A (not ‘The’) UBC response to Nigel Thrift’s questions on global challenges and the organizational-ethical dilemmas of universities

Editors’ note: our sincere thanks to Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of British Columbia, for his thought provoking contribution below. Professor Toope’s entry is the ninth response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)‘, which was originally posted on 8 April 2010. The previous eight responses can be located here.

Professor Stephen J. Toope was named the 12th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia on March 22, 2006. He will begin his second five-year term in July 2011. An International Law scholar who represented Western Europe and North America on the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances from 2002-2007, Professor Toope’s academic interests include public international law, legal theory, human rights and international dispute resolution. He has worked on issues of human rights and legal reform in the Caribbean, East Africa and Southeast Asia. His latest book is Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: an Interactional Account, published by Cambridge University Press in the summer of 2010.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


Last spring, Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift of Warwick University posed a profound ethical challenge to universities around the world.  He asked if we are appropriately organized to fulfill our contemporary mission.

At least since the creation of the land-grant universities in North America it has been received wisdom that universities have three interlocking goals and opportunities: to foster student learning;  to preserve and increase the store of human knowledge; and to engage with the wider society.  Some commentators like to call contemporary universities “multiversities” because of this complexity of mission, and they note that the goals and opportunities are not invariably in synch, despite the fond wishes of university leaders who suggest that there is an inevitable synergy amongst teaching-research-community engagement.

Nigel Thrift’s welcome challenge is to ask how the three goals of contemporary universities, and especially the goal of community engagement (or ‘service’ in its more condescending formulation), might be better pursued.  His implicit suggestion, carefully not insisted upon, is that universities might do a better job if they banded together in deeper partnerships to address the great crises of our times.  Prof. Thrift focuses upon the example of climate change, and it is a most appropriate choice, being scientifically complex, geographically unfocussed and full of potentially devastating effects.  Other contributors to the online dialogue on GlobalHigherEd have advanced other causes eminently worthy of global attention from our universities: pandemic disease, income inequality, pervasive poverty, ideological fundamentalism.  I would add, especially for countries of immigration, understanding and fully benefitting from cultural diversity.

The superficial answer to Prof. Thrift’s challenge is obvious.  Given that we have not been able to solve our fundamental problems, nor to fully exploit our opportunities, the answer demanded by Prof. Thrift’s question must be ‘no’:  universities around the globe are not optimally organized to do what the world needs us to do.  I suggest, however, that to figure out a way forward, the primary question needs to be torn apart into a series of related questions.  Why are we organized the way we are?  How easy will it be to re-organize ourselves?  What promising models might be pursued?  What are the limits to re-invention?  Each of these questions is complex, and I will only be able to trace out some tentative answers in this short response.  What is more, the answers are not always encouraging.  So as not to descend into paralysis, however, I will end by joining President Indira Samarasekara in proposing a few concrete ways in which we might improve our collective ability to harness the brains, energy and heart of our universities, to do our fundamental job: helping to make the world a better place through education and research.

First a caveat, as I am an academic after all!  Ever since becoming a university president, and beginning to read and listen to others of my cohort, I have been struck by a tendency to assume that the world today is entirely different than it was twenty or fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago.  The idea seems to be attractive to some colleague presidents that it is our destiny to fundamentally re-shape what we have inherited.  This impulse is often prompted by a sense of frustration with our own faculty members who are accused of not “getting it,” of somehow living in the past.  By the way, I do not suggest that Prof. Thrift reveals these tendencies, for I know him to be far more subtle.  But it is worth remembering that universities are one of the only social institutions to have survived, both intact and wildly changed, since the medieval era.  (Other examples are religious institutions, now under increasing attack, and some political institutions, like the Icelandic parliament).  This is no accident.  Universities have proven themselves to be crucial to social, economic and cultural evolution.  In seeking to promote needed change, we must be careful to acknowledge the strength that we bring to the task.  The mix of conservatism and openness that marks universities, probably due in large measure to our commitment to collegial governance, is a remarkable asset, even as I acknowledge that it can lead to frustration, and a failure sometimes to seize the day.

