The Moral Irresponsibility of Weaponized Administrative Power at the University of Toronto and Beyond
The Ongoing Work of Salvaging Our Public Institutions is Mundane
This post is about the censure of U of T. It’s also about our public institutions, our professional lives, and our democracy. It’s long for a few reasons. I may return and edit. Like many of us, I’m not at my best in a pandemic and I welcome corrections, suggestions, places for clarifications, challenges, etc., as always.
The post is structured in three parts: 1. Why we must grow the political power we hold through representative governance — at U of T and well beyond it, 2. How the censure situation and the university’s response is an example of a larger pattern of trouble with representative governance and unaccountable administrations and, 3.The ongoing work of salvaging our public institutions.
This *is not* a post about the many important and specific details of the U of T censure story. I leave those, and the background of the story, to the thoughtful organizers of the U of T Censure campaign, their supporters and partners, the press, and others. There is much to celebrate in terms of the campaign’s success and impact and where things are headed next. To celebrate and get caught up on all of this, I suggest you watch Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop — an event held by the censure organizers with a great slate of supporters and guests on Oct 21,2021.
- Why We Must Grow the Political Power We Hold Through Representative Governance — at U of T and Well Beyond It
We are living through a mass trauma event. Our efforts to build public power in the face of global injustice continue. Our public institutions, and other organizations built on representative governance, can be significant instruments of adaptation in this effort, but only if we see them as such. And only if those of us inside and outside of them demand it. There is a range of sources of public power that can be exercised through representative mechanisms that some of us have allowed to grow fallow. This is morally irresponsible.
Through the censure, we saw public and representative power organize inside and outside the university. There is a lesson in how this was done, and a lesson in what was revealed about our public institutions. Many structures that safely house established power are highly brittle. With an influx of people continuing to expose how they operate, they can and will be forced to change. I struggle every day to convey this information. There are cracks and breaks and plastered over bits in establishment power that are being held in place by mythology. Often these weaknesses can’t be seen, but this is only because they are viewed at too far a distance. As we saw in this case, and in so many others, inaccessibility, wordplay, and shadows conceal how structural power operates.
As someone that works in technology circles, it struck me recently that the notion of “black boxes” (opaque systems) applies to representational governance too. Black boxes are a topic that rightly concern many technology scholars, lawyers, and others about how software systems work — see Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society for more on the concept. To our detriment, in both software and governance, black boxes are inaccessible. But to our advantage in both, they are also dependent on people and process. This situation, in the context of governance, presents us with an opportunity, and an obligation, to act.
More of us need to get into the weeds of the administrative machinery and the weaponized incentive structures that use what should be publicly accountable institutions to resist change. We need to follow the abstractions of freedom and justice through to the seemingly banal and mundane ways they are deformed and rendered impossible by administrative practice. Governance is not a ‘set it and forget it’ situation. Like all things based on relationships, it requires time, energy, care, attention, productive friction, and maintenance.
There is a need for residents of Toronto, and residents elsewhere too, to seek to build better accountability habits into their daily lives. If we continue to do this work we can draw on the significant administrative power that is lying around on the floor. We can use it to redefine our public institutions, as well as their responsibilities to us.
In a society so heavily impacted and shaped by norms of bureaucratic and managerial use of power, there is a growing need for more of us to understand the shape of this particular context. There is a dire need for more of us to shoulder the weight of our responses to administrative uses of power collectively. Some of this is stepping back far enough from the staid and often divisive discourse of electoral politics to interrogate other spaces of shared power and potential response.
Tomorrow is the next meeting of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). At their meetings on November 25/26 they’ll vote to either extend or lift the censure (meeting agenda). It is the CAUT that decided to put the censure in place at U of T, which they paused in September. As they wrote about this decision:
“The [pause of the censure] announcement is in response to the University of Toronto’s decision to reverse course and re-offer Dr. Valentina Azarova the position of Director of the International Human Rights Program in the Faculty of Law.
