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Margin Notes

University evolution on a geological time scale

You want change? Show me the money!


I remember several years ago hearing Martha Piper, recently retired as president of the University of British Columbia, talking about universities and change. It was a private address at a meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, but she agreed later to let me re-fashion her words into a feature article for University Affairs called “A five-step program for change.”

As I’ve noted before, there has been quite a lot of talk recently about the imminent change or “disruption” facing universities (mainly from MOOCs) and the metaphors used to describe it: A tsunami! An avalanche!

Dr. Piper saw things from a different angle. She acknowledged the need for change, but knew it would be slow in coming. Universities, she said, “relish the past. They’re built on the history of centuries. They pride themselves on not changing” (emphasis hers – it may have been accompanied with some fist thumping on the podium as well). “Scholars are taught by scholars who were taught by scholars. Teaching methods and cultural values have been handed down from generation to generation to generation.”

Of course, universities do evolve. Over the past 40 years or so, Canada’s universities have gone through tremendous change as they’ve responded to the ever-increasing demands placed on them by governments, society and the economy. In the process, modern universities have become incredibly complex and, as a result, change can seem imperceptible. An insightful blogger commented that the apocalyptic metaphors were likely well off the mark and “that what is really going on is better viewed as a rather slower ‘tectonic’ movement.”

But it’s this slowness of change, I think, that can occasionally drive governments to distraction. Newly appointed ministers of education, in their haste to do something, occasionally throw out only-half-thought-out policy prescriptions, to which universities respond in a very deliberate way that Alex Usher perceptively calls “embrace and contain.”

To be fair, governments usually have mandates that last no more than four years, or less if they’re in a minority situation, and can’t always focus on longer-term change when they are facing an impatient electorate. I think that the push by the Ontario government to have universities prepare strategic mandate agreements, and for Alberta’s universities to sign “mandate letters” with their provincial government, are in part a response by these governments to try to force change more quickly.

In Ontario, the provincial government asked the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recently to reviews these mandates. The expert panel concluded that “bottom-up processes like that used with this [strategic mandate agreement] exercise will not produce the system changes we believe are necessary. The government will need to demonstrate discipline, consistency and commitment to direct changes over the several years it will take to implement them.”

And how to do this? “Funding,” said the panel, “is the major lever available to government to motivate and steer change.” This is very similar to what HEQCO president Harvey Weingarten said to me when I visited in Toronto earlier this year. What’s important, he said, is that the government decide what type of system it wants, and then – most importantly – put incentives in place to get that desired result. With the right incentives, change will happen, he asserted. I think I remember a similar concept from the film Jerry Maguire: show me the money!

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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