The elitership college must be dismantled

This article is intended to be a companion piece to the article published in The Gateway in January on the construction, implementation, and concerns about the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, found here.

A student in the Peter Lougheed Leadership College told me that my first opinion piece would be more valuable with a call to action, and I agree. I had presented public information and facts about the program coupled with my opinion, but failed to assert my position on next steps in clear terms. After thinking it over, my call to action is for the campus community to pressure the University of Alberta to shutter the Elitership College permanently.

Not right away, mind you. Every student in the program was promised a certificate for the challenging work they’ve done (and having gotten to see their projects, they really put in a ton of work), and should receive their credentials. No more cohorts should be admitted into the college, and funding, with permission of the government, should be rerouted to more community-serving leadership opportunities.

When starting to write this article, I thought my call to action would be for more transparency of the college’s actions to General Faculties Council and the campus, and more programming to grow over time to become available in some way to the one-third of campus that then-President Samarasekera originally promised. The student I spoke with had me convinced that there is value in the college, and that there are many important things being learned and discussed about theories of leadership, not to mention the benefits to society from placements and community work. But this can exist in a different structure — one not plagued by controversy, perceptions of elitism, and a lack of information by virtue of not having to respond to GFC the same way other programs would. At this time, there are too many issues to have this program go forward.

I recognize there are students and faculty who disagree with my opinions about the PLLC. There are members of the college community who find the leadership program beneficial for their degrees because of this promise to gain leadership skills. This article, however, aims to further explore the PLLC’s flaws as an elitership college.

For this article, I interviewed three people related to the college in different ways. Kathleen Lowrey is an associate professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and sat on GFC during the “approval” of the college. The other two we’ve granted anonymity to: one non-tenured instructor who was asked to look into leadership initiatives in his faculty, let’s call him Professor Henry Snowden, and a student who is currently a member of the leadership college, let’s call him Edward Tory.

To recap the questionably ethical creation of the college in 2013 and 2014, Lowrey confirmed that much of the discussion about the specifics of the college were kept from GFC “behind closed doors” and members of the administration were “very careful to give (the college) this special name so it didn’t need to go through real governance processes.” Her biggest concern, however, was about the treatment of students in the first draft of the plan.

“In a way, it was like selling blocks of students at an auction: give this amount of money and you get to mentor 15 students,” said Lowrey. “In a way, the university was selling off units of student affection and admiration, which is disgusting.”

Once this idea was roundly shut down by the Students’ Union, the administration sought a different route. Lowrey also pointed out how disconnected it was from typical academic practices, saying, “I think it’s been insulting to faculty because they tried to create this thing that is outside of academic governance. In a way, it’s also insulting to donors because it’s such a shameless appeal to ego, and I’m pleased to hear that they’ve been having trouble raising donations because I think it’s nice that they overestimated the amount of ego out there.” The ego, of course, is referring to corporate donors the college wanted to recruit to slap names on everything with a measurable surface area at Peter Lougheed Hall.

The lack of thought didn’t stop at funding; those advocating for the college also hadn’t come up with any tangible academic outcomes, says Snowden. When he was looking into leadership initiatives for his faculty before the college was formally announced to GFC, he and others were contacted by those spearheading the college in its infancy.

“The plans they gave us and were circulated never had any academic programming attached to them,” Snowden said. “There was no research done to suggest that this thing was needed or any claim that there were needs not being met. We were actually asked to come up with some ‘leadership-y’ things that maybe would be part of it, instead of adding to something that was already existing.”

Lowrey also highlighted the need for governance processes, and why GFC exists in the first place. “Once (the administrators) realized they needed some kind of academic content for this leadership college they had created with no academic content, they were scrambling to find people to offer classes.”

When most programs go through GFC, several issues get flushed out: financial viability, necessity for the program, student interest, faculty support. None of these things happened with the leadership college. And Lowrey wasn’t exactly impressed by the talent they did manage to scrape together. “All my fears that this is an authoritarian nightmare institution are not assuaged because their first hire is a guy who works on military leadership, and not someone like a lesbian anarchist.”

Perhaps the most damning piece of information I heard for the suspicious nature of the “approval” of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College was from Snowden. He knew an architect who got a call to join the competition to design Lougheed Hall in 2013 before the project was formally presented to General Faculties Council for the first time in September of that year. This wasn’t a case of calling around and covering your bases by doing research on building estimates; they were getting quotes to commission a building they had not even attempted to seek approval for yet.

“I was sitting in a meeting and I mentioned the college, and although some people kind of liked it, I could tell there was disdain,” Tory explained. “From what I understand, there was supposed to be a certificate in leadership studies from the arts and science faculties but suddenly, the funding dropped. One of my professors said, ‘I’m glad you’re in (the college), but I feel bad because our program got defunded because of it’.” Truly stunning leadership demonstrated from the top minds of the University of Alberta, bulldozing grassroots attempts at leadership initiatives for a vanity project.

So what happens now that the college is up and running? We can’t change the past, so I’m sure everyone is on board with the project now.

“Everyone who thinks about it at all thinks it’s a terrible joke,” said Snowden. “No one (among faculty) takes it seriously, but because of the structure of governance no one feels we can do anything about it. In my opinion there’s no comprehensive program, no evidence they did any research info effective teaching methods, no evidence they have a clear definition of leadership.”

When asked about the claim that the college produces excellence above and beyond the rest of campus, Snowden said, “the word ‘excellence’ is a buzzword. What are they excelling at? You can’t just have general excellence. We claim to be academics, and academics are about evidence-based policy. Where is the evidence that what students are learning in the college is improving their skills on defined metrics? I am insulted by the claim that teaching across campus isn’t excellent from an institution that has done nothing to investigate what excellence in teaching is.”

