A trip to Montreal, AUCC, and some reflections on the academic mission

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I recently returned from 3 days in Montreal, during which I attended the fall meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Normally this is held in Ottawa, where AUCC is based, but we were in Montreal for a reason: that was where 15 university presidents and principals assembled in 1911, the first such gathering in Canada. It would evolve into AUCC, the national organization of universities and affiliated university colleges (it does not include community colleges, which have a separate organization, ACCC). AUCC lobbies on behalf of universities in Ottawa, acts as a repository for key data on higher education, and plays a significant role in international initiatives–for instance organizing last year’s successful expedition, in which I participated, to India of 15 “executive heads” (the generic admin-speak term for principals, presidents and recteurs [not the same as our Rector] of Quebec universities). A Board of Directors governs AUCC and it is run by a permanent staff headed by President and CEO Paul Davidson (who holds an MA from Queen’s in history). Apart from its Board, the Associaton has a number of Standing Advisory Committees (including one on International Relations to which I belong).

As a centenary celebration, this was a rather special meeting, graced by some distinguished guests at the dinner on Tuesday night, including former Minister of Industry and of Environment Jim Prentice, federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae and (by video from Rideau Hall), His Excellency Governor General David Johnston, who of course is no stranger to the group he was addressing, as a former president of the University of Waterloo and, prior to that, Principal of McGill. He gave a wonderful address (personally, I’ve never heard him give a bad one), and issued a charge to us, his former colleagues, to continue to push to make universities relevant to the next century and a major contributor to his vision of a ‘smart and caring society’. We also saw a very good retrospective video of AUCC and its members over the past century.

Much of day two of the meetings was spent in small group discussions. I was particularly pleased by the significant presence of student delegates, who actively participated in these deliberations. Undergraduate student Lauren Long (Com Sci ’13) ably represented Queen’s. We also had a very informative plenary session on the political landscape after the most recent spate of federal and provincial elections. This was given by Nik Nanos, a Queen’s grad in Commerce and MBA, whose firm, Nanos Research has become one of the most prominent Canadian public opinion research services over the past several years.

Apart from the more routine business meetings that occurred during the conference, a highlight for me was my colleague UBC president Stephen Toope’s rousing inaugural address (as Chair of the AUCC Board) on the “new narrative” that AUCC has been developing for the past year. Prof Toope’s speech is readable at http://president.ubc.ca/files/2011/10/aucc_toope_speech_bilingual_20111026.pdf

It set out five commitments that universities ought to make:

1. A commitment to broadening the view of education;
2. A commitment to innovation in learning;
3. A reaffirmation of our collective commitment to excellence;
4. A commitment to pursue solutions to the greatest problems of our age;
5. And a commitment to pursue engagements and partnerships beyond our campuses, while being careful to remain true to the core missions of the academy, in particular unfettered and free inquiry.

These certainly struck me, as others in the audience, as both lofty and achievable goals: even if financial and other constraints can sometimes stand in our way, these should still stand as commitments. Indeed, I would maintain that during such times of limited resources (and what time in universities’ recent history has not been?) and enormous complexity in university life, it is even more important that we keep our ‘eyes on the prize’, and maintain clarity about our raison d’être. That does not mean doing things the same way we have always done them (note the commitment to innovation, no. 2 above), nor does it mean that we can operate in isolation. Rather, it is a challenge to us, to remain adaptable and relevant, constant yet flexible.

As I remarked in my own installation address two years ago this week, “Tradition is about growth and cumulative development, not about stagnation and complacency. Our history illustrates countless innovations that now make up our traditions.
Let us keeping adding to the old with the new.” Queen’s is a unique university, but it is also part of provincial and national systems of public postsecondary education, and it lives in a world of real problems which will require our attention, from, and across, all the disciplinary corners of campus.

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