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Executive Director’s Report – July 31, 2021

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Former US Secretary of State George Shultz once drew a distinction between “problems you can solve and problems you can only work at.”

These two types of problems have names: they are tame or wicked.

Wicked problems are messy, confusing, unstable, ill-structured, and ambiguous.

The Maple League was originally created to solve a wicked problem.

The wicked problem was the lack of awareness, understanding, and value of our model (of small, primarily undergraduate, rural and residential university) within the landscape of higher education in Canada and beyond. If we deliver a high-quality undergraduate education, why don’t we have lineups of incoming students?

The four universities understood that together we could amplify our voices in order to raise the profile of our four universities on national and international levels. This would, in turn, help us secure external funding from the federal government, challenge ourselves to improve the quality of undergraduate education we deliver, and attract prospective students.

We’ve been using the following design principles to guide the new strategic visioning process this summer, which has helped illuminate some of the challenges and opportunities we face”

1. “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” In other words – it is big and messy and hard to even get into focus because the edges are blurry, and the shape is constantly changing

2. A wicked problem “refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem”

This is a hard one for those of us who identify as “fixers” because there is no singular approach or narrow intervention. Instead, deep and meaningful impact can only be brought about when it is multi-pronged, distributed, localized, grassroots with (and this is crucial) high level support.

This means fostering integrated hubs and convergences across disciplinary and professional lines. We need a LOT of humans with different perspectives and experiences and expertise working collaboratively – including rethinking what counts as expertise and authority outside of traditional paradigms and structures. There are very few organizations who take this approach because co-design is MESSY and HARD and demands that we BREAK OPEN in order to transform.

3. “Wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil. As a Shakespearean, I love this formulation of “wicked”. In act 4 of Macbeth the 2nd Witch says “By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.” Macbeth (as a play and character) presents us with the wicked problem of power and authority; by giving us the shape of the wicked problem Shakespeare helps us navigate our own current political landscapes at home and abroad.

4. Wicked problems are also characterized as having “social complexity [which] means that it has no determinable stopping point”.

This means we are never going to get to a point where we can say, “we’ve got it!” Instead, hope lies in the “ethical quality of the struggle” (cf. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Tackling wicked problems demands that work is ongoing and progress is often really hard to see – especially in the shorter term. When tackling wicked problems, we have to appreciate that change takes time, but that the HOPE lies in appreciating the complexity of the struggle.

5. And if those four design principles aren’t challenging enough, wicked problems beget MORE wicked problems: because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” Above all though, a wicked problem does not mean an insurmountable problem. Wicked problems are ones that keep you up at night and also get you out of bed in the morning. As we move into a new phase of this consortium, our wicked problems include how to grow sustainably, how to build systems that are inclusive and flexible, and how do we have the best impact to fulfill our mission – which is to raise the bar on quality undergraduate education in Canada and beyond. In doing so, we raise the profile of our four schools as models of transformative education in the 21st century.

~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities

ML July Report 2021
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