Behind the Rust Wall: Going Undercover inside the Academy

In April of last year the Department of Economic Development here in Prince Edward Island was renamed and became the Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning. In announcing the change, Government outlined the role of the new department:

Prince Edward Island’s greatest natural resource is its people. We have a long and proud history of innovation — and a population that is fiercely loyal to the province.
For that reason, substantial new investments will be made in the years to come, which will offer Islanders much greater access to educational opportunities in a changing economy.
The new Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning will blend the challenges of a changing economy with the province’s capacity to promote post-secondary education, learning and training.

At the time I was spending more time than usual on projects at the University of PEI, and I came to realize there was something of a caste system at the university: faculty, staff, students. And “other,” the category I fell into. While this might seem like a perfectly normal state of affairs, in light of Government’s desire to provider “much greater access to educational opportunities in a changing economy,” the distinctions seemed artificial and counter-productive.

And so I had an idea: why not make every citizen of Prince Edward Island a member of the university.

At the hospital on the day you’re born you’d get your UPEI card along with your birth certificate. And while this might not entitle us to freely attend classes, it would afford some actual privileges: borrowing books from the library, access to site-licensed journals, wifi access, a discount at the bookstore.

But perhaps more important that any practical benefit, the mere fact of saying this place is your place could, in one act, change the place of the institution relative to the community from something remote, effete, and available only to the especially qualified to a become a vital, accessible, and inclusive institution that belongs to and can learn from and enhance the lives of all Islanders.

Yes the change would be symbolic. But symbols matter, and a university that says “we value you so much that we’re going to bring you inside” is far more likely to develop an intimate, symbiotic relationship with its community that one that continues to maintain the traditional walls around the academy.

I’ve been trying this idea out for some months now, running it by various people inside UPEI and out, and it has, I think, at least ignited some discussion. To be able to really try it on for size, however, I realized that I needed, as a lowly member of the “other” caste, to try to engage the academy and see how it went.

An opportunity conveniently arose this fall when Neb Kujundzic invited me to participate in his course Philosophy 105: Technology, Values & Science this semester.

I wasn’t sure whether this was best done as a bona fide student, by formally auditing the course, or by just showing up, so I decided to start down the enrolment path and see how that went. I sent an email to the Registrar:

I would like to register for the course “Philosophy 105: Technology, Values & Science,” starting in January.
I am what you appear to call either an “adult learner” or an “unclassified undergraduate” (or maybe a “lifelong learner?”).
Can you please tell me what steps I need to take to apply for and/or register for this course.

I received back a one-line reply:

You would need to fill out an unclassified form, found online, or you can come in and fill a form out.

Not exactly the sort of “wow, you want to engage with UPEI: that’s amazing — here’s exactly what you need to do, and why don’t you stop around and have a coffee and we can talk about other ways you might get involved” response I would expect to receive to from an institution that seems so otherwise eager to talk the “lifelong learning” talk.

As there didn’t seem to be any benefit from actually registering for the course in any case — I’m many, many credits away from any sort of graduation and this certainly wasn’t going to push me over the line — I decided rather to take the “just show up” approach, albeit with Neb’s kind permission and under the cover of a “Technologist in Residence” billing.

And so today at 10:30 a.m. I took my place at the back of Room 120 in the Main Building at UPEI (it’s the building that apparently needs no sign, what being the “main” building and all) and took in my first class: my first time in a classroom in 23 years.

Things were much as I remembered them from the mid-1980s: professor at the front of the room, students on terraces with uncomfortable chairs and tiny desks, annoying fluorescent lights buzzing overhead. I got the same familiar antsy “can I really sit still for 40 minutes and listen to someone talk” feelings before things got going.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the parry and thrust of intense philosophical debate: it was mostly Neb talking and us listening, with a few interjections by the confident. But then again it was the first class, and who knows the difference between Techne and Episteme anyway? I hold out hope that the parry and thrust will tick up as things proceed.

Oliver’s advice to me on our way to school this morning, on hearing it was my first day of school too: listen, sit quietly, don’t ask too many questions, and no kissing. I’m happy to report that I performed well on all fronts.


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on January 5, 2009 - 21:09

I was taking a “lifelong learner” approach at UPEI when I was right out of high-school and always found the organization was oriented against that approach. The registrar seemed to constantly want to know what my “major” was and whether my classes were meeting the requirements for that major.

I’m not sure why they weren’t just happy to take my money. [hippie-voice]I just wanted to *learn*, man.[hippie-voice]

That said, I also found myself completely incapable of enjoying the traditional classroom format. Some days I think I was too smart for it. Other days I think I was too dumb (see:… ).