The Confines of History and Nation

As suggested just above, university organization is very much an inherited trait.  Most of us have forms of collegial governance in relation to academic decision-making: senates or governing councils of some kind.  They often must work in conjunction with boards whose duties are focused on the financial and property aspects of the university.  Professors, even in those places where tenure has not been fully established or preserved, are best thought of as ‘independent contractors’; they are certainly not placed within a directive hierarchy.  University ‘management,’ at least in relation to the academic side of the house, is much more about encouragement and cajoling, and sometimes even shaming, than about ‘executing to plan.’  Concrete student expectations tend to be oriented to the short term, like keeping tuition low, improving access to courses, and not being too disrupted by physical changes to the campus, even when student visions are grand, like equality, environmental sustainability and fairness.  I doubt that this conundrum has changed all that much in the past couple of hundred years.

Prof. Thrift and other commentators have noted that the nation-based organization of universities is one of the central problems in promoting effective cross-border collaboration.  Of course, this too is historically contingent.  Just as the law of commerce was once fundamentally transnational (the medieval lex mercatoria), universities, though physically implanted in one place, were deeply cross-cultural.  We all know the stories of wandering scholars like Erasmus, who contributed to the academic life of Paris, Leuven, Cambridge, and Basel.  Although we are currently experiencing a re-discovery of the basic need for mobility amongst scholars, our national systems are not fully cooperating.  There are still many barriers to international recruitment, like impaired transferability of credentials (especially amongst the professions) and narrow-minded visa rules.  Moreover, many of our most important funding mechanisms (e.g. national research councils) remain inwardly focused, doing precious little to foster global collaboration.  For North American public universities, we are also confronted by sub-national constraints.  We are partially funded by state or provincial governments; even recruiting students from a few hundred kilometers away can be controversial.

The Risks of Hubris

Hubris may be the greatest flaw of universities, especially big ones with strong reputations.  We need to recognize that our own brilliant hiring and attraction of ‘top’ students cannot of itself create a critical mass of talent sufficient to solve fundamental global problems.  We must find partners.  We must collaborate, not only with other universities but with community groups, civil society organizations, industry, and government.  Even if we are to create effective cross-sectoral collaboration, we must also display some pragmatism, defining our ambitions with realism.  ‘Grand challenges,’ unless sufficiently specified and broken down, can turn into attempts to boil the ocean.

Chasing Ephemera

Rather than focusing intently on what needs to be improved in the world, university leadership can become preoccupied with superficial measures of reputation: university rankings; collecting prestigious partners; satisfying consumerist understandings of what student learning is all about.  Universities can also find themselves responding to the immediate rather than the important.  We are challenged by research funding vehicles that focus on short term wins or immediate political issues.  The pre-occupation with ‘commercialization’ of research in the first part of this century is a good example, but so too was the rush to create new computer science and electrical engineering spaces for students just as the tech bubble was bursting in the 1990s.  Perhaps we should have been pushing for more geographers, economists, political scientists, and sociologists to help us figure out how to promote a more sustainable world.

Models of Collaboration

So far, none of the university networks that sprang up at the beginning of this century has fulfilled its promise.  Attempts to jump-start research collaboration on crucial issues through these networks have seen modest success at best.  Let’s be honest.  Just because presidents and vice-chancellors say they would like something to happen on the research front does not make it happen, even if we can cobble together ‘seed’ funding.  Research networks typically arise in an organic fashion from the bottom up.  Our faculty and graduate students notice good work somewhere else, and they reach out at a conference or online.  Exchanges may begin, and true collaboration evolves.  Perhaps we can facilitate such organic growth, but we cannot direct it hierarchically.  Some research communities, like high energy physics and astronomy, have been very effective at creating multinational networks out of necessity: their need for large facilities. The same trend is now seen in life sciences and clinical research. In other words, researchers will naturally form networks to solve big problems with high infrastructure costs.

An example of a strong international research network is the structural genomics consortium, which has a solid base in Canada, but with partners globally.  It has attracted significant support for UK partners through the Welcome Trust, and is well established in Sweden. My own university is involved in outstanding collaborative work in the field of quantum materials with the University of Tokyo and the Max Planck Society.  In the field of climate change, which Prof. Thrift focuses upon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already created an influential experts group that already includes many university researchers, but we have not been able to link the IPPC effectively with broader university research agendas. We need to learn from successful global collaborations if we are to expand our reach to address the fundamental problems of our era.

