The 21st century university Humanities, business and health sciences represented at Visionary Conversations

by Tom Ingram

On April 29, a crowd of academics, administrators, alumni, and students descended on the Robert B. Schultz Theatre at St. John’s College for the final instalment of this year’s Visionary Conversations series.

The Visionary Conversations are a series of panels on important societal issues faced by the university. Past topics have included freedom of speech, legalization of prostitution, and the food supply in an era of booming population. This most recent event was titled “Universities Today: Where do centuries-old institutions fit into modern society?”

“Since their formation in the middle ages […] universities generally have had three main functions or purposes: education, research/scholarship, and community engagement,” said University of Manitoba president David Barnard, who moderated the event.

“Are universities adapting well to changes in our society in the way in which knowledge is acquired and conveyed? Given that universities are hubs of research, are we responsive enough to both innovations in technology and critical and current issues that demand timely answers? Given our resources and our intellectual capital, are universities fulfilling our commitment to engage in the community?”

The speakers were Jeffery Taylor, dean of the faculty of arts and an expert on Canadian labour history, Doug McCartney, senior executive director of science, innovation, and business development for Manitoba’s Department of Jobs and the Economy, and Sharon Macdonald, a professor in the college of medicine and director of the Alan Klass Memorial Health Equity Program. All three speakers are U of M alumni.

Taylor was the first to speak, addressing the claim that universities are not producing graduates with skills that are relevant to society’s needs.

“From the day universities were first founded in Canada, they’ve constantly had to reinvent themselves and to justify their teaching and their role,” Taylor said.

Taylor pointed out that the professions of law, engineering, and medicine worked hard to ensure that their training was through university education, so that their graduates would have a “university frame of mind.”

“This university frame of mind of the previous century is what business leaders now call ‘soft skills’ – leadership, the ability to communicate, and flexibility and creativity of thought – and what they want university graduates to have.”

For Taylor, more important than the discussion of the value of a degree is the question of how university teaching should be done. He emphasized the need for programs that cross disciplinary boundaries. He also called for the creation of more flexible learning opportunities by delivering courses in a variety of formats (including online courses) and more credit transfer agreements between institutions.

McCartney spoke second, representing government, research, and business interests within Manitoba. McCartney stressed the need for the modern university to demonstrate value to stakeholder groups and operate in a collaborative manner with other institutions, industry, and government.

As an example of what he considers the future of academic science, McCartney mentioned Exigence Technologies, a company founded by U of M business students Zach Wolff and Sheri Governo, who partnered with Song Liu, director of the Polymer Surface Engineering Laboratory in the faculty of human ecology. Exigence is focused on the development of technology for killing bacteria on textile surfaces.

According to McCartney, Exigence is an example of universities becoming “deliverers of value that ultimately is going to create social, economic, and cultural benefits far beyond what they traditionally were doing.”

“It’s becoming clear that universities now have to start thinking of themselves more as a business: a business where vision and leadership within the community is important, a business where engaging proactively with their stakeholders – that being their customers – is essential, and one in which the degree to which they communicate their value […] has to be more clearly articulated,” McCartney said.

Macdonald was third up, speaking from her experience in health care and community engagement. Macdonald spoke in support of community-engaged scholarship, which she said is “focused on answering questions, resolving issues, and working with the community.”

“Engaged scholarship as a framework and as a concept can be applied to teaching, research, and service and can be used throughout the world,” said Macdonald, “In the end we progress mostly on the basis of our relationships.”

Macdonald stressed the importance of the university bringing its resources to the community. “If you take students or research out into the community, there are costs to individuals and to organizations. The university will always be, in our community relationships, the organization with the most money, so we do need to share.”

After the initial speeches, a number of questions were asked. One audience member asked about the balance between applied and basic research, and how the university can balance principles of openness and collaboration with involvement in patents and intellectual property.

“The reality is that those organizations that are funding research, by and large, are wanting to see some level of return from their investment and that return, by and large, has an economic lens to it,” said McCartney.

McCartney also called for more consultation with funders and stakeholders at the early stages of planning research.

“I think it’s critical in terms of addressing that issue that the discussions take place as early as possible, rather than after the fact that the work has in essence been mapped out and you come back to your funders and say ‘now fund this.’ It’s really a case of being much more proactive in the discussion.”

Another audience member asked whether universities are graduating more students than there are jobs available. Taylor responded that the unemployment rate in Manitoba is “relatively low.”

“I think we do a very good job of preparing students for the job market, including in the faculty of arts, but also there’s more to a university education than simply being prepared for the job market,” said Taylor.

“We educate students for citizenship, we educate them in the grand traditions of our culture, and it’s a wonderful experience to be able to spend four years in university education, simply being able to think and read and have conversations with your colleagues and your professors.”

This event concluded the 2014-15 Visionary Conversations series. The 2015-16 series will be announced in the fall.

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