CAUT’s Executive Committee considers this latest development to be a “victory for academic freedom” and one that satisfies the principal condition for a resolution of the dispute.
In the meantime, the University is encouraged to take action to resolve other outstanding issues in the case, including explicitly extending academic freedom protections to academic managerial positions and developing clear policies that prohibit donor interference in internal academic affairs.”
As someone who is not a university teacher, not a CAUT member, and has limited knowledge of university politics, I can say three things. Firstly, on a personal level, I hope they will extend the censure because there are significant outstanding governance issues at U of T. Secondly, I will understand if their analysis of the outcomes so far is to formally lift and end the censure. Thirdly, and most importantly, it was a great revelation to me (and I’m guessing others like me) to learn that censure is a tactic that this group of professionals had and has available to them — and used — on my, and many others, behalf. We, all of us, are a group of people with a relationship to the university, some of us through place (Toronto), some of us through profession (many), and all of us through its public-ness and history (society).
In a representative democracy, and in a time where some of us are finally coming to more honest terms with our reality of collective existence and dependence, it’s vital to strengthen our political and civic education muscles to better understand where we have different kinds of power. Where it is latent and under-accessed, and how to marshal it better across wide-ranging groups of people. This is, in a way, suggesting we take the idea of efficiency back as a pro-public word. Sharing and shouldering pieces of work together in novel ways to be sustained for larger and longer fights.
Why should you read more about what happened with the censure at the links above? Why should we tell this story over and over well into the future? Because this entire censure ordeal is an excellent lesson in representative power, public power, how they connect and interrelate, and how important it is to get to know our administrative governance black boxes better. It can teach us things both tactically and strategically about the nature of different kinds of power, and for that we will now dip a bit further into specifics.
2. How the Censure Situation and the University’s Response is an Example of a Larger Pattern of Trouble with Representative Governance and Unaccountable Administrations
There is a significant amount of political power that is currently operationalized in a range of administrative structures. This does not only apply to the university writ large. It applies to the public service, it applies to professional associations, and it applies broadly to many public institutions. This administrative machinery is increasingly focused in the service of commerce to deliver public goods and support public interests. An excellent summary of this status quo is presented in Wendy Brown’s book: Undoing the Demos — Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Here’s a summary, please consider the censure as you read it:
“Neoliberal rationality — ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture — remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In vivid detail, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperiled.
The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice cede to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive these transformations. Radical democratic dreams may not either.”
To these “radical” democratic dreams — let’s consider the situation of funding for our universities and the power of donors. There have been wealthy patrons underwriting works of public and cultural interest for a very long time. But what of this moment at the University of Toronto? One where donors can read the situation of financial capture by outside interests so well that they are able to get the university to downplay and deny explicit efforts to maintain it?
Here we must return to the idea of moral irresponsibility and administrative power, as well as responsibility with public power. And let me be very clear here with the term morality because whose morals and whose values is a good question. The defining element of this specific morality is an understanding of the need to make decisions as an individual to uphold the responsibilities that come with being part of a collective. Failing to follow the well known steps laid out to support collective governance is a moral choice. What happened at the university, to consider from a moral perspective, is what many people decided not to do. Omission, not commission.
Once you turn your back on the responsibilities required of an individual to uphold collective governance you erode the power of the collective. We must understand positional power better to protect those personally incentivized to act against the collective. This issue surfaces again and again in my study of power in the technology domain and the access to justice issues that it inevitably runs up against. It’s not only the 1% of power that demands much interrogation. It’s the next big layer of us that hold power that needs the same attention in terms of accountability to the collective. I’ll put myself there, that might be you too.
Again, the thing about accountability is not to expect perfection, it’s the opposite. It’s to plan for error and to create ways to build and grow together through correcting errors by recommitting to shared values. But to move into the growth that accountability processes extend to all of us, one must start from the truth. So it’s important to remember as CAUT heads into its meeting tomorrow, and as we continue to consider our ongoing relationships with the university, that this hasn’t happened. The university has not told the truth about how things went wrong in this matter.
