The October meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which coincided with AUCC’s 100th anniversary celebrations, carried more gravitas than usual. While some of the celebratory elements of the Montreal meeting looked to the past, the focus of the discussions was definitely on the century ahead.
In his first speech as the new chair of AUCC, Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, set out five commitments that Canada’s universities are prepared to make to Canadians. These were arrived at after a year of discussions among the membership and with other Canadians:
- Broadening the view of education to include the entire experience from preschool to postdoctoral, because universities are part of that landscape and cannot contribute fully unless the entire landscape is healthy and robust.
- Innovating how we learn and teach, drawing on evidence-based research in pedagogy, new technologies and community-focused opportunities.
- Affirming a commitment to excellence, both in research-enriched learning and in engaging under-represented students, including aboriginal and rural Canadians.
- Concentrating on the world’s toughest problems through the continued growth of graduate studies and a robust research agenda. In this role, universities attract the world’s best minds and incubate Canadian talent.
- Cultivating engagement and partnerships through alliances with business and community groups. By joining forces, universities are better able to address highly complex issues and to accelerate the pace of research.
In a lively question-and-answer session after his presentation, Professor Toope said AUCC is now framing its discussions around universities’ contributions to the individual and the community; service; and engagement with the public, rather than around what universities need: “It’s about establishing a clearer advocacy that speaks to a broader purpose of Canada.”
Participants – who included student leaders and civil society representatives as well as university presidents – broke into small groups to explore ways to put the five commitments into practice. Some of these commitments are, of course, already in play on many campuses – innovative pedagogies, research excellence and access – so part of what is new is how universities plan to talk about what they are doing.
Chris Walker, a student leader at Wilfrid Laurier University, said he was impressed by the “passion” that university leaders showed for issues like access and research-enriched learning. “These are the things that student leaders think about all the time,” he said. “And to see that the administrators are involved and thinking about it is great.”
One topic that emerged during the meetings was how universities can better engage in public debate on hot issues of the day. Professor Toope, in an interview, said university leaders can “help create a way of thinking about the issue that is more accessible for people.” They can do this through their “convening function,” bringing together players, both privately and publicly, that may lead to change. He said he has played this role in trying to improve treatment of mental health and addictions of people in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
AUCC itself took a step in this direction by convening a panel of experts to discuss the transformations that Canada’s health care system needs and how universities can help. The two-hour panel was webcast live (still viewable on the AUCC website, along with before-and-after interviews with other experts). Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton, who moderated the panel, said that universities are often seen as a place to teach and do research, but they are more than that. They play an important role in the health system by “helping agencies and governments make judicious choices in policy.”
In his speech, Professor Toope also reaffirmed several enduring values of Canadian universities. One of these was academic freedom. In that context, the university presidents unanimously approved a new statement on academic freedom. AUCC’s previous statement hadn’t been revised since 1988.
The new statement, available on the AUCC website, defines academic freedom as “the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment,” calling it “fundamental” to the mandate of universities. The statement distinguishes academic freedom, which is grounded in teaching and research, from the broader concept of freedom of expression, which is protected in the Canadian constitution. It says that academic freedom must be based on “institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry, and institutional autonomy.”
The new statement has generated some criticism, most notably from the Canadian Association of University Teachers. CAUT, in an open letter, criticized AUCC for removing “extramural free speech” from its new statement. Also, it said that by invoking professional disciplinary standards as a constraint to academic freedom, the AUCC statement could lead to “repression” of ideas “at the margin or ideas critical of the mainstream.” AUCC, in an open reply to CAUT, said it didn’t share CAUT’s concerns in this regard. “Our position is based on the rigour of inquiry, not the outcome,” AUCC wrote.