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  • Collective Autonomy: A History of the Council of Ontario Universities, 1962-2000
  • Michiel Horn (bio)
Edward J. Monahan . Collective Autonomy: A History of the Council of Ontario Universities, 1962-2000 Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xii, 240. $49.95

Reading Edward Monahan's book, I was reminded of the concepts of karass and granfalloon. Described in the 1963 novel Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, a karass is a group of people doing God's will without ever discovering what they are doing; a granfalloon is a false karass, something that seems to be a team but has no role in the way that God gets things done. The Council of Ontario Universities was and is a granfalloon.

The comparison may seem far-fetched, frivolous, even harsh. However, from its beginning in 1962 the COU and its predecessor, the Committee of Presidents of Ontario Universities (CPUO) - the name changed in 1971 - consisted of a group of people who were often uncertain about what they should collectively be doing and who not infrequently worked at cross purposes. There was talk of a system, but COU never really was one. What held the group more or less together was that they represented the universities enjoying direct financial support from the provincial legislature. But each institution strove to preserve its autonomy and programs against government, against the Committee on University Affairs (CUA) - after 1974 the Ontario Committee of University Affairs (OCUA), which served as something of a buffer between the universities and government until it was abruptly abolished in 1996 - and against the other universities. Some of these showed an unseemly willingness to seize advantage over the others. Until I read Monahan I had not heard the term 'MacTwit group'; referring to McMaster, Toronto, Western Ontario, Queen's, and Waterloo, the self-identified research-oriented universities. The term seems more than apt.

Monahan is well positioned to write this book. President of Laurentian University from 1972 to 1977, he left Sudbury to become the executive director of COU and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1991. However, his thorough knowledge of COU from the inside is mitigated by his apparent unwillingness to name names when this may embarrass someone. Moreover, twenty years in administration have done nothing for his style. The passive voice is dominant; clichés abound. The book reads rather like a 212-page executive memorandum. [End Page 440]

For those willing to stick with it, however, the book is rewarding for what it says about COU and its accomplishments - it did foster a good deal of co-operation, especially in the areas of admissions and graduate planning - but even more for what it says about the relations between COU and the provincial government, and between COU and OCUA, which was caught uncomfortably in the middle between government and the universities but sought at the same time to increase its control over the latter.

The context within which COU worked was shaped by the policy of governments after 1970 to heed neither COU nor OCUA when it came to funding. The wealthiest province in Canada came to spend least per capita on higher education, while its governments continued to insist that the institutions must accommodate all qualified applicants. More than once, committees appointed by some government or other reported that either the universities should be expected to do less or should get increased revenue. Governments largely ignored such reports.

It is possible to infer that COU did not protest strongly enough against inept government policies, particularly some of those initiated by the NDP between 1990 and 1995, and by the Conservatives after that. However, Monahan is sometimes maddeningly reticent when candour would make for more stimulating reading. Still, the patient reader can learn much from this book about the nature and course of university-government relations in Ontario. [End Page 441]

Michiel Horn

Michiel Horn, Department of History, York University



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