David Turpin was installed as President at the University of Alberta earlier this week. His inaugural speech was good. Very good. Read a shortened version of it here.
(Full disclosure: I spoke at a leadership function at the University of Alberta in August, for which I received a fee. The University has also recently purchased two of our syndicated research products. Make of that what you wish.)
The speech starts out with what I would call some standard defences of the university, which any president would give: we seek truth and knowledge, we innovate, and we create jobs, yadda yadda. Where it gets interesting is where he starts his appeal to the provincial government. Let me quote what I think are the key bits:
“Our task continues to be to ask unexpected questions, seek truth and knowledge, and help society define, understand and frame its challenges. Our goal for the future is to find new and innovative ways to mobilize our excellence in research and teaching to help municipal, provincial, national and international communities address these challenges.”
Note: the truth/knowledge tasks “continue”, but now we’re adding a “goal” of mobilizing the university’s talents to address “challenges”. And these are not just abstract challenges. Turpin gets very, very specific here:
“To our municipal partners: We will work with you to address your major goals on poverty reduction, homelessness, downtown revitalization, infrastructure renewal and transportation.
To our provincial partners: We will work with you to strengthen a post-secondary education system that serves the needs of all Alberta’s learners. We will provide our students the educational experience they need to seed, fuel and drive social, cultural and economic diversification. We will advance social justice, leading reconciliation with our First Nations and protection for minorities. We will conduct research to sustainably develop Alberta’s wealth of natural resources and improve Albertans’ health and wellness.”
These are really specific promises. If I’m a municipal or provincial official, what I hear from this is “Cool! U of A is going to be my think tank! It’s going to put expertise at my disposal in areas like poverty reduction and economic diversification”. That may or may not be Turpin’s intent, but it’s what they will hear. And that’s well beyond the traditional role of a university in Canada, and in some ways beyond even some of the “state service” commitments that exist in US Land Grant institutions. Sure, ever since von Humboldt, universities have been there to serve and strengthen the state, but I think the way Turpin is articulating this is genuinely new.
Now, no doubt the University has enormous resources to help achieve all of these things. But those resources are mostly faculty members and grad students. And while the university can ask them nicely to help folks at city hall/the legislature when they come calling, the question is: what’s in it for the profs and grad students to drop what they’re doing and go help the city/province (especially if they feel they have better things to do)? Is the expectation that staff will do this out of a collective desire to contribute to their communities, or will incentives be put in place?
This goes deep to the heart of a university’s research mission. At research universities like U of A, tenure and promotion is based mostly on publication records, and time is supposed to be spent 40-40-20 on teaching, research, and service. But if your provost walks down the hall and says “hey, I just met with a couple of MLAs, and they’re hoping they can borrow your expertise for a couple of weeks”, do those expectations now change? Will tenure/promotion committees actually take into account work done for government as equivalent to work done for an academic publication?
(For those of you not native to academe, it may seem amazing that research done for public policy, something that changes the way government makes decisions in a certain area, is not rated as highly for tenure/promotion as publishing things in journals that on average are read by a handful of people. It is amazing, yes. But true more often than not.)
If the answer to those questions is no, then I don’t think this initiative will go far. But if the answer is yes, then Turpin is literally talking about a new kind of university, one that is prepared to sacrifice at least some of the prestige associated with being a “world-class university” with a laser-like focus on publication outputs, in order to contribute to its community in very concrete ways. It’s not a reduction in research intensity, but it is a different type of research intensity.
The risk, of course, is that this new type of intensity won’t come with as many dollars attached. I hope that’s not the case. But in any event, this could be quite an exciting experiment. One definitely worth keeping an eye on.