It had been a long day. Flights had been delayed again. I drifted off to sleep mid-air and when I awoke, I could not remember my destination. It took what felt like several minutes to remember I was heading home.
That’s a bit of a metaphor as I prepare to leave Universities Canada after 14 years as president. At times I was on the road over 120 days per year. I have loved every minute of it. As the late Jim Downey, a former president of University of Waterloo, would say, “The cause and the company are good.”
In those 14 years I have visited every university in the country (many several times). I loved my visits to campuses. It is a remarkable line of sight on a country I love. Representing all the universities in the country is a lesson in Canada – East/West, English/French, established/emerging, urban/rural and many other forms of diversity. And it is a chance to see some of the most exciting developments imaginable.
When you visit a campus, you can feel decades younger, surrounded by young people from around the world. You can also see decades into the future by visiting a lab or speaking to a researcher. Visiting campuses gives us a glimpse of universities as wayfinders and trailblazers, helping people make sense of a bewildering world. Often universities are ahead of the general public. I thought of this on a recent campus visit where gender-neutral washrooms are the norm. It’s also a place where Indigenous students have culturally appropriate spaces, Indigenous knowledge is recognized and valued, and where Indigenous ways of being are incorporated into governance. Is it perfect? No. Are we there yet? No, but the change is visible, and I hope irreversible.
So too is the effort to achieve inclusive excellence. Decades of work have gone into making sure universities reflect society in their student population, staff, faculty and governance. There is still some considerable distance to go, but policies, practices and behaviours are changing in measurable ways and, compared with other sectors in society, the results are impressive.
I am proud of the work Universities Canada has done to help shape some of these national conversations. For years we were known primarily as the advocate for university research funding, but the university leaders I worked with longed for a broader agenda that would have more impact on Canadian life. And so we embarked together on advancing truth and reconciliation; on redefining research excellence; on advancing principles of the social impact of universities, and addressing challenges like mental health on campus. I am particularly pleased that, coming out of the pandemic, Canada’s universities are engaged in a new collaborative effort to fight climate change.
We also advanced the research agenda. We worked with all parties to achieve transformative investments in research funding. But those commitments need to be renewed and the international pace of competition is accelerating. I fear that Canada is sleepwalking into another brain drain like the one in the early 1990s. It will take universities, business, and civil society leadership to make the case for investments comparable to those in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
As I prepare to leave, I think about what the next 10 or 20 years might be like for Canada’s universities. Every day there are new challenges: flat or decreasing provincial support; increased interference in the autonomy of universities; challenges to preserve academic freedom and freedom of expression; a global competition for talent that is unprecedented; and a new geopolitical landscape to both navigate and shape are just some of the issues that kept me awake and got me out of bed in the morning. I suspect the pattern of increased expectations and constrained resources will continue.
More than anything, strengthening the relationship between universities and other actors in society will be essential for universities to thrive. Building and maintaining confidence and trust in what universities do and how they do it will underwrite any future investments in a crowded and competitive space for new resources.
I started reading University Affairs in 1983 as an undergraduate in the Bata Library at Trent University. I was fascinated with the world of universities. I had no idea that I would ever lead Universities Canada, but even then, I appreciated the vital function University Affairs plays in building community, profiling new people and new ideas and engaging a conversation about the role and purpose of universities. My thanks to the UA team for their work in publishing award-winning, editorially independent content and making the transition from print to digital so successfully. I hope to keep reading University Affairs long into the future.
Paul Davidson is the president and CEO of Universities Canada. He leaves the position on June 30, 2023.