In this case, some (by far not all) faculty, picked up the responsibility to uphold what is called collegial governance at the University of Toronto. This is a type of representative governance. It has two key tenets: first, that members of the collegium should direct the institution, and second, that administrators of the institution should be accountable to the collegium.
When members of the collegium showed up to the university with concerns about how collective governance mechanisms fundamental to the university’s mandate were not being used properly, they took their representative power, a power that extends and intersects with the public’s power, and brought it to bear on donor power and academic freedom. This is a pattern and tactic that can be replicated in many institutions — you hold or have access to representative power that you can wield in an institution, on behalf of the public, in the face of existing established power. This is one of many tactics available through representative bodies to make change. This is an avenue for change in policies, in institutional purchasing, in professional association actions. The list is long.
Back to how the university reacted to its wrongdoing and how it stands now. While the short and press-friendly story is that they both a) offered a position to the candidate negatively impacted by donor power and b) made policy adjustments, the reality is one of details that show how the culture and climate for proper collegial governance at the university are still very much imperiled.
Several senior administrators did not do their part to uphold collegial governance norms. It’s important to name what they didn’t do. They didn’t lean into the processes they had at hand to deal with the matter appropriately. I’ll repeat this to be wildly clear: it was this act of omission rather than any of commission where we must consider morality. Same with faculty that decided not to push on the administration for proper governance adherence and resolution. This is a failure to put in the work to protect the collective, regardless of personal incentives to stay out of it, and any conflicts they might create. Above all, at another level of accountability, we also see leadership that can see this structural problem but stays silent about it. Institutional leadership that should know the importance of protecting and growing the strength of the institution to uphold its values. It’s on all of us to stop putting each other in these trying positions in the longer-term. We can’t keep running in circles around perverse incentives.
In *knowing* that these intricate governance nuances won’t see the light of day in a headline driven world, decisions are made to uphold existing structures of power through acts of omission. These smaller and less perceptible acts are the kind of acts that established power knows we do not often hold in our gaze and teach about and resist.
The result is that the cultural norms that don’t serve all individuals of the collective in an equitable way are given a pass. So many “leaders” like to imagine they are making good business decisions when they gloss over governance. That those who challenge them just don’t understand how they are doing this for everyone’s benefit. We just don’t understand the complexity of needing to keep the machine running. It’s paternalistic. It’s common. It’s tired. And it’s insulting to our intelligence and values. Of course we understand. We don’t agree with it.
This is why we can no longer allow administrative matters to be understood and framed as rational rather than moral matters. It is in this refusal to engage with our omissions, in stepping away from the work of shared governance, that we allow status quo power to continue to operate. Not because it is powerful in itself, but because we acquiesce in its face. We don’t push at the shadows.
This confidence that more of us won’t push at shadows is one part of what allows colonial power to retain such force in this country. The status quo power of so-called canada does not rest in doing what is right when no-one is watching. It’s about excelling in figuring out what it can get away with. It knows which of us are silent in the face of this particular use of power: administrators, tenured professors, professionals of all kinds. And it depends on us. And we should feel and acknowledge that dependence every day and ask ourselves moral questions about it.
Should that sound like you, you should know that our institutions are not without their strengths. Over time, people before us built and maintained mechanisms that dare us to use them more and more robustly. Collegial governance, conceptually, invites us to protect collective values. When people bring concerns forward to public institutions, these concerns should be met and managed with integrity. This didn’t happen at the University of Toronto.
This is the piece at the heart of this affair that makes me want CAUT to extend the censure. Because the university refuses to acknowledge important details, refuses to acknowledge the path it could and should have taken to resolve this matter. And in this denial and in these nuances lie tremendous power.
