The challenge here was to accommodate students and recruit teachers for them. Again the universities, with the full backing of the government, rose to that challenge.

All of which brings me to the crisis of the seventies, the slowing down of the rate of enrolment increase and the approach of steady state budgeting have been accompanied by a mood of public disillusionment with universities, a feeling that we pay high salaries to underemployed professors to educate students whose militant activism is deplored. Both the politicians and the media have been quick to reflect this anti-university attitude. In addition, some of the decisions we made to relieve the problems of the sixties have come back to haunt us. There is, for example, the persistent problem of a young faculty; 70% are under forty-five years of age. As they mature in age and rank, they put increasing pressure on our salary budgets. With the decline in real revenue flows we are now experiencing, we are on an obvious collision course which will demand replacing many of these persons by juniors in order to even out the age/ rank distribution. The seriousness of forcing this solution on us at an accelerated rate is hard to overestimate, for the government as well as for the universities.

The plight of the universities today is this, that we are caught in a contradictory policy. On the one hand we are urged to maintain the policy of openness and accessibility and to maintain and improve the system, while on the other we face imposed budget restrictions, plus the impact of external events, i.e. inflation and altered government policy. The universities no longer have as high a priority in the competition for public funds as have transit and regional government, to say nothing of health, primary and secondary education, and the civil service as they make their demands on the public purse.

What then did Mr. Auld say to cause so violent a reaction from us? In concrete terms, the government announced an increase of 16.9% in the total funds available for all purposes in higher education. This sounds far more generous than it is since most of the extra money is eaten up by increased enrolments for which additional resources must be provided, as for example in Science and Engineering. The actual amount we will be able to spend per student is determined by the grant formula (the basic income unit) which has increased by only 7.4%. When this is compared with double digit inflation figures the plight of the universities is easy to see. But this is not all. We are further enjoined from limiting enrolment, from raising student fees, and from incurring deficits. Having thus deprived the university of most of its autonomy, we are further instructed to preserve it! It seems to me that the only autonomy that remains is the freedom to allocate inadequate resources. Our problem, to state the obvious, is what to do under these conditions and the answer that comes back from both the public press and the government we find to be discouraging and wholly unsympathetic. Various forms of radical surgery are put forward with varying degrees of bitterness, sarcasm, and lack of understanding. The Toronto Star, for example, either scandalously uninformed or deliberately oblivious to the 40,000 to 50,000 summer school students enrolled in Ontario universities, prates about an "end to four month summer holidays". Well, being human, we have had our temper tantrums and vented our spleens but what we need are not flights of indignant rhetoric, but answers.

My colleague, Dr. Ian Macdonald of York University, interprets the government announcement as a deliberate policy of turning away from the universities, which implies a willingness to see them deteriorate substantially. The Globe and Mail disagrees, saying that the taxpayers of Ontario are unwilling to see their huge investment in higher education squandered. The Globe interprets the government move as telegraphing the message that the efforts we have made to improve our efficiency are not enough and that more radical cuts are required.

This view would seem in essence to be correct in the light of recent statements in the press quoting the Honourable John White in legislative debate on this subject. Mr. White made it plain that he will not expect even temporary deficit spending, the device President Macdonald suggested as a short-term means of cushioning the shock by spreading required adjustments over a few years at least. Mr. White points instead to solving our problems by increasing the student/staff ratio, citing the Universities of France and Mexico where student/staff ratios are as high as 80 and 100 to 1, compared to about 14 to 1 average in Ontario. With the greatest respect, I must remind you of the dangers of lifting statistics from one national context and applying them uncritically to another. I might, with equal justification, argue that since there are a couple of dozen political parties in France and only three in Ontario, our legislature would be eight times as democratic if we increased our party/ politician ratio accordingly! Or would Mr. White prefer the student/staff ratio of the University of Cairo which is 800 to 1? The Premier, Mr. Davis, stated that he would be "more than a little concerned" at enrolment restrictions. The biblical analogy of being forced to make bricks without straw leaps irresistibly to mind. Mr. White, as reported, has made it clear that in this time of inflation the province cannot and will not increase taxes to provide further support to the universities even though much of this money comes from the federal government. The press further reports Mr. White as indicating that the province is experiencing increased demands from the health field, the education field, and from its civil servants. The implication seems clear that the government will increase taxes for all these but not for the universities. I fear that to many university employees the message being telegraphed here is likely to be read as meaning that the government prefers militance and confrontation tactics to reasoned argument and analysis.

While one can readily understand and applaud the determination of a hard-pressed government drastically to curb its spending in a determined effort to fight inflation, it is important to examine in some detail the effects this policy will have on the universities. Most economists agree that prices are likely to rise some 11 to 12% next year. The 7.4% increase in the value of the basic income unit, which is significantly smaller than 12%, necessarily means a reduction in real resources per student. At the same time that a growing number of sectors of society are being protected against inflation, we will have been left behind with the shrinking band of the politically weak to bear the brunt of society's fight against inflation. While the cause may be just and the role heroic, it is a role we would gladly share more widely, to say nothing of foregoing it altogether. And if left in the front line against inflation for any length of time, there is little doubt that we will sustain very serious injury. We feel like Mark Twain's hero, who on being ridden out of town on a rail, remarked that, if it weren't for the honour of it all, he would just as soon not have had to do it! That intangible quality, morale, is highest when people who are facing adversity perceive it to be equally shared by all. The way the country rallied in war time is evidence of this. Morale is, on the contrary, lowest when one group, in this case the universities, is singled out to bear what seems to it a disproportionate and unfair share of adversity while others with more political clout can command better treatment.

We face, it seems to me, both short-term and long-term problems. I agree with President Macdonald's argument that we need some help for short-term deficit financing to cushion the shock of the policy change. Universities are not taps to be turned on and off abruptly.

