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In my opinion

What do universities owe Canadians?

The higher education community must act as a guiding light as we return to more in-person activities.


Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written in November 2021, before the Omicron variant forced the shutdown of campuses across the country.

Many of Canada’s university campuses continue to come back to life this winter, as in-person activity ramps up. With vaccination rates climbing, and case counts remaining manageable, there are grounds for cautious optimism.

At this pivotal moment, what role will Canada’s universities play in our recovery?

Most obviously, universities will contribute to economic renewal and knowledge creation. They will educate talent and position society for prosperity. But there is another, equally important contribution universities are making.

As students, faculty, and staff arrived on campuses across the country this past fall, we witnessed a return to real, rather than virtual, interaction. Showing society how to manage this transition successfully – guided by thoughtful approaches to vaccine mandates, improvements to ventilation, carefully managing the use of physical spaces, staggering workdays and hours, and more – has wider implications for Canada’s economic recovery. The return of in-person activity is a watershed moment. Canadian universities are leading by example in how they approach it.

We have learned from our extended period of virtual interaction that it is a far from perfect substitute for real, face-to-face interaction. Digital media have all too frequently isolated rather than connected us. It has eroded trust, tolerance, and social cohesion. It has made it more difficult to bridge our differences, and easier to fragment our communities into groups with widely divergent values and worldviews.

Consequently, our ability to behave as colleagues or fellow citizens has suffered.

As we return to in-person activity, we have an opportunity to re-learn how to manage disagreement and diverging views, how to argue with our peers without alienating them, how to listen to different ideas without retreating into insular, like-minded communities. How much more effective would our society be if we were better at learning from each other?

The return to our campuses offers us the prospect of restoring this critical capacity and modeling it for others. This vital role highlights three key responsibilities for universities.

The first is to ensure that our campuses re-main places that accommodate, foster and enable important discussions about difficult and contentious issues. Dialogue and debate are the lifeblood of the academy. This requires what Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, calls “purposeful pluralism” in his recent book, What Universities Owe Democracy. This includes “modeling what healthy debate looks like” by hosting public discussions about important topics that convulse our society. How can we promote truth and reconciliation? How do we acknowledge and learn from the Black Lives Matter movement? How will the #METOO revelations galvanize change? What is our part in responding to climate change?

University communities must engage such challenging topics both to advance social progress and, as importantly, to teach the fundamentals of citizenship. If we succeed, we will be enhancing our ability to educate “democratic citizens” prepared to engage fully in civic life, during and after their time on our campuses.

The second responsibility for universities is closely related to the first. We must foster diverse excellence in all its forms. A broad and diverse range of people, experiences, and perspectives must be able to thrive on our campuses. After all, wrestling with new, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable ideas in the shared pursuit of knowledge sparks understanding, discovery and innovation. Healthy debate and purposeful pluralism require a heterogeneous intellectual environment.

Indeed, this points to the third key responsibility we must uphold: equality of access to university education for students, and equality of opportunity for diverse faculty and staff. Universities have a special role to play in creating opportunity for those who come from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds, including Indigenous and Black communities, providing a springboard to upward social mobility and seeding our campuses with more diverse ideas. To do this, universities must remain open and accessible to the broadest range of prospective students, faculty, and staff, and we must seek them out rather than waiting for them to come to us. This means recruiting purposefully, as well as committing to student aid.

But the pandemic has exposed new challenges for pluralism, diversity, and opportunity – and it has exacerbated traditional ones. We must acknowledge the importance of these challenges and tackle them head-on. As we continue our return to campus, let’s focus on breaking down barriers to access, educating citizens, fostering debate, and engaging difference. In doing so, we will demonstrate to society how to do these things well, and why it matters. This is what universities owe Canadians.

Meric Gertler is the president of the University of Toronto and chair of the board of directors for Universities Canada.

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