Skip navigation

Four small universities in Eastern Canada rebrand as the “Maple League”


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.

Michael Goldbloom, Ray Ivany, Robert Campbell and Kent MacDonald.
Michael Goldbloom (principal of Bishop’s), Ray Ivany (president of Acadia), Robert Campbell (president of Mount Allison) and Kent MacDonald (president of StFX).

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.”

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. George Iwama / November 23, 2016 at 14:52

    I couldn’t agree more with the aspirations of the Maple League. The importance of a high quality liberal education has never been greater. I fully support the last statement by Robert Campbell, that this is a priority of national importance. It is an opportunity for Canada to be known as a place where undergraduate education is valued as much as the important advances in research and technology development.

  2. Janice Murray / November 29, 2016 at 13:51

    Bravo !!

  3. Tony / December 12, 2016 at 00:38

    What a great way to improve the educational field!

  4. Neil / September 5, 2017 at 21:13

    Interesting concept, well done!

  5. Pamela / January 22, 2020 at 10:49

    I am with a medium-sized university and we notice the difference in funding formulas and public perceptions of the large research intensive universities compared to the smaller research intensive universities. A number of the smaller universities in my province are considering doing something similar to the Maple Leaf group. Bravo!