Turf and Surf

I am sitting at the kitchen table in our rented casa, writing and listening to the surf roll in and out. For me, the sound is so soothing. But for Karen Bentley Pollick, a brilliant violinist who played with Don Slepian on keyboard in an extraordinary combination of classical and American mountain music that I had never heard at the San Pancho Music Festival, the rolling in-and-out of surf is unnerving to her highly sensitive ears. Some of us listen to the same thing but hear it in opposite ways.

Amongst many terrific performances, the duo stood out – way out. In between each crash of the waves, I hear the music grow fainter and fainter. Except, the waves clash more than crash. They war against the wall of rock protecting the shoreline. The rocks are resolute. They refuse to give, refuse to bend, refuse to submit. Wave after wave they come. But the resistance is powerful. It will take aeons of these clashes for that persistence to wear away the stonewalling of that rock wall.

The waves clash and crash but do not really roar. Nor do they just rumble, even though they tumble onto the beach. The latter sound is drowned out when the waves hit the rocky promontory just a few degrees north of the sand. There is a very slow long buildup until you hear what is just a splash of a wave hitting the rock and then a rapid crescendo. However, that does not do the rhythm justice. For I listen again and the next wave comes in with stealth. Then the next in a short staccato. And then the next in a roll. I cannot find a pattern. Perhaps that is what unnerves Karen. I, on the other hand, love the variety and unpredictability. Or is it just the low-pitched growl of my hungry stomach projected out to sea?

Perhaps what I really hear is the silences, the quiet between the clashes, the whispers between the ripples. Not the beats of a percussion instrument, but the rhythm units created by the quiet, the sound of silence without a metronome. Whatever the correct way to capture what I hear, as if there is a correct way, the sound of surf has always been a puzzle. Not just its irregularity. It does not make sense. For surf is a derivative of susurrus which is a whispering or rustling sound and what I hear sounds nothing like that.

The paradox is just like that of the word ‘turf’. Last Wednesday, we went out to eat. Just for a change from the usual fish – most often mahi-mahi – I ordered a steak. Evidently not the regular steak, but the special, one with two enormous grilled prawns stuck into the slab of meat and forming a giant arch. And the whole dinner all for the equivalent of the enormous sum of $15. So I had surf and turf for the first time. And that is the other puzzle.

What connection is there between such a meal, or the steak in such a meal, and a square slab of earth with a dense growth of grass, such as a section of sod we put down after we have neglected our lawn for too long? If the shape is the connection, why not call the dish surf and slab. Because that would not be very appetizing? But why “turf”? I think I know the answer. Turf is home. Grilled steak is home. I have been away too long.

A little while ago, I wrote a blog about the gangs of Toronto after WWII, each with its very boundaried turf which it guarded and defended. In a gang mentality, turf is not so much a home as a castle with a moat and drawbridge to keep out or “turf” out the unwanted rather than welcome the stranger. However, for me turf is home and I now know the reason I chose the title for this blog even though I had no idea when I began. For I was determined to write about the university and somehow ended up on surf and turf. My holiday is approaching its end and I have been away too long.

The university was my bailiwick for fifty-eight years. Not just the territory in which I worked, did my research, taught and helped with the administration. It was my mental home as well. The first two books I wrote were called The Beds of Academe, about the close connection between student residences and the founding and development of the university, and The Holiversity, about the changes in the development of the idea of the university since 1185.  But the university was my bailiwick in a more literal sense, for it was a place of increasing impotence but decreasing authority and influence.

I had written and published a scholarly article on power, influence and authority. There are two varieties of each. An individual has genuine authority as an expert in a particular field. One of the purposes of the university has been to develop a cadre of experts with just such authority. And the best universities have succeeded marvellously in that task. But a university is also a place, not only for the exercise of authentic authority, but to inculcate its sense of formal authority in a breed who would lead the businesses and governance of the corporations and the polity. Turf is a bailiwick, a bureaucracy concerned with tenure and promotion, hiring but rarely firing in my home university, budgets and pensions. I had played my part in all these areas as a department chair, as an associate and acting dean, as a senator and even as a chair of Senate.

My record was mixed. One of the first committees on which I sat was “Tenure and Promotions.” I lasted a year and never sat on such a committee ever again. I never applied to such a committee for my own promotions and tenure, but my colleagues were generous and far-sighted. They gave me tenure because they thought that I needed protection for being so outspoken. They also awarded me promotions though I never requested one. However, I was vain enough to be pleased, at least inwardly, when the promotions came. I do not believe I ever thanked my fellow academics for what they did.