Managing this all differently is part and parcel of the responsibility of public leadership. In June, I thought the university’s leadership might still course correct properly. Now, with the passage of more time, we can see how the leadership at U of T squandered a prime opportunity to develop better relationships with so many of us. That door, however, always remains an option, there is never an expiry date on doing the right thing to build the cultural changes necessary — small and large — to grow public and representational power.
Denial of wrongdoing intercepts and seeks to make light of the emotions that push some of us to keep reworking and improving our democracies. Emotions that enable mutual care. Responsibility. Accountability work. Administrators in many different organizations the world over will often go to great length to applaud the passion, commitment, and intensity of their colleagues so long as all of those emotions are directed to fit in the right boxes.
Status quo power looks to those that can helm any institution as though it were the vehicle for dispassionate business case exercises and names this leadership. Western power exhalts the businessman as a model of authority. This is something to create change around for we know from so many different contexts this is not the only kind of leadership we need for the scope and scale of change ahead of us.
Finally on this point, I was asked by someone a few weeks ago to explain this statement a bit further: “to those affiliated with U of T that are working on any kind of tech or AI accountability but are quiet on @censureutoronto and the governance issues, there is a consistency problem with work you say you are doing in the public interest.” and I’d like to take a minute to do so.
There are research institutions affiliated with U of T that are fired up about the promise and peril of tech and society. They fear the opacity and secrecy created by software. One major area of concern in this work is about when decisions formerly made by humans are automated by computer code, sometimes called artificial intelligence or machine learning. Those that work in these fields spend a lot of time in public talking about the need to make this kind of technology accountable for its decisions. About dealing with the black box this creates in terms of accountability.
If people doing that kind of work about “technology ethics” aren’t involved in the work of holding their own institution accountable for its governance I think we should name that. Being silent on matters of accountability when you claim to center it in your work is not a position I can make a lot of sense of. As I also wrote, engaging in politics, and how we all do it on different topics, are highly personal choices, so when I speak to this topic, I speak to those in public leadership roles, doing the work of public intellectuals, and especially to those with the kind of protection that tenure affords some of them.
I will continually advocate for kindness and a welcoming environment for those who may want to join in this kind of work, so I keep my door open to those that may fit this bill and would like to learn more or talk about those affiliated with U of T in tech, the censure, and their lack of participation. It’s also a pandemic and it’s important to exercise excessive caution in not knowing what anyone else is going through and how it might inform their potential involvement or lack of involvement in political activity.
3. The Ongoing Work of Salvaging Our Public Institutions is Mundane
When we talk about public power and about democracy, it’s vital to understand the conditions necessary to participate in representative processes: talking, reading, deliberation, time together, time apart, and so on. For as long as so-called canada has existed, it has been clear that many of us are politically disenfranchised by design. And rather than seeing these patterns of exclusion within our democracy, and making more efforts to use representative democracy to right the colonial wrongs this so-called nation was founded on, we’ve relied on it to make the status quo seem defensible. Groups or organizations or non-profits or others advocate for and seek to represent a broader set of people in political matters. We have to finally admit that while this is an important piece of the work, we can and should be doing much better with it as other adjacent — and sometimes healthily conflicting — powers grow.
Looking at just the last few decades alone, it’s important to both challenge the representative model that some of can use and adjust how we use it. We must learn to use our representative power better and differently. We have to pragmatically understand that it’s a very real fixture for the near-term *and* that it’s not achieving its goals. So to end, firstly, it’s critical to applaud and understand the tactical strength of a professional association like CAUT and a set of organizers such as the censure organizers to have staged this intervention. Within these formal and looser organizations, there was social infrastructure used and created to bring administrative political efforts to bear on administrative wrongdoing.
Secondly , let us not give up on the idea that there is leadership possible that understands the moment we are in and knows the importance of creating truly defensible responses to any number of difficult situations. Leadership that honours the mandate of the university while staying in good and supportive conversation with its community, donors included. Leadership confident in how to wield the power of collegial governance to strengthen the institution, not further degrade it.
