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Margin Notes

Former university president calls for a new type of professor

Axel Meisen proposes the creation of "industrial practice professors" to boost innovaton


I came across an innovative-sounding idea recently about how to improve Canada’s innovation performance. Axel Meisen, former president of Memorial University, chemical engineer by training and currently chair of foresight with Alberta Innovates: Technology Futures, has proposed the creation of “industrial practice professors,” or IPPs.

Writing in the Jan. 31 issue of Research Money (vol. 25, no. 1, subscription required), Dr. Meisen observes that “Canada has a fundamental, chronic and persistent innovation problem.” He says our innovation performance has deteriorated for several decades relative to other advanced nations, even while federal and provincial governments have made major investments in research, particularly at Canadian universities.

He continues:

Something additional and fundamentally different must be done. Since most leaders of Canadian organizations are postsecondary graduates, it is compelling to conclude that our universities and colleges are part of the innovation problem and can be part of its solution.

Hence his suggestion for the creation of a new type of professorship, the industrial practice professor. These professors, he says:

would have first-hand knowledge of advanced industrial practices, particularly the practices of highly innovative, globally competitive companies in Canada and abroad. They would have ongoing interaction with such firms, participating not only in the development of new advanced products and services based on the latest research, but also marketing, production, customer service, financing, intellectual property protection, regulatory compliance and staff training.

Few university or college professors have this type of knowledge, he says, adding:

Even in faculties like business administration and engineering, the number of professors with such comprehensive expertise is small. Professors tend to be highly competent and dedicated specialists. Without question, specialists are needed but by themselves, they are insufficient to support the development of innovative, globally competitive corporations. While some faculties engage excellent practitioners on short-term assignments (for example, as executives in residence), their influence on students is limited and they do not shape academic programs; this is done by the regular faculty who are primarily disciplinary specialists.

Similar in concept to the Canada Research Chairs program, Dr. Meisen suggests the federal government fund 150 IPPs in Canadian universities and colleges so that they are fully established and filled by 2017 – Canada’s 150th birthday.

It’s an intriguing idea, and I’d be interested to hear what others think. Could it indeed by a piece in the puzzle of our innovation underperformance? Is it even practical? And what are the obstacles?

I have concerns about the proposal that are unrelated to innovation and which have more to do with the multiplying roles and hierarchies of professors, but I’ll leave that discussion for another post.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Rob Annan / February 16, 2011 at 12:12

    Very interesting. I’m not really sure how this works in practice. Does every department get an IPP to become their “in-house” liaison with a particular industry? And that IPP is expected to help shape the policies and practices of that department? I have some reservations about that.

    I think there’s something here, but I don’t know if the solution is to adapt academic research departments to the marketing and customer service needs of industry. I do think there’s a place for more transfer of industry researchers into academia – for instance, why not encourage industrial sabbaticals or broader use of adjunct positions? These would build bridges and help expose each side to the other without losing the distinctions that make each successful in their own ways.

    As an undergrad, I took an industrial mycology lab course taught in the evening by a researcher from a forestry company. It was a great opportunity for students, the university and the company. Everyone wins.

  2. Tobias / February 16, 2011 at 12:20

    As always in academia, this is a complex topic and me being a social scientist means adding a different perspective to it, but I’d like to add two points: 1. Is ‘innovation’ defined too narrowly? Why is this only about ‘industrial practice’? I would argue that Canada could become a leader in innovative social media projects if you invest more in respective faculties. Or why not invest more in international development so Canada can become a leader in innovative approaches to poverty reduction etc? Linking innovation purely to the success of ‘globally competitive corporations’ doesn’t seem to be the only, most promising or most sustainable route in the 21st century to approach ‘innovation’. How can multi- and interdisciplinary approaches that may even be critical of dominating ‘capitalist’ approaches be taken into consideration?
    2. Are practitioners really prepared to engage with the higher education system? I’m sure there are many great, inspiring, practical and hands-on practitioners, but engaging with students and faculty is not just delivering a few key-note lectures. Designing a course (and, yes, that likely involves sitting through relatively boring faculty meetings), marking papers, advising students about options in- and outside academia…there is lot of ‘boring’, mundane day-to-day work linked to your job as a professor. How can we insure an exchange rather than a narrow one-way street of ‘universities should do better to prepare students for the job market’? IPPs sounds like an interesting concept, but only if these new professors are willing to engage with the challenges of higher education rather than presenting the age old ‘if universities were more like corporations, society would be better off’ discourse. Steven Schwartz links to an interesting post that sums up a lot the challenges that higher education faces by simply embracing corporate ‘best practice’:
    ‘The problem for higher education is that its contributions to collective literacy, economic imagining, public ethics and tolerant social relations aren’t measurable for economic purposes.”

  3. E.S. / February 22, 2011 at 11:16

    A reason why we fail at innovation is hidden in our hiring practices. We’re biased towards PhDs from US, instead of relying on our researchers. We keep hiring average researchers coming from big US schools, just because they are from Harvard, Princeton etc. etc. I often hear about these cases (e.g., an excellent candidate from Canada was not hired, but a department hired a mediocre candidate coming from an Ivy league school). Just take a look how many new assistant professors obtained PhDs in Canada (this is extremely obvious in engineering). I think it’s time to start hiring the best people again.

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