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Federated university model costs more, but is that a bad thing?

Federated structures can have benefits that outweigh their costlier structure 
An aerial view of Laurentian University and the federated universities of Huntington University, Thorneloe University and the University of Sudbury.

By François Côté-Vaillancourt

On May 30, Erik White of CBC News published a long report exposing the fact that Laurentian University might suffer, both financially and structurally, from its federal structure. In particular, the issue of cost appears central in the context of the financial crisis that universities experience across Canada. 

And the fact is incontestable: federations costs more. 

But here, it might be useful to consider the example of states, since despite costing more, many countries have nonetheless chosen federal structures. Maybe some of the reasons to have a federal country would also matter when considering universities. 

Overall, we can point to three main model:

The Canadian model. The Canadian federation exists first and foremost to guarantee and protect a cultural, national, ethnic or religious diversity present in its population. In particular, French-Canadians simply could not accept to be part of a unitary state, and so they famously pushed for a federal structure in 1867. 

Regardless of the successes and failures of the Canadian federation itself, it is hard to claim that this model still justifies the Laurentian federation. Yes, in the beginning, the four federated schools had different religious affiliations (Neutral, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican), but this identity is less and less reflected in their activities. If one of these schools ran all the French programs it would be one thing, but currently those are spread across the different schools, just as the different disciplines can be. 

Therefore, all things considered, the Canadian model of protecting a major diversity provide little justification for the higher costs of the Laurentian federation.

The American model. Although the U.S. arguably started with 13 colonies that had different cultures, identities and religious affiliation, we can no longer say that their federation rest on the protection of different national identities. 

However, many still argue that it makes sense for the US to be a federation, because such a decentralized system can more easily adapt to very different local contexts. For example, attempting to have the same laws for the industrial Mid-West, the rural South and the thriving urban West Coast would be quite problematic. 

Thus the justification for maintaining the American federal structure, despite its cost and occasional dysfunctions. When one consider this example for the Laurentian federation, we quickly realize that it cannot apply. It would be one thing if the four federated schools had to adapt and react to different local conditions across Ontario, but they happen to be next to each other on the very same campus.

Therefore, all things considered, the American model of advocating local decisions to better adapt to different contexts provide even less justification for the higher costs of the Laurentian federation.

The German model. The current German federation is a creation of the Allies after the Second World War. While some states had historical precedents and some claims to a cultural diversity (Bavaria), others were purely arbitrary creations. 

This is because the main goal of the German federation was to weaken the central state after the Nazi era. In other words, it can make sense to have a federation simply because you see reasons to distrust the central direction, due to past or present actions. This model is thus one of prudence, the higher costs being justified as the price we pay to prevent dramatic changes. 

When one discuss the Laurentian federation with professors and staffs, this seems to be the main argument in favour of keeping the federation. Many professors are indeed worried about reinforcing the central direction, because they fear it would then more readily close programs and whole disciplines, especially in the arts and the humanities. 

Therefore, all things considered, the German model of limiting the power of the central direction does apply to the current Laurentian federation. As long as such concerns are present, whether they are justified or not, a federal structure does provide safeguards that might be worth higher costs. 

In conclusion, federations cost money. This can be justified according to three main reasoning, each exemplified by a federal country. If the often-cited Canadian and American models of protecting a specific diversity or leading to better local decisions are not that relevant to the current Laurentian federation, the German model of weakening a central direction due to existing concerns does seem to apply. 

However, this is certainly not an eternal justification. In particular, if future administrations were able to rebuild trust with its professors and staff, then it could make sense to advocate the end of the university’s federal structure. 

But as long as the trust is fragile, such a move would probably only serve to entrench and even exacerbate existing concerns. In the end, far from being merely an ethicist’s obsession, bolstering trust and positive relationships can save us money.

François Côté-Vaillancourt is a professor of philosophy at the University of Sudbury and director of the Ethics Centre.