What does the end of home delivery have to do with the university? I have lived in two professional worlds over the last decades – the university and the postal worlds. It may strain credulity, but each world has experienced the same challenge: How to maintain a quality, sustainable public service in the face of the transformational changes in their respective worlds.
At the risk of over-simplifying a rich, complex narrative, each of the postal and university systems was supported historically by the public and the public purse to serve the development of the market economy and political democracy. However, a trinity of developments in the 1980s – technological change, globalization, and an ideological paradigm shift – changed almost everything for our postal and university systems.
Both sectors have since struggled with competitive and uncertain economic circumstances, a new public policy paradigm, and alternate expectations about the nature of their ‘products’ and ‘services’. These changed from being ‘public’ goods to commercial and instrumental objects within an efficiency and productivity discourse.
Posts then underwent enormous production, product and service rationalizations in the 80s and 90s, from massive post office closings and the elimination of six-day delivery to the introduction of community mailboxes. Universities in turn have struggled with program rationalization and alternative course delivery models.
The changed discourse also moved their finances dramatically from predictable deficits and automatic increases in public support, to a user or pay-as-you-go model. This comprised higher prices and higher tuition, the increased use of part-time and contract labour, and the search for alternate sources of income. All the while, quality declined and expectations were lowered.
Both sectors have also struggled with the burden of legacy as they sought to adjust to their new realities: the Post with its elaborate (and expensive) post office network and traditional services such as daily door-to-door delivery, and universities with their ancient buildings and traditional programs, activities and procedures. Both sectors struggled with the maintenance and modernization of their physical plant as well as with the fiscal and operational implications of strong unionization.
In the process, the post and the university have had to endure the worst of both worlds. Each has been pressured to behave like private institutions, but they continue to be seen and held accountable as public institutions. Their efforts to meet productivity and efficiency expectations have been constrained and inhibited by public and political reaction and resistance and the continuing expectation of quality public services at a low price.
At any given moment, then, both the post and universities may be scrutinized harshly by the standards and expectations of being a public institution, as a consequence of their trying to act instrumentally like a private institution in order to survive. In this way, eliminating a post office or a postal route or home delivery is no different or easier than closing an academic program, or an old building, or a sports team.
Notwithstanding their difficult, ambivalent circumstances, I remain reasonably confident that both the post and the university have a future – mainly because this is what the public wants. We should try to hold firm on considering that postal and university activities are basically public activities and that each has public responsibilities – even in the paradigm-shifting context of productivity and efficiency efforts.
We must be tough-minded and professional in both sectors about developing sustainability strategies that ensure that our institutions have the capacity to maintain quality products and services over the long term. And we must understand and accept the required trade-offs and consequences of this approach – including modernizing the core definition of these public goods and services.
If we do not pull this off – if we do not manage to develop a financial and operational sustainability model for the post and the university – then we are not likely to maintain these enterprises and activities as public institutions and activities, with something to value and cherish. And I believe that this would weaken both our market economies and our political democracies.
Dr. Robert Campbell has been president and vice-chancellor of Mount Allison University since 2006. He is the author of two books on contemporary postal systems, and chaired the federally-appointed committee that reviewed Canada Post’s mandate in 2008.