After three years of quietly developing a model for collaboration in the classroom and on the recruiting trail, the presidents of four small, rural eastern Canadian universities have rebranded their efforts into what they are calling the “Maple League.”
First coming together in 2013 under the less catchy banner of the “U4,” Acadia, Bishop’s, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier universities are now touting their pastoral, “small by design” campuses more loudly as an alternative to the larger, urbanized university experience many Canadians are familiar with.
The new name is “a little bit of a nod at the Ivy League,” acknowledged Michael Goldbloom, president of Bishop’s in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “We’re not claiming that we’re Harvard or Princeton or Yale. But we do think that we share that same aspiration for excellence.”
They also have a shared concern that smaller, primarily undergraduate universities like theirs are increasingly marginalized by government funding arrangements that favour undergraduate growth and the expansion of research and graduate programs. Their average enrolment is 3,250 full-time students who mostly live on or near campus. First-year classes average about 43 students, the majority taught by full-time faculty.
That their offerings are not well-known outside their region has compounded the challenge. That’s why the presidents of all four Maple League universities took their new name and message to media- and influence-rich Toronto in early November. They met with journalists, held a gala dinner for their combined alumni (paid for by sponsors) and spoke at the city’s elite Canadian Club. Student recruiting drives in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have followed.
“We had a family from Oakville [Ontario] who said, ‘Until we drove into Wolfville and came on campus, we didn’t believe there were universities like this left in Canada,’” said Ray Ivany, president of Acadia, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. “We’re still a bit of a mystery”.
While mutual concerns over funding and profile brought them together, the Maple Leaguers say the last three years have revealed opportunities nobody expected. There have been joint conferences on the participation of undergraduates in research and teaching (important when there are fewer graduate students to help with both functions) and rotating A-list lectures featuring speakers such as indigenous writer Joseph Boyden and Nobel physics laureate Art McDonald, live streamed from the host campus to the other three.
But the real value has been in the potential for transforming teaching and learning, the presidents said. Faculty are starting to network and discuss exchanges, and the universities are piloting courses open to other Maple League students. For example, using high-definition video conferencing technology, Bishop’s students took an upper-level Greek class taught by a professor from a classroom at Mount Allison. There are plans for a course in Mi’kmaq and one on the ecology of the Bay of Fundy and northeastern Nova Scotia. Next spring, each university will offer an experiential learning course open to all Maple League students.
There have been other benefits, too. Bishop’s was able to set up its own teaching and learning centre with help from Mount Allison, which already had one. There’s now talk of setting up a virtual teaching and learning centre all four universities could access. Student services are sharing best practices on mental health and sexual violence, with the possibility of jointly developing policies on those issues.
The long-term aim is to enhance the four universities’ prestige by increasing awareness about their smaller-scale teaching model, leading to more applications and, the presidents hope, a higher calibre of incoming students. They said they’d be delighted, though, if their efforts led to more universities like themselves, rather than feeling like they are on an ever-shrinking island.
If extensive graduate programs and constant growth become the definition of a high-quality university, “we’re doomed,” says Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison. “We have to make a counter-argument to that … and that case has to be made nationally.”