Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/12/2009 (3718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Unfortunately, the University of Winnipeg's Lloyd Axworthy appears stifled and restless in that role. Instead, he wants to be minister of urban renewal.
In October, Axworthy released a discussion paper titled The university and community learning, in which he outlined his vision for the U of W, and argued that the line between campus and community is "dissolving." The essay largely builds on the school's Campus and Community Development Plan, released in 2007.
Achieving this "enhanced mandate" involves several programs, including those aimed at increasing accessibility for under-represented groups through, among other things, contributing to primary education with "inner-city summer eco-campus."
Other plans are designed to create connections with downtown workers through shared athletic facilities. There are also "community-based research initiatives," and "free legal support services." Included is a new daycare, residence, bookstore and a pub.
Anything that can conceivably be described as "learning," or involving interactions between students, faculty and the broader community finds its way into Axworthy's vision for the U of W. The university, he says, "belongs" to the community and, apparently, exists to serve all of the community's needs. At the end of November, in recognition of the school's efforts, the Downtown Biz gave it an award for "Outstanding Long-term Growth and Commitment".
What is lacking, it should be obvious, is a proper elucidation of the U of W's core activities — liberal arts education and research. We have institutions for children's education, and we have sporting facilities, and we have pubs. None of these would see fit to take on the business of academia. We would think them silly if they did.
Why then should universities be taking on these functions? Or why should they be front and centre to the university's mandate? Why can't the university belong to the community as a university and not as something else? Because of Axworthy's ego?
Of course the U of W contributes to the downtown community. It always has. That doesn't mean the institution exists for that purpose, or should be branded as existing for that reason. Universities are terrible at articulating what justifies their existence, so they often market themselves in easy-to-understand terms, or in ways that mask their own misgivings about their cloistered activities. Axworthy's own take on the Ivory Tower is as a veritable department of everything.
But the public is not stupid, and universities should not be so sheepish about what they do. If universities announced that they were no longer going to study ancient history, or the origins of the universe, or Shakespeare, then the public would likely be distressed.
After all, we support public funding for the arts because of the intrinsic good they are thought to confer on the community. Why not teaching and learning? Like the arts, higher education is a luxury of wealthy societies to be appreciated, not as a means to solve all our problems or to be debased on utilitarian grounds.
If schools want to justify themselves, or demonstrate their relevance, they have to show us what it is that they uniquely do. If you are a university president and your response is to transform the university into a collage of social services, then you are probably in the wrong business.
For instance, while the University of Winnipeg was receiving its Downtown Biz award, the philosophy department nearly crumbled. Although the administration dumped an idea to fold the departments of philosophy, classics and religion into one, the future of philosophy at the U of W is tenuous.
The department has no head and only has four tenured professors. The only two sessional instructors have been told that they will not be hired back. The department will not be able to offer the courses required for students to even pursue philosophy as a major.
Philosophy is one of those fields that any institution calling itself a university should have. To lose it would be a betrayal of the U of W's tradition as an institution designed to deliver undergraduate liberal arts education. As Axworthy works to dissolve the line between campus and community, he should take care not to dissolve that tradition.