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January 9, 2014

Instead of Ivory Tower, a Place in The Neighbourhood

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Much has been written and said about universities’ role in developing Canada economically, socially and culturally. Some pundits have said that universities are not embracing this role, not making a priority of Canada’s needs. They paint a picture of stodgy, self-referential institutions resistant to change and deaf to calls to address Canada’s important issues – in other words, ivory towers.

This tired stereotype is simply not true, whether we are talking about disciplines within the humanities or social sciences, or “professional” schools like medicine, engineering or education.

For the past 18 months, Ontario’s universities have been working with the provincial government to establish Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) for each institution. Each SMA will describe its university’s mandate, vision and priorities for the next several years.

A quick glance at the first SMA drafts, submitted more than a year ago, seems to suggest that many of the things Ontario universities do, or aspire to do, are the same across the board, and probably repeated at most Canadian universities. And this is as it should be; Canada’s universities share traits, aspirations and much of their core missions.

However, a closer look at the submissions and at the institutions themselves demonstrates how different Canada’s universities are from one another. Each is a product of its own unique history within a context – in fact a dual context.

Half of that context is the world of academe, a global world of scholarship and discovery where all universities need to have one foot firmly planted in similar, although not identical, places. After all, the laws of physics are the same in Canada as they are in Asia, so an education in physics must be informed by discovery and scholarship that meets the test on a global stage.

The other half of the context is the circle of communities that each university inhabits. Local needs and realities forge a university’s nature and inform its future. For instance, it makes sense to teach and research about mining at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Likewise, energy industry studies are natural for Alberta campuses; viticulture research thrives at Brock University in Ontario’s grape and wine heartland; First Nations studies are strong at University of Regina or the University of Northern British Columbia; Ocean Sciences at Memorial University in Newfoundland; and so on.

Click here to read the rest of the article by Jack Lightstone in the Globe and Mail.

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