Pat's picture
Pat on January 5, 2009 - 21:15

I was hoping to take this course as well, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to fit it into my schedule. Does it seem like something fairly introductory, or does it come across as more in depth?

Chuck's picture
Chuck on January 5, 2009 - 21:20

Just chiming in to say I think that making every citizen of PEI a member of the university (it sounds like you’re talking about the same level of access as an alumnus) is a fantastic idea.

Jane's picture
Jane on January 6, 2009 - 00:40

Ditto. I think almost anything that would broaden Islanders’ sense of belonging as citizens is a great idea. I wonder which would come first: a meaningful sense of belonging as an “Islander” (wherever you have come from and wherever you intend to go) or a meaningful sense of belonging as a part of a community of learning? Is one needed first to make the other possible?

(I am in favour of a very broad definition of who is “from the Island” or “of the Island” and therefore “an Islander” — all expedient appointments to the Senate aside.)

Alan's picture
Alan on January 6, 2009 - 03:50

Does it make any difference that there are no citizens of PEI or that the thought that “this might not entitle us to freely attend classes” would not apply to Peter in any case as he is not born there? Would my well earned rejection of the idea of “a meaningful sense of belonging as an Islander” also disqualify me from this had I stayed? And who pays for all the chalk?

Ken's picture
Ken on January 6, 2009 - 13:49

Symbolic change, like changing the title of a government department or making everyone a member of UPEI is undermined by the fact that the university itself may not change and the end result would be all islanders getting the same bland line you got from UPEI. Or a government department that sells Canadian citizenship in the name of innovation.

I’d rather have un-symbolic change that comes without fanfare and is best represented by Holland College in the way it engages industry leaders to shape it’s curriculum, for example.

My final thought is to make every member of the Ministry of Innovation enroll in a course at UPEI. It would be all thrust and no parry with some kissing.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 6, 2009 - 17:22

As long-time reader of the blog and a past president of the UPEI Student’s Union I feel the urge to chime in on this. That despite my 10+ years of residence in Alberta do not make me less of an Islander is another topic….

Having seen the innards of the university in the mid-90s I have a love/hate relationship with it and its faculty, administration and student body. While I know some things have changed since then there have been fewer steps forward than I hoped when Elizabeth Epperly was chosen as the new University President in 1995. Wade MacLaughlin has succeeded in bringing money to the university but has re-entrenched some of the old boys network many of us had hoped would be permanently done away with. Unfortunately athletics and in particular the hockey team seem to still be royalty on campus. The student body is largely a live at home, come to class, leave campus ASAP king of crowd making a sense of community hard to establish but perhaps making the workings of the university a real part of many homes particularly in Queens county.

How do universities with their faculty of high acheiving learnings accomodate a model of inclusion you suggest? Did UPEI truly help or hinder me in my worldly education and life goals?

Here in Calgary we find ourselves increasingly drawn to the U of C for concerts, plays, skating at the Olympic oval, gymanastics classes, ski and snowshoe rental, swimming and even an evening course or two. This is partly due to our geographic location in the city but also because of the wealth of facilities centred on campus. Is U of C a place every Calgarian goes multiple times per week not likely but it seems to be a better model than I remember at UPEI.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 6, 2009 - 17:30

There are many well-established, non-mythical measures for establishing “Islander” status: health cards, drivers license, residency determination for tax purposes. I think “anyone who lives or wishes to live, or once lived on Prince Edward Island” is as good a classification as any for this purpose: the University should have such problems as having too many people wanting to engage with it!

L.'s picture
L. on January 6, 2009 - 17:30

I think it would be great to have the University be more significant to the Island community — I think that the best way to do that is to find ways to reach out to the community and engage them — The Centennial Scholar Program and now the Seniors College helps play that role. Many University Libraries do not have borrowers who are from outside the University community and I think that the Library may play a larger role in that regard as it is the largest research (as opposed to public) oriented library on P.E.I. which is open to the public. Much more can be done — I know in working with community groups and them being invited to events on campus — accessibility and parking seems to be an issue although on evenings and weekends parking is more easily available. Some of the major areas to work on include research on issues and topics relevant to our needs and that includes research on community development, history, economics, our environment and many other areas — there are some very good scholars doing this but always think we can do more in this area as many of the research dollars may be tied to private rather than public interests due to the nature of the funding. There are things like the Institute of Island Studies which do many great things and have done so for a long time (alas it’s popular publishing program is not ongoing although it would like the resources to do so), L. M. Montgomery Institute, AVC Camps etc who work with many others in the PEI Community and beyond. Maybe UPEI needs a PIRG — public interest research group based on local needs. Also, making university facilities and spaces more open to community groups and non profits for meetings etc. will assist in this regard as UPEI was built with public resources as well as donations from the community so that may also welcome others to campus more often. Curriculum can meet community needs by providing the education Islanders need in many occupations and educate Islanders to become full citizens who want to remain here and contribute here.

