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From the admin chair

‘Think local’ doesn’t mean lowering our aspirations

Staying faithful to our principles.


When I worked at McGill University, Heather Munroe-Blum, then president, often referred to “local impact and global reach.” Others have coined “glocal,” a term that I am not particularly fond of. Nevertheless, the issue of how universities manage the mission of addressing local needs while performing at a global level of excellence is an interesting one.

Let’s start with a few basic premises. Universities in Canada are publicly funded by their provinces, and university administrators are quick to argue that we are a public good. This means we need to think carefully about our responsibilities to our provinces as well as the wider Canadian and global contexts. We also need to balance the creative tension between applied and foundational research, and between academic freedom and prescribed utility.

My interest in universities’ importance to their province was heightened with the release of a Nova Scotia commission report, Now or Never. The report sparked quite a debate about the urgent measures that the province needs to take to confront the economic, social and demographic challenges on our horizon. The report makes clear that Nova Scotia universities are expected to deliver solutions to make their province more economically viable and socially progressive.

But, how to do so without limiting academic freedom and curtailing basic research? And, how do we tackle local problems and make them the hallmark of an internationally excellent university?

Looking across Canada, many provinces are trying to focus universities more sharply on their local roles. The Ontario government has signed strategic mandate agreements with all its public colleges and universities, as a way to try to differentiate institutions based on their particular context and expertise.

Moreover, the mission statements of many Canadian universities recognize both their local and global roles. The University of Manitoba’s mission is to “create, preserve and communicate knowledge, and thereby contribute to the cultural, social and economic well-being of the people of Manitoba, Canada and the world.” The Université de Montreal’s mission statement reflects a sense of local belonging as well as an international vocation: “Solidly rooted in its local surroundings, U de M is active in all fields of knowledge and shines by creating knowledge that it shares and spreads throughout the world.”

Public universities in Canada might draw inspiration from the U.S. land-grant universities, founded under the Morrill Act, during President Lincoln’s tenure, to meet the local educational and research needs of various states. In 1937, the American Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities marked the act’s 75th anniversary with a speech by its president, stating, “The future of the land-grant colleges will be determined by the nature of the problems which come up in the areas they serve.” At a summit on the 150th anniversary of the act in 2012, the president of North Dakota State University noted how relevant those words are today. With such notable institutions as Cornell and MIT numbered among them, the land grant universities have become a major force of excellence in both education and research throughout their 150 years.

Another example of acting locally with global aspirations is in the mission of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. The university’s president, Rivka Carmi, recently spoke on a panel at Dalhousie University about the interplay between the global and local missions of her university. In 1957, she said, prime minister Ben-Gurion inspired the founders of the school’s precursor institute when he wrote the following to them: “The Negev Institute will decipher the code of nature in this region and it will give us the keys to the steps we must take to make the wilderness blossom.”

Research programs at Ben-Gurion focus on local issues such as desert agriculture, water management and Bedouin diseases. But they go well beyond the Negev, said Dr. Carmi: “Identify and look into your strengths and advantages and bring them from the local to the global.” To her, this meant disseminating the strengths and partnering on them globally; but it also meant performing the research at levels of international excellence.

I personally do not think it is too simplistic to expect that our public universities can be ivory towers where academic freedom and basic research are fundamental necessities but where, at the same time, our scientists, scholars and students seek inspiration from, and provide excellent solutions to, the world on their door steps.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. SC / November 6, 2014 at 09:00

    Not all universities are created equal, nor should they be. Major research intensive universities (so called ‘Medical Doctoral’) would be more focused high impact academics and be at the ‘global’ end of the spectrum, while predominantly undergraduate institutions could be at the ‘local’ end with comprehensive universities falling somewhere in the middle. One size does not fit all!