The University of Prince Edward Island’s board of directors announced yesterday it has selected Alaa S. Abd-El-Aziz as the university’s next president. Dr. Abd-El-Aziz, who is currently the provost at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, will take the helm of UPEI next July. Born in Cairo, he moved to Canada in 1985.
While I don’t wish to make too much of this (although a blog post may be doing just that), I note that he joins other Canadian university presidents such as: Amit Chakma (University of Western Ontario), Feridun Hamdullahpur (University of Waterloo), Mamdouh Shoukri (York University), Indira V. Samarasekera (University of Alberta) and George Iwama (University of Northern British Columbia).
Each born outside Canada, all of these individuals deserve recognition for their accomplishments irrespective of their places of origin. But, it is interesting to note that most of them came to Canada initially for their graduate studies and stayed. They are joined by several other university presidents in Canada who came here from the more traditional source countries of Western Europe and other English-speaking nations.
There has been much talk recently within the higher-ed sector and government circles that Canada needs to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. If these individuals are any indication, we are succeeding at least in one arena.
Last week in New York, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated Academic Impact, an initiative to engage the organization more fully with the academic world. Specifically, the project is described as a “global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations in actively supporting 10 universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, literacy, sustainability and conflict resolution.” Under the project, participating colleges and universities are also asked “to actively demonstrate support of at least one of those principles each year.”
A handful of Canadian universities have signed on, with a particularly strong showing from Quebec.
It’s easy to be cynical about such endeavours. The UN does tend to be heavily bureaucratic and it’s possible this project will get bogged down under its own inertia. But it sounds like a very worthy initiative and I wish it luck.
Patrick Deane, the new president of McMaster University, mentioned Academic Impact in his installation speech at McMaster’s fall convocation on Nov. 19. His remarks help to put the new initiative in context, so permit me to quote at some length from his speech:
Today, at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is being joined by representatives from academic institutions in more than thirty-five countries formally to launch UNAI, or United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative intended to promote the direct engagement of institutions of higher education in programs and projects relevant to the United Nations mandate, and in particular to the realization of that organization’s Millennium Development Goals: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal primary education, the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, the reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, progress in combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and the achievement of environmental sustainability. …
What is going on in New York is an attempt … to make the work of the university more meaningful – and the learning process more successful – through a dynamic and interactive engagement with the very human problems which it seeks to address. Over the last decade universities, especially in the English-speaking world, have participated increasingly in a bloodless marketing discourse, focused on “global citizenship” as the goal towards which they and their students should aspire. But for all this time they have failed effectively to re-negotiate the relationship upon which such aspirations might successfully be built, the link between institutions of higher education and the world which purportedly they seek to serve. To require that students acquire an “international experience” at some point in their degree is admirable enough, but also minimal in what it is likely to contribute either to the student’s development or to the nation visited. What kind of education is it that relegates experience of the broader world to an optional add-on available only in the senior years, or – worse – assumes that experience of the world is unworthy of academic credit and must be postponed until after graduation? …
I have recently said that at McMaster we will need to define and refine our understanding of our place in the international context. I do believe, though, that we must understand our international commitments as merely a subset of our encompassing human obligation, and it is in attending to the latter that we will find a firm and clear direction to follow. That obligation is not confined to the Milleniium Goals of the United Nations, although they do provide a helpful hook on which to hang a more defensible vision for higher education. Universities are comprehensive, multifaceted organizations, and it is just as important to recognize the complexity of the interface between the university and society as it is the simple requirement that we derive at least one part of our authority from society, and from the human dream of health, prosperity, civility, and cultural fulfillment.
University World News also has a report on the new initiative, here.
I was pleased to see a spirited defense of the new Ontario Trillium Scholarships, aimed at foreign doctoral students, in yesterday’s newspapers. In an opinion piece in the Toronto Star, University of Waterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur called the new program “a brilliant move” and said it should be applauded by all.
Also in the Star, Bonnie Patterson, President of the Council of Ontario Universities and former head of Trent University, argued more generally about the benefits of international students.
The 75 scholarships – each one providing $40,000 a year for up to four years – are designed to attract the world’s top graduate students to pursue doctoral studies in Ontario. The province will invest $20 million to support the program, with participating universities contributing a further $10 million.
The idea is that some of these newcomers will stay in the province after graduation, benefiting us with their innovation and dynamism; and that those who return home will forge long-lasting links with Canada and act as ambassadors for the country.
An editorial in the Globe and Mail yesterday also praised the program as “forward-looking” and a “highly worthwhile investment.” It noted that Ontario is following the lead of the federal government, which launched the $45-million Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships this past July. That program – open to both Canadian and international researchers – will award 70 new fellowships a year valued at $70,000 annually.
Yet when the new Trillium scholarships were announced, they were strongly criticized by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative opposition, which set up an online petition calling on Premier Dalton McGuinty to cancel the program and to “keep Ontario dollars for Ontario students.”
“To give $40,000 a year to foreign students, that’s just wrong. The money should go to Ontario families first,” said PC leader Tim Hudak to reporters.
I find the opposition’s opposition to the program a bit disingenuous. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember the previous PC government of Premier Mike Harris being particularly generous towards Ontario’s university sector. The PC’s online petition laments the high debt load and tuition fees of Ontario’s students, so does this mean we’ll see a drop in fees if they’re elected?
What’s more, I’m uncomfortable with attempts to pit foreign students against domestic ones. I applaud the Canadian Federation of Students, who refused to play that game. In a release, they welcomed the new support for international students while pointing out that all students in financial need should get more aid.
Of course, I acknowledge there is a segment of the population who do not see the benefits of the foreign scholarship program as self-evident. An editorial in the Barrie Examiner, which represents a more rural readership than the big Toronto dailies, called the Ontario premier “out of touch” with ordinary Canadians. I find the editorial’s arguments simplistic and fallacious, but I suppose that was to be expected.
A very insightful piece by Adam Radwanski in the Globe and Mail examines the debate from a “culture-war” perspective and is well worth a read.