Given that there is clearly a funding problem at the University, it should be finding venues to stage that discussion so more of us can understand the economic pressures and the political approaches to deal with them. This goes back to humility. Find a process to ask for help. If current leadership can’t engage with this problem with integrity and confidence they should find someone who can. The “pretending everything is fine” air of rational leadership of the establishment does not match this moment in history. It may match the political culture of this city, but this is not a status quo the majority of us want to hold onto.
If leadership in this moment doesn’t want to do this, it would be the most generous and opportune time to make way for those that do. When you have the rights afforded to you as the leader of a long-established public institution you also have significant responsibilities. Redefining what those are to match this moment of ongoing public trust dissolution and cynicism and distraction and grief would be an inspiring thing to see.
The frustration with established power’s inability to facilitate this kind of institutional evolution is not because they are bad or wrong-minded or don’t have their own set of perverse incentives to deal with (they most certainly do). The frustration is because it’s so eminently possible to shake them off and lead differently. Courage for the work of salvage and evolution. Taking representational power and trying to do better with it, when the moment, due to the pandemic, due to climate crisis, and due to all the human rights pieces wrapped into those both and more, demands it. It demands places where everyone sees themselves as safe and protected to do the work of human rights protection and growth through the vehicles afforded to us in a democracy.
In Closing and Gratitude
The censure is about a few different political matters at once, intertwined issues, something western worldviews and discourses and media debates have difficulty managing. One of them is academic freedom, Palestine, and the Palestine Exception. A book I found helpful as I began my admittedly too late in life learning on the topic of Palestine and how it connects to so much else is “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle — Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement” by Angela Y. Davis. As someone still learning to find stable feet in the language of support and argumentation on this topic, I’ll defer to Dr. Arazova’s words in a recent CBC piece regarding our public capacity for conversation on the matter of Palestinian human rights and beyond, including why she did not accept the position at U of T. I invite you to sit with them for a while as I have and continue to do:
“In light of events over the past year, I realized that my leadership of the program [at U of T] would remain subject to attack by those who habitually conflate legal analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian context with hostile partisanship. I also understood that the university would not be in a position to remove these hazards,” said Azarova, a research fellow at the University of Manchester.”
Conversation and education are both fundamental to our capacity to engage in democratic society. I welcome the opportunity to improve on my capacity in this realm, to participate with ever more confidence and groundedness. In this moment, I have joined my small individual capacity into the censure campaign in relation to an adjacent issue — one that spreads across many intersections and is the focus of the majority of my work: governance.
I try to practice my politics explicitly where it makes sense and where I know what I’m talking about. In this instance I want to remind us that we’re all at different levels of learning on a range of subjects that are interwoven. Some of us are gifted a position of relative safety, mentally and physically, not to live the harms of issues we don’t know or understand well. Our paths to collective growth of power requires we understand how and where many topical intersections exist, and how to participate within and across them on solid footing and in implicit and explicit solidarity. Thank you to all the organizers of censure UofT and to all the members of CAUT for your efforts and to all the supporters as well for creating an example of how to do this.
Public institutions are a part of the power shift we need to continue to create. And though some may argue they’re not (with history well on their side for much of that argument), to make waste of one of the things they’re capable of — investing in the infrastructures necessary for accountable representative process — is morally wrong. Let’s have the hard fights and fight together in alignment where we share values. Let’s keep our eyes and our efforts on the sources of fracture within an institution that simply cannot afford to continue to be compromised in this moment. It doesn’t matter how normalized or common it is. There is too much at stake and far too little social infrastructure with the mandate of the university. There is latent public power there screaming to be accessed and applied differently to the world as it continues to burn.
PS: thank you specifically to Denise Réaume and Ariel Katz for their clear and accessible teachings on collegial governance through the campaign. It is a term I am now more comfortable using because I got a foothold through their work. Any errors within this post on the topic are of course mine, but a few things they shared at the celebration event are paraphrased here and I’m grateful for their teachings. Thank you.