Possible Ways Forward

Build from the bottom up. Where are there research teams, and groups of dedicated and inspired students, who are already working together across borders?  Can we support them, and help them find new partners in other places?  By starting with small, focused and effective networks we can build up confidence to move to more ambitious global platforms.  How do we seek out real commitment to specific efforts, rather than the ‘why not, we can do that too’ response?

Challenge National myopia. Those of us living and working in the USA or the European Union must make a specific effort to look outside the borders for partnerships that may be less obvious.  Those living in smaller states need to encourage our governments to change rules to allow research funding that crosses borders, even though we may seem like small players.  We should encourage national research councils to sponsor joint initiatives.  We all must do more to facilitate and fund migration of students and scholars.  If university folk get a chance to meet one another informally and over time, the chances of effective collaboration later are significantly enhanced.

Communicate authentically about strengths. None of our universities is good at everything.  There are many important global issues.  Where are we best placed to make a real difference, working with others?  In the case of my own university, I suspect that we are most likely to contribute in a major way to global solutions on climate change and sustainability more generally.  We could also make a real difference in collaborating on the prevention and control of infectious disease, and in intercultural understanding.  Our ability to lead in a global effort to understand and combat ideological fundamentalism is less obvious.  Like all universities, our expertise is not entirely balanced across all areas of research.  In UBC’s case, we have deep knowledge of Asia, but have invested little in creating knowledge of the Middle East.  This reaffirms the necessity of cooperation.

Help our students and alumni become global citizens. In focusing, as we almost inevitably do, on research as a means of addressing global problems, we should never forget that our most important ‘translators’ are our graduates.  Are our students being exposed to classes in which they really confront the problems of our era?  Are we doing enough to help students see how they could make a difference in the world?  Are we helping them connect with the wider community during their studies (e.g. through community-service learning)?  Are enough of our students being introduced to perspectives from other cultures, other parts of the world?

Walk the talk. Universities must learn to be more Janus-faced.  By that, I mean the opposite of hypocritical.  If we are really going to address the fundamental problems of global society, we can’t just research solutions and preach.  We need to act on our own campuses, and in our local communities, as well.  Are we leaders in economic, environmental and social sustainability?  How aggressive are our own greenhouse gas reduction targets?  Are we modeling best practices in intercultural dialogue?  Do our own workforce practices address issues of income inequality?

Stephen J. Toope

Canadian universities strive for differentiation and elite (global) standing

YVRI’ve just returned from Vancouver (pictured to the right), and my visit included a pleasant day at the University of British Columbia (UBC), my BA and MA alma mater.  UBC is perched on the edge of Canada, and the Pacific Ocean.  While it has always been a strong university, it is now striving to become a “world class” university, it seeks to position itself high within the two main global rankings, and it is currently fashioning a more strategic and effective approach for “international engagement and global influence”.

UBC’s ambition is to create a one of the world’s leading research universities; one “producing discoveries and innovations that advance human understanding and that make our world a better place” while acting as a “magnet for talent, helping to retain our most gifted students here in BC, and attracting bright and ambitious young people from across Canada and around the world”, while also functioning as a “connector — linking new ideas and best practices into our local communities, and bridging Vancouver and the Okanagan to global networks of innovation” (in the 2008 words of Stephen Toope, UBC’s President).

But how does one West Coast university, embedded in a provincially governed higher education system (national research funding, nonwithstanding), ramp up its game?  In the Canadian context, it comes down to convincing the state to enable universities to become more innovative, more competitive, yet while always receiving significant levels of state support, especially financial largesse.  Unlike the UK case (see ‘Privatise elite universities, says top VC‘, The Guardian, 1 June 2009), Canadian universities like UBC are seeking more state support, though in this case via an enhanced national presence in higher education.

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education captured this sentiment with considerable insight.  The article (‘Canada’s Elite Universities Propose a National Strategy for Higher Education‘, 17 August 2009) put it this way:

Canadians have long held an egalitarian view toward their universities, generally agreeing that none should be treated as more special than any other.