Lowrey had similar concerns.

“The notion of excellence and higher education is so widely repeated that at this point it’s the subject of relentless mockery. The academic mission of the college has really nothing to do with the student experience; mostly it involves attracting donor money. Call it excellence and maybe money will stick to it.”

From a student perspective, things are not falling apart, but are not great either. Tory found issues with the difficulty of the program and a constantly-changing syllabus (which goes against university policy, by the way), and some of that is to be expected in a new program. What is harder to explain away, however, is the mistreatment of students by mentors, who to all my research efforts are not held accountable by any formal guidelines and receive no training other than a weekend workshop. Tory recalled a meeting with mentors who derided him for not being appropriately dressed for the occasion. On a student budget, you can’t expect everyone to come in a formal suit even if the event called for fancy attire, which it didn’t. It points to a glaring disconnect between mentors and the students they claim to be role models for.

As for expectations for the program, Tory says while it is still a worthwhile experience overall, it isn’t what they were promised.

“We were told the program was going to be a very hands-on experience, but it’s not,” Tory said. “We literally haven’t touched anything and we’ve only read textbooks.”

Tory also recalled one cohort in the college complaining about having the administrators micromanage their project. “They (the cohort) told staff things that they had come up with and the staff said ‘No, we want you to do this,’ so they were told how their project needed to function and literally told them what to do,” he said.

The perception of the college overall is not good, to say the least. Snowden calls it “a shell of an institution that’s being used to draw in funds and get name recognition,” and Lowrey believes it does a disservice to Peter Lougheed. “His legacy was not about believing in leadership, but believing in Albertans.” So now the university is stuck with an unpopular, expensive program, and what can they do to avoid embarrassment for this program?

The college should be shut down, absolutely. In its place, I propose a Certificate in Leadership Theory. The University of Alberta offers a variety of certificates that aren’t siloed away from us “normal” students that many people find value in. The general framework of certificates include 12 credits of courses and some form of experiential learning. For example, the Certificate in Sustainability has the following criteria: six credits in approved core courses, six credits in approved elective courses, and a three-credit project you work on with an advisor from the Office of Sustainability. The Certificate in Community Engagement Service-Learning is heavily based in experiential learning outside the classroom, is the first of its kind in Canada, and celebrates community leadership. If the college were dismantled, stretch experience funding given to the Undergraduate Research Initiative for anyone to apply to, Lougheed Hall repurposed for something else, and a Certificate in Leadership Theory developed, I think it would be well-received and much more flexible and inclusive to students. The greatest benefit of this change would be that there is no limit to the number of students who could apply for this each year, and if we’re being honest, seeking out flexible programs on your own and working through them in your preferred style is true leadership.

Lowrey and Snowden disagree with me on this front. They believe leadership is so intangible that a certificate would be without academic merit. The danger that lies in leadership programs is how “leadership” as a concept is defined.

“I tend to be cautious of the idea of leadership,” Snowden said, “because it tends to be an empty vessel for whatever people claim.”

This “empty vessel” of claims has certainly been demonstrated at the University of Alberta. I proposed a certificate to ease the pain of admitting failure on a program, so it’s not a perfect solution or a broad look at what leadership even means, but it’s a start.

“Having put so much into it,” Snowden said, “it would be hard for them to back out of it without losing face in a very public way. I think if the current administration were more in tune with the current government, a way would be found to back off from it.” He says, however, the project is now almost impossible to back away from. “They failed to offer any comprehensive rationale, leaving us to conclude that it was a vanity project, and that the university will continue to plough money into it regardless of its success or failure. They need to offer a very clear, objective standard that they claim to meet and commit to closure (if the college) if they don’t meet that.”

I don’t envision the college choosing this path by choice, so I implore General Faculties Council to demand this change. I have great respect for students in the college and it is not their job to defend the shady decisions that created this program — it is the responsibility of the administration to own up to its failures. Instead, supporters of the college took issue with how upset students were with elitist accusations, ignoring the concerns behind the words of my first article and how the public has reacted to this college. The PLLC using students as shields against valid criticism is deplorable. In response to those comments, Snowden said, “to say you shouldn’t criticize the program because people might be upset is ludicrous and is dodging the issue, frankly. It also almost implies that the criticisms are right and they don’t want people to be upset about them.”

Students are not the issue with the college, and should be upset by this lackluster response to criticism. When a program uses the emotions of their participants to deflect any criticism of the structure of the program, they are demonstrating the exact opposite of leadership. They are cowards hiding behind well-meaning students who may be the only saving grace of this disastrous program. In spite of the college’s best efforts, students are on average enjoying the program. Tory said, “overall the experience has been positive because it’s a very different rigor than my program offers at the U of A.” He has hope for the project, but also recognizes the many issues that plague it.

“Most (of the mentors) are very wealthy and have a lot of power in places they serve: banks, construction companies, prestigious doctors, government,” said Tory. “There’s a lot of power held there and I think from the outside it looks horrible. It’s a bunch of Progressive Conservatives who are rich, talking with a very select small amount of students. Although I hope the college has good intentions with what they’ve done, it looks horrible from the outside.”

If anything, students like him can save the Elitership College from its corporate, elitist nonsense.

I truly believe that society has been developing leaders for centuries, and the idea of leadership isn’t changing because of an inaccessible college that claims to be challenging and uplifting but is instead frustrating and disappointing. The University of Alberta should heed the writing on the wall and bow out after two years, suffering minor embarrassment, lest they double down and truly damage the reputation of the late Peter Lougheed and the entire institution.

To end on a final word from Lowrey, who has been a champion in the fight against this empty project: “when you’re already in a hole, you stop digging.”

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