Chuck's picture
Chuck on January 6, 2009 - 18:25

Ken, I think the idea that the University would have to make some substantive changes was implied by Peter’s original post, but I agree that without those changes this would be, mostly, an empty gesture. Cultural change is hard, so those the necessary things wouldn’t happen without significant effort, but I think Peter is on to something here.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 7, 2009 - 00:42

Doesn’t the university have an “extension” program? Is that what “lifelong learning” is? It sounds clunky and unwelcoming, but some intra-bureaucratic culture change might be all that’s needed to reverse that and to promote wider awareness of it; then wouldn’t you have achieved the desired end, more or less? In terms of symbolism, I think people studying full-time or even part-time continuously toward a degree deserve symbolic differentiation from the population of the Island as a whole. To me that means not everybody could be called a “student.” Besides, real students pay extra by way of “tuition” and other special fees beyond what extension students pay even for the same classes. This purchases them a status that they typically prove using a photo ID card every time they want to use the gym or check out library materials, for example. It’s nice having a word for this status, and “student” seems natural and established for this…even if it’s only used in short-hand for “currently enrolled full-time student.” I wouldn’t want to have to start referring to (real) students exclusively as “CEFTS” just so anybody can describe anybody else as a “student” without the risk of being misunderstood or called a liar. Anyway, at that point “student” would mean simply “person,” which is a fine word that seems to be accomplishing its job alone.

Keith Kennedy's picture
Keith Kennedy on January 7, 2009 - 03:56

I would have liked to have received a UPEI passport when my Babies came into the world. Instead my children grew to invest in their future.They earned it and are still do so.Im proud of them. I someday might get to go.I like your points about rights and education and believe it’s a right to learn for as long as you need. It’s an investment in every fiber of our community.

It’s cost a great deal to learn . We need to build a better mouse trap for higher education . How can we do it?

Marian's picture
Marian on January 7, 2009 - 13:09

You’ll need lots and lots of money. Most universities are cash strapped which is why they are such unglamourous places nowadays. If you get industry to contribute then you’ll probably end up with majors in hamburger management etc. so the question of money is actually a tricky one. One thing that helps to revamp a university is a healthy middle class that cares about such things and is willing to pay for them.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 7, 2009 - 16:54

One other thought on this…your current caste system should mention Alumni…graduates of UPEI can get library cards. That’s how I did research when I was in high school.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 7, 2009 - 18:38

I don’t know what they’re paying contract faculty and sessionals out East (this is also important because they sometimes make up 50 percent of faculty), but in central Canada it amounts to minimum wage. Check this out:… or you can click on the word Marian above for the article.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 7, 2009 - 18:43

I mean Marian below, I guess.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 7, 2009 - 19:05

@Andrew Interesting you should mention Alumni: I got caught in the neutral zone on that one 23 years ago when I was a “former student,” but, as I didn’t graduate, wasn’t technically an alumnus: I went looking for a library card at Trent University, but because I didn’t have a graduation year, they couldn’t find a way of helping me.

Andrew macPherson's picture
Andrew macPherson on January 8, 2009 - 00:21

Universities first went off the rails when they became about exclusion and qualification for entry. That was long before they became the corporately funded accreditation systems they largely are today. You (and mean this very much as a compliment) would have been welcomed and felt comfortable at a medieval university where those seeking knowledge gathered.

That said my time at UPEI (and Dalhousie) taught me a lot of things…I just had to go out of my way to learn them. Incidentally I took 36 classes at UPEI but left with only an Engineering Diploma not a degree but am still considered an alumnus.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 8, 2009 - 00:27

…but they (the medieval university) wouldn’t have had wifi either…probably just a turnip patch to help weed…

Jevon's picture
Jevon on January 9, 2009 - 13:56

You don’t need to graduate from a university to be Alumni, you just need to have attended.

A lot of universities in Canada and the US offer Alumni status to guest lecturers or even just people they like (and who they think they can get some donations out of is my guess).

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 22, 2009 - 23:34

As one born here, and having heard this discussion far too many times, and having to endure bothersomely narrow definitions, I would like to endorse the following: “… for establishing “Islander” status: health cards, drivers license, residency determination for tax purposes. I think “anyone who lives or wishes to live, or once lived on Prince Edward Island” is as good a classification as any for this purpose.”

Except for perhaps Senate (and maybe Court) appointments. In those cases I’d like to see two things: 1) current residency for at least one tax year, and 2) years of residency exceeds years of absence.

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