Brains drained: Some thoughts on the Canada 150 Research Chairs

Canadian academics and perhaps a handful of other people will have heard over the last month or so of a new program: the “Canada 150 Research Chairs“. This is a version of the long established Canada Research Chair program, by which generously funded chairs in  all manner of disciplines are allotted to universities across Canada to hire promising or prominent researchers (there are different “tiers” of CRC for researchers at different career stages). At the conclusion of the CRC term, the universities pick up the tab for what become permanent positions. The novelty of the C150RCs — the 150 refers to this year being the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation — is that scholars currently in Canada are not allowed to apply. (Normal CRCs are open to Canadians and non-Canadians alike.)

This has, naturally, generated a certain amount of hostility from academics in Canada. There is undeniably something odd about tying a national anniversary to a program whose distinguishing characteristic is that it excludes most of the nation from participating — though this might have been predicted to burnish Canadians’ much-cherished self-image as polite and generous to a fault. (So Canadian!) On the other hand there is a tone to some of the responses that is, for lack of a better word, parochial, though whether I hear this perhaps too readily for having encountered it in other ways I can’t be sure. At any rate, it is a matter of law that, for all but federally funded posts such as CRCs, Canadians are given preferential treatment in academic hiring: where two candidates have equally good qualifications, the Canadian is supposed to get the job.

In practice, however, this preference exerts a highly variable degree of influence in the nitty-gritty of translating the measurement of qualifications into deciding which of the three to five people who make it through to the campus visit stage really is the best fit for your department or program. “Fit” can be awfully hard to tabulate in a way that allows for the neat comparison the law implies: publications (past, present, future), teaching (experience, proposals, ideas), the potential for collaboration or the contribution to a department’s overall makeup compete for attention with a candidate’s position or reputation in the field — a matter invariably couched in terms of international standing — the strength (and the provenance) of her letters of reference, and how she handles questions at a job talk or “comes off” in an interview. All of these enter into any job search, not always in easily specifiable proportions. And so, national preference notwithstanding, non-Canadians are not particularly rare in Canadian academia. This is obviously a good thing.

What I do find objectionable about the C150RC program is, in part, wrapped up with its ostensible justifications and with the implications of the particular exclusions it enacts. First, the idea that this is somehow about building up Canada’s “middle class” sounds like a tacked-on bit of PR filler rather than a reasoned part of the original scheme. How exactly is this purpose best served by specifically excluding people in Canada from posts in advanced research? (For that matter, how is it served by lavishing money on a few prize positions at all, whether filled by Canadians or not?) Second, the more plausible idea that this is about bringing foreign talent to Canada — a laudible goal, if not necessarily an elusive one — is belied by the exclusions. Canadians can apply for C150RCs as long as they’re not in Canada at the moment. Foreigners, on the other hand, can’t apply if they happen to be living in Canada already — even as postdocs or in temporary positions that will eventually compel them to leave. So the focus isn’t on foreign talent, per se; it’s on foreign institutions.

This may seem like another manifestation of Canada’s massive and unrequited inferiority complex vis-à-vis the US. This spills over into academia, as anyone who’s seen a McGill student in a “Harvard: America’s McGill” sweatshirt knows. (Just try for a second to imagine a Harvard undergrad — or anyone else — claiming McGill as Canada’s Harvard.) In this vein, a more interesting problem than that of comparing a Canadian and an American with identical qualifications might be that of comparing two Canadians, one with a PhD from Toronto (or UBC, or York) and the other from Harvard (or Chicago, or — as in my own case — Columbia). Given how rarely Canadian jobs go to Canadian PhDs, as distinct from Canadian citizens, I’d be willing to bet that the latter candidate comes out ahead far more often than not. I’d also venture to guess — especially given the ludicrously small amount of time between the announcement of the chairs and the application deadlines (well under a month, in some cases) — that a very prominent share of C150RCs will go to Canadians who have received the seal of the Ivy League, or perhaps Oxbridge, but who now pine for Hamilton. The city, not the musical.

On the other hand, the program also fits very neatly with a storyline that certain university presidents — the group rumoured to be behind the exclusion of Canadian residents — have embraced: the “Trump effect”. This narrative sees in Trump (and to a much lesser extent in Brexit) nothing but opportunity. Students will flock north, pushed by the dread of lifetime college debt and pulled, presumably, by the sexiness of our young, yogic, panda-dandling PM — if not, as in days of yore, by the lower drinking age. Faculty will flee the States in disgust at the political environment if not in fear for their jobs and academic freedom. In sum, talent will be raided. And Canadian universities will at last grow rich on international tuition fees and climb the rankings on the strength of the scholarly superstars our wealthy and powerful but sadly crazy neighbours and cousins have let slip. It’s PR designed to warm the heart and loosen the tongue of any senior administrator.

If you’re a PhD student in a Canadian program, or a Canadian academic looking for a steady position in a bleak job market, or even a tenured academic tired of endless calls for more PhD recruitment and more graduate programs, it’s less comforting. The program’s stress on “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” also suggests very strongly that it will follow if not deepen the imbalance already apparent in universities’ strategic planning between the humanities, STEM, and professional fields, and perhaps more fundamentally between areas of research conducted on a recognizably academic and scholarly basis, whatever the field of research, and those more immediately amenable to private-sector partnerships and other money-spinning opportunities. In other words, it will further accelerate the corporate takeover of universities in Canada under the guise of offering a scholarly haven to those fleeing the CEO president.


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