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Collective Autonomy

Interview with Edward Monahan

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Why did you decide to write this book?

No-one had yet written a history of COU. As a member of Council for almost 20 years and its chief executive officer for nearly fifteen, I was in a good position to undertake the task. I had been involved in many of its activities; I knew most of the principal players personally; I had ready access to the archives. Retired, I had the leisure. I thought the history would make a contribution to the literature of Canadian higher education.

What are the highlights in the book?

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the book as having any highlights. As history, it recounts the activities of the principal subject (COU) over a period of some four decades. During this time, while the objectives of the association remain the same the focus changes in response to changing circumstances. The decade of the ’60s was a period of rapid expansion. During this time, when public funding was plentiful, the emphasis was on planning and COU played a major role. When universities fell in government spending priorities and funding was reduced, the emphasis shifted. The limited ability of a voluntary association to persuade its members to exercise self-restraint now became a planning liability and Council gradually ceded its earlier planning role. In the ’90s, with the advent of the Common Sense Revolution that saw a large reduction in government funding and greater emphasis on private enterprise and competition, the role of COU shifted again. What remains constant, however, is Council’s insistence on the preservation of institutional autonomy and its efforts to maintain the delicate balance between that autonomy and public accountability.

Has COU made a difference?

Yes, definitely. the large scale, high quality university system that exists in Ontario today owes much to the Council of Ontario Universities. As this history shows, although the structure of university-government relations that has developed in Ontario has its flaws, it supports a system that serves the province and its people well.

What groups of readers do you think might benefit from this book?

Senior university administrators (academic and non-academic), faculty and students involved with or interested in policy issues affecting university-government relations, civil servants and politicians involved in government-university policy issues, students of higher education, persons with an interest in the continuing inter-play between private institutions receiving public funds and governments determined to use these institutions for their own purposes.