Universities will thrive in 21st century

by Sylvain Comeau

Whether prescribing or prognosticating, speakers at a day-long symposium on "The University in the 21st Century" all agreed that the university will thrive in one form or another through the changes that will sweep the institution in the next century.

Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, brother of McGill principal Bernard Shapiro, opened the conference at Redpath Hall by observing that "the bookshelves are full of books today with titles like 'The End of Empire,' 'The End of Affluence,' 'The End of Communism,'but I haven't seen any titled 'The End of the University.'"

Like many speakers throughout the day, Shapiro conceded that the university is under attack in some quarters, but he pointed out that "universities, throughout Western history, have always been the subject of some serious disappointment and criticism. This can be expected to continue--in fact, it's entirely healthy."

A certain degree of disaffection is natural when directed at institutions which address fundamental values, but Shapiro believes that the larger society will continue to value the university's unique qualities.

"It would be hard to find another institution in society that produces so many social dividends, and will continue to do so. The university provides a forum for mostly peaceful interactions across cultural divides, as well as the capacity to move beyond the familiar."

In short, Shapiro feels that the university will continue to be indispensable because of its focus "not only on how to earn a living, but also on what makes life worth livingŠThe curriculum will have to change, to look at how we live as a society, and whether technology is a friend or foe of the good life."

In a similar vein, Lorna Marsden, president and vice-chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, said that the intellectual and cultural essence of universities must survive, despite political and social upheaval.

"Survival as universities, not just replicas of universities, is the first priority as we go through this period of dynamic change. Governments, including the Canadian government, seem to be determined to turn universities into economic engines. That's understandable, but it's a bad idea.

"Where else in our society is freedom of thought and ideas encouraged? Certainly not in the majority of private sector organizations; certainly not, alas, in most of the public service. We have to ask: where else do large numbers of people find the time for sustained thinking on a daily basis, in an atmosphere of the critical review of ideas, where good ideas are the currency of promotion and advancement."

But Marsden cautioned that the general public and the government may not see it that way. "Universities are expensive, there is less public money, and taxpayers are growing increasingly impatient with our work schedule."

The solution, she said, may be scaled-down universities.

"We need universities, but do we need the campus as it exists today? We need libraries, but they could be virtual libraries. We have to struggle to retain the central features of universities, but not necessarily the superstructure."

Université Laval rector Michel Gervais said that adaptability has long been a strength of universities.

"Universities have adapted to changes, such as demographic shifts, and emerged stronger than ever." Nor, he added, will the institution be overwhelmed by today's most powerful trends.

"There is the shift to an economy based on knowledge--far from being irrelevant, an institution of knowledge like the university will fit perfectly. There is the internationalization of the world--universities are one of the most international of institutions."

The third major trend, the revolution in information technology, poses a more serious challenge, said Gervais. "When we have made a complete transition to electronic and virtual mediums, will there be a role for classrooms? Far from a danger, this should be seen as an opportunity, and it will be up to universities, particularly the professors, to remain on the cutting edge of knowledge and technology."

Bishop's University principal and vice-chancellor Janyne Hodder not only agreed that the university will survive, but even opined that "if we didn't already have universities, we would have to invent something similar."

She provided a profile of that reinvented 21st century university. "We wouldn't create it solely as a job training centre. It would be an institution of knowledge, not just an information dispenser. We would see teaching more in terms of mentoring than lecturing. We would seek public funding, but we would recognize the obligation to account for public funds."

The new university would also serve more of the new students created by rapid change. "We also wouldn't shut down or slow down for the summer, and we would teach older people who must go back to school for retraining," said Hodder.

The afternoon session featured speakers offering a view from outside the university community. Madam Justice Rosalie Silverman Abella of the Court of Appeal for Ontario portrayed universities as a bastion against the forces of political correctness and other dogmatic ideologies.

"We've lost our tolerance and our compass. Public discourse has become alternately arrogant, puerile, strident, mean spirited, personal and facile. Ideas are routinely sacrificed on the altar of those who belligerently assert that they have a monopoly on truth. The only voices we hear are those of the schoolyard bullies, who have scared the kinder and gentler voices away."

In that grim context, Abella feels that society must and probably will turn to universities to restore a balanced debate.

"We have to bring the public back to an understanding of the importance of ideas and their free exchange, and the only hope that that can happen is the university. The strength of the intellectual endeavour pursued in the university lies in its independence, its freedom from ideological control. Universities are sanctuaries for the free flow of ideas."

And many of those ideas are developed with research money. Thomas Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), said that funding for fundamental research in universities will continue to be a priority despite fears to the contrary in Canada's research community.

"We have committed $200 million to basic research, even as our total budget declines." Brzustowski noted in an interview after the symposium that this amount is significantly larger than in the past, despite a recent NSERC budget drop from a peak of $490 million to $410 million.

While the focus of much R&D today is on the development side and on collaboration with industry, Brzustowski pointed out that "industrial (research) partners bring additional money to the table, so the amount spent in universities is about the same as amounts spent on basic research."

Cutting basic research funding was never really seriously considered, he said.

"You need both kinds of research. Basic research creates the stock of knowledge, and development research creates the flow of knowledge into productive use in the economy. To have the second without the first would be like having lots of trucks going out, but the warehouse is empty."

Grant Reuber, chair of the Board of the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation addressed the current financial crunch facing universities. He fingered government regulations as a major culprit.

"The ability of universities to effectively develop and manage both revenue and expenditure, and to meet financial objectives, is seriously impaired. As a result, the revenues and costs of various teaching and research activities bear little relation to each other."

Reuber proposed deregulation of universities, "so that they can set their own fees and be able to fully restore their economy." Under deregulation, all government financing would be channelled directly to students and researchers.

"While this would not compensate for the reduction of resources, it would give universities greater scope to manage themselves more effectively, and to make the most of their resources."

Reuber also favours a deferred tuition fee system, in which students would pay a portion of their fees when studying, and the rest over a 10-year period after graduation.

"Rather than rely on voluntary alumni contributions, universities would have the power to require them." Reuber compares the system to putting a down payment on a home, "except that an education is being mortgaged, instead of a piece of real estate."

Principal Bernard Shapiro closed the event by examining some of the challenges posed to universities, and McGill in particular, by the budget crunch.

"No institution is guaranteed a future, no matter how illustrious its past. Today, when people take insurance, they have to wonder whether they or the insurance company is going to last. In that context, we take what we have for granted, and we have to act to ensure our future.

"McGill must continue as Canada's most international university. We can create a learning environment here that is more stimulating than anywhere else in Canada.

"We can only pull that off if we can find a way to renew our academic faculty. As budget constraints mount, there is a real danger that we will lose a whole generation of young academics, and as the current faculty retires, there will be no one to come and take up the challenge."

The symposium was sponsored by the Students' Society of McGill University, the Royal Bank and Molson O'Keefe.