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Executive Director’s Report – November 30th, 2021

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

The President of St. Michael’s College (University of Toronto) David Sylvester says that universities are anchors of hope in our communities. Yet, the gap between what we say we do and how we operate is wide and widening in Canadian PSE (cf. Harvey Weingarten’s new book Nothing Less Than Great, UTP, 2021).

How do we align values and practices so that universities fulfill their moral contract with the broader society? And, equally important, how do we design hopeful and resilient systems?

As we imagine the future of work – and the future of democracy more generally – we are compelled to think carefully and creatively about our current university system and imagine a model that provides a better, more ethical, and more rigorous education for all students. The major trends – ethical use of technologies, increasing internationalization, and shifting job sectors – are exciting, especially for institutions that have a clear guiding vision about quality education.

Furthermore, we must not merely respond to but in fact take the lead on pressing human rights issues, including fulfilling the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and decolonizing the academy, tackling sexual harassment and gendered-based violence on our campuses and beyond, creating more inclusive spaces for historically excluded and equity deserving groups.

In the next decade, the onus is upon all of us to ensure universities are places where we think carefully, responsibly, and ethically about the major social, economic, and philosophical issues of our time. And, moreover, we grasp the shapes of these issues but also find ways to intervene and become active members in finding solutions to our society’s most pressing “wicked problems.”

However, we have inherited 19th century systems that are now floundering in a 21st-century context. The work ahead, therefore, must be transformative – and inspire us all to create and support innovation in a climate that compels us to think carefully and creatively about our current university systems. In doing so we must imagine a university model that provides a better, more ethical, and more rigorous education for all students.

Furthermore, universities must be at the forefront of recovery efforts in a post-COVID world: the landscape of higher education in Canada has changed dramatically over the past year and our understanding of a 21st-century university has shifted under intense pressures and tensions. As we cross the pandemic portal, we must be willing to think differently, dream big, and lead creatively and courageously.

Change, as we know, is disruptive. Universities are designed to endure, not to adapt. Indeed, Dru Marshall, former Provost at the University of Calgary, spoke recently about how universities are transactional, and that Canadian PSE has experienced a mission drift away from the visionary and aspirational mandate we have as publicly funded social institutions.

What are we to do? Despair is an option. After confronting resistance such as a particularly difficult meeting or challenging conversation or barrier one did not expect, I often play the following game with beloved thought partners that goes something like this:

  • Let’s start a brand-new university. What would it look like?

  • What would we teach?

  • Who would we hire?

  • How would we govern?

But fictional universities borne from despair are inherently lazy and not terribly helpful. Most of us don’t have the luxury of starting fresh, and even those institutions that are new and shiny are still stuck with the same provincial funding models and populated by humans who have navigated (and internalized) older systems. “We must,” some old salty dog once told me, “dance with the girl that brung us.”

In the past few months, I have embarked on a series of conversations and have designed a research agenda that will interrogate the design principles necessary to build Hope University. Equal parts philosophical and practical, this project seeks to create a guide for people engaged in the thought work of universities.

The Maple League of universities has been a crucial incubator for these ideas. These four small but mighty universities punch above their weight in the post-secondary sector, and have differentiated themselves by their ability to collaborate. In a recent tweet, VP Teaching and Learning David Hornsby (Carelton), remarked: “Universities need to eschew toxic competition in favour of critical collaboration. The worlds most pressing challenges require it. This is why I am so inspired by the @TheMapleLeague” (November 20, 2021).

In creating spaces between and across the four universities, we’ve been able to beta test concepts, design projects, and foster conversations through our diverse communities of practice. By taking a deep dive into the local, particular, and disciplinary, we have gleaned a myriad of insights and strategies that help us all design better, think more deeply, and hope harder.

ML November Report 2021
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