In the long term, we need to learn from government what its future plans for Ontario universities are, so we can make our plans accordingly. Whatever they are and however unpalatable they may be, the government must have the courage of its convictions and must speak out. The universities have already had three years of a traumatic hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing where they stand, never getting what they need, annually hoping for relief and annually disappointed to the point of rendering their capacity to plan practically nil.

Our position is a serious one. My university on the basis of careful calculations, concluded that we needed a B.I.U. increase of 19.4%, not 7.4%. This was higher than the C.O.U. estimate of 16.8%, mainly because our support staff is already a good 15 % below the average salaries paid in London for comparable work. We are, therefore, already budgeting for a deficit, as are most of the other universities. This situation is now compounded by government's refusal to permit us to limit growth-which means we must continue to accept extra students with no extra funds. We are also denied the classic solution of business in coping with inflation, that of passing increased costs on to the consumers. These, in our case, are the students, but Mr. Auld has insisted that we cannot raise fees.

What then can we do? The Star suggests we can solve hall by having the professors work harder. They already do. The old myth about teaching no more than two or three classes a week will never be exploded, but I can at least chip at it a little. The lecture time is but the tip of the iceberg relative to the total time required of a professor. Analogies with the National TV newscaster, the symphony orchestra conductor, the minister preaching twice a week, come readily to mind. All spend many long hours in preparation for their relatively short periods of visibility. As for sloughing off unglamorous courses on graduate students, at Western 89% of all first and second-year courses are taught by full-time faculty members, and no less than one hundred of these sections are taught by full professors.

"I am indebted to colleagues at Western for an analysis of what in fact we are doing and will continue to do in this condition of financial crisis. We are in a word, consuming our capital. The widow who lets her house and grounds go untended and unrepaired is consuming her capital. Our buildings won't be allowed to leak or fall down, but we consume our capital with minimum maintenance, minimum lighting and heating, and minimum caretaking. All of these contribute to poor morale and increased vandalism and damage. The farmer caught in a hard winter who sells his implements, feeds his seed grain to his hens, and slaughters his cow is consuming his capital, and because he is consuming his means of production rapidly, he will be bankrupt in less than a year. The university cycle is not that abrupt nor that dramatic, as this example shows. At Western there is great interest in an excellent course in introductory Biology where student demand has increased 40% in three years. It is taught imaginatively using all kinds of our means of production, namely, audio-visual aids such as films, slides, tapes, TV, projectors, do-it-yourself demonstrations, etc. This course operates from 8:30 A.M. to 10:30 P.m., five days a week, with Friday afternoons and evenings for maintenance. This is most efficient, but it consumes our equipment capital at a great rate. Our microscopes now get more use in one year than they used to in twenty. Of course, our other back-up means of production, the library books, language labs, maps and lab equipment are similarly consumed. This says nothing about really costly scientific equipment which is becoming obsolete far faster than our ability to replace it.

Professor Carmichael's third and most telling analogy is that of the small TV repair company which falls on evil days and has to let some of its staff go. The owner here consumes his human intellectual capital, sacrificing his best and most highly salaried men because he cannot afford to pay them. They will fare well elsewhere because their expertise and experience remain in demand, but he will replace them with less able people because they are all he can afford. A vicious cycle sets in which can only end when he loses his reputation and hence his business.

This consumption of capital by the universities is largely invisible at first. This is why the buildings look all right, the library looks busy, etc. This is why everyone can say that, in spite of having been cut for three years we appear still to be getting along reasonably well. This deceptive appearance is regarded as proof that there is a lot of fat in the university system which can continue to be cut out, without really harming the institutions. I suggest to you that this is a dangerous illusion because capital consumption is a cancerous malady. Universities can survive for a number of years this way, but it is a slippery slope leading inevitably to a deterioration of quality such that serious students simply go elsewhere. Once a university loses its reputation it takes years to repair the damage.

I have no magic formula to propose. I agree that the government has the right to decide how much it is prepared to spend on universities and I agree that we must cut our suits from that cloth. I argue that we need time to do it. What I have also tried to do is to indicate some of the probable consequences of that policy, particularly if it appears to apply to the politically weak sisters such as ourselves.

Finally and on a somewhat more buoyant note, I draw to your attention the increasing country-wide concern for and desire to conserve a Canadian identity. This has taken many forms, from the vigorous support of the arts through Canada Council and through an increasing interest in Canadian artistic and cultural endeavour by the business world and the general public; nor should the concern to sustain Canadian publishing be forgotten, to say nothing of the efforts of Canada's broadcasters both public and private to hold the country together and preserve in it some sense of unity in diversity. I suggest to you that the universities are a not inconsiderable national asset in respect to all of these things. Surely we cannot afford so little for the mind. This being so, the universities deserve and merit your hearty support, moral and financial, if we are to maintain them.

I can do no better than turn to the classics for an apt quotation: "We hope that none of you will consider these words of remonstrance as words of hostility: men remonstrate with friends who are in error; accusations they reserve for enemies who have wronged them." Thucydides--The Peloponnesian War.

Dr. Williams was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club of Canada by Mr. Graham M. Gore, a Past President of the Club.

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The Current Crisis in the Universities

The third crisis in three decades. A review of the others. A statement about the plight of universities today, with regard to maintaining a "policy of openness and accessibility and to maintain and improve the system, while on the other [hand] we face imposed budget restrictions, plus the impact of external events, i.e. inflation and altered government policy." A review of the current situation with regard to budget cuts. Problems this has caused, but short- and long-term. Suggestions from those outside the universities, and a refutation of same. An analysis of the profession from the University of Western Ontario. The significance and importance of universities. A plea for support.