The reason I opted out of the tenure and promotion system, at least in being a responsible participant, was because in that year when I was on the committee considering a tenure application as a very junior professor, I thought one applicant, given his abuse of his teaching responsibilities, did not deserve tenure. He was given tenure over my objections. However, one case does not make a pattern. I investigated. In my early career I could not find one candidate who had been rejected for tenure. Sitting on such a committee at my university I decided was a waste of time.

This was definitely not true of all committees. After I had been at the university awhile, I learned that a woman colleague who was retiring would get a smaller pension that a male retiree with the same years of experience and a similar level of accomplishments. I was flabbergasted. I investigated. I was given the following rationale. Women on average lived longer than men. So they were receiving the same pension, but spread over a longer period. I could not believe what I had heard.

I campaigned and easily was elected to the pension committee. It was small – only five members, including the Vice-President Administration. At the very first meeting I asked to put an item on the agenda in the form of a motion. I was allowed to introduce my motion. I moved that black members of the faculty should receive higher pensions than white members. Needless to say, the members of the committee were uniformly startled. They asked why I was moving such a motion. I said that I would discuss that if my motion had a seconder because those were the rules of procedure. The VP, a man of extraordinary reasonableness and fairness who had once been my first wife’s high school teacher in her boarding school in West China, agreed to second the motion.

I then explained my motion. According to statistics at the time, blacks lived shorter lives than whites. If women were given equal pensions, but just spread over a longer period, then blacks too should receive equal pensions but spread over a shorter period. The actuary from the company managing our pensions was dumbfounded by such reasoning. “But,” he blustered, “that would mean that whites would have to get smaller pension payments each year.” He actually said that, not as a racist, but as an actuary steeped in the hidebound categories of his calling at the time.

It took two years of commissioned studies and a great deal of debate to change what was simply a category mistake. Humans can be diced and spliced into a myriad of categories. Which ones we choose for administrative tasks have an implicit ethical and social judgement embedded in them. It was a fundamental principle in my mind that women faculty members who retired needed the same amount of funds as their male colleagues each year without regard to life expectancy. If one class statistically had shorter life spans – as disabled professors had even more than black ones – on that reasoning, they should receive higher pensions.

The correction to the York University pension system had either direct or  indirect repercussions on parallel struggles throughout Ontario. Within five years the whole idea of paying women retirees less per year because on average they lived longer was seen to be the absurdity it was. That was a productive committee.

But the overall trend drifted in the opposite direction. Committees multiplied and flourished at the expense of efforts that should have been devoted to teaching and research. Often their efforts were counter-productive in themselves. I offer one other example. When I was a young faculty member, if a student was caught plagiarizing, a teacher had four options. The faculty member, generally if the plagiarizing was incidental and/or the student was unaware of the precept, could ask the student to rewrite. Or the faculty member could award a zero for that assignment. The faculty member could also allow the student to withdraw from the course, but the charge of plagiarism would remain on his or her record. Finally, the professor could take the issue up to a higher level and ask the faculty to expel the student or suspend that student for a year or two. The latter was a remedy rarely used.

Near the end of my career in response to principles of fairness, the right to be heard, the right to have legal representation and other claimed rights, and before computers became so acute in spotting plagiarism, in a case of alleged plagiarism, as of decades earlier, the student was called in for an interview. But now a second faculty member had to be present to assure there was no intimidation. That faculty member had to read the assigned work as well. Usually, this process took several meetings as the students, having been advised of the process, would often ask for time to arrange for representation.

If the original charge was sustained, the student had several opportunities to appeal – to a faculty committee, to the dean and then to a senate committee. Each time, the faculty member making the original charge would have to be present. It should be no surprise that the number of charges of plagiarism declined precipitously. Not, I believe, because there was less plagiarism. With the onset of the internet, I believe there was probably more. However, faculty members did not want to invest their time in such a drawn-out process where often enough the charge was often rejected on a technicality. They made quiet arrangements with the student offering him or her the opportunity to withdraw from the course, even with a late withdrawal, but without any entry on their record of a charge of plagiarism.

Everyone knows about the proliferation of the mechanisms for ensuring transparency and protecting rights of students. Everyone is aware of the vast increase in university expenditures on student counselling. However, it is not clear when and whether these innovations have proven to serve student interests overall, and, more importantly perhaps, whether they have enhanced their education. These innovations have evidently sustained the lives of many students who might have fallen by the wayside or dropped out under the pressure of a tertiary education.

This is clearly a superficial examination of my personal historic turf. I have barely skimmed or surfed the surface. However, I want to introduce the other two concepts I mentioned above before I delve into the future with any greater depth.

Tomorrow: Power and Influence in the university