But now the presidents of five of the country’s largest research institutions—the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Montreal, and Toronto, and McGill University—are banding together to suggest that perhaps some Canadian universities should be, to use a famous phrase, more equal than others.

Canada needs not only to improve its higher-education system as a whole, they say, but also to pay special attention to institutions like theirs. Their argument, essentially, is that if the country hopes to raise the international standing of its universities, then their group must be allowed to focus on graduate education and high-quality research.

“The Canadian way has been to open the peanut-butter jar and spread thinly and evenly,” says David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, the largest institution in Canada.

“We’re not talking about having a system of first- and second-class schools,” he adds. “We need more liberal-arts universities, we need more polytechnics, and, of course, smaller universities will continue to do the research they’re doing.”

The idea, he says, is to develop a focused strategy that plays to each university’s strengths: what the five call a “differentiation” model for higher education—a model, they say, that would be adequately financed as well. (my emphasis)

The Chronicle article is well worth a read, and it matches the tenor of speeches given by many of these “elite” university leaders over the last several years.  Yet, despite my UBC roots, I can’t but help flag a few noteworthy challenges.

YVR2First, is differentiation best scaled at the university (institutional) scale?  What is the logic for excluding or devalorizing the disciplinary/field scale, or the city-region scale, or the research network scale?  Universities like Waterloo, for example, have some units with considerably more research capacity than in any of the five self-identified elite universities. In short, more effort needs to be made to demonstrate that the university scale is the right scale for differentiation, assuming you believe this is indeed an objective worth supporting.

Second, and I speak here as an advocate of statecraft, is it realistic to expect a national Canadian higher education strategy to truly emerge.  There are multiple ironies (like Alberta – Canada’s Texas or Montana – advocating a stronger federal role in any sector!), and some blinkered thinking going on.  Look at the challenges of crafting a national higher education brand (‘Canada’s new branding effort: “Education in/au Canada”’, GlobalHigherEd, 3 October 2008).  In my biased view the aesthetically challenged branding effort expresses the problems of achieving action on a national scale in Canada in some sectors. Might not more effort be focused upon engendering new forms of provincial and local scale statecraft; statecraft associated with genuine innovations in policy-making, program development, and project framing/implementation? One could argue that the City of Edmonton, or the Province of Alberta, could do more for the University of Alberta than could Ottawa, for example.

Finally, what are the pros and cons of encouraging more dependence upon the national government?  Besides Madison in the USA, I’ve also been based in Singapore, France and the UK, and dependence upon a national government is a double-edged sword.  University missions would have to increasingly reflect national priorities, and university leaders (not to mention faculty) would have to accept reduced power, less autonomy, more hierarchy, all the while coping with temporal shifts in priorities come national electoral cycles.  Yet, as the Chronicle notes:

More broadly, the five are calling for a national higher-education strategy. While they have shied away from asking for the creation of an education ministry, they argue that without federal coordination of resources, along with a clear vision for the future of Canadian universities, the system will fail to raise its stature internationally.

Given what I know about my motherland, and what I have experienced in much stronger national systems, I seriously doubt that Canadian universities would be willing to accept what comes with greater “federal coordination of resources” and a “clear vision”.  I don’t doubt that university leaders like UBC’s Stephen Toope, or Alberta’s Indira Samarasekera have legitimate claims (and gripes), but they should be cautious regarding what they seek: their objectives might come to light, and enhanced dependence mixed with unhappiness with the direction of the national vision is not an ideal outcome. And what national government is going to craft a strategy, and hand over more monies, without a greater role in governing universities? This is a Pandora’s box if there ever was one.

This is a debate worth watching as all universities – including those in Canada – seek new ways to achieve and legitimize their increasingly “global” objectives. Canada’s elites seek more state action (and defacto dependence) while some of their equivalents in the UK seek to privatize to reduce dependence on the state, and all with the same end objective (elite global standing) in mind!

Kris Olds

Forum today on the Global Public University: Canada vs the USA

Today’s event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison featured a relatively open and freewheeling dialogue between Stephen Toope (President, University of British Columbia) and David Ward (President, American Council on Education) about the challenges and opportunities associated with creating “global public universities” on both sides of the Canada-US border. The session can be viewed as a streaming webcast here even though it is now finished. Happy viewing…

Kris Olds