Our conference, Stepford Universities? Differentiation of Mission in the New Higher Education Landscape, wrapped up yesterday, and there were a lot of very interesting ideas floating around. To end the week, I’ll just touch on a couple of them.
Clearly, part of the problem we have in discussing a touchy issue like this is one of vocabulary. As panelist Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology says, we haven’t got the language to talk about this issue in a nuanced way. So, “differentiation” – which is really a process rather than an end goal – has actually come to mean a lot of different things to different people, which confuses the debate.
Council of Ontario Universities President Bonnie Patterson made the point that perhaps the real issue isn’t that institutions need to have different missions in terms of research, teaching and service – maybe what they really need are different profiles to make sure that there are some gains to specialization. I happen to think that’s a great idea anyway: as dollars become scarce and institutions need to sharpen their messages about who they are and what they stand for to governments and potential students (especially international ones) alike.
But maybe the most intriguing discussion came at the very end, when we talked about the forces within academia that push for homogenization – in particular, the demand to perform ever more research. One participant in the final panel (where we handed the reins over to conference participants themselves) made the point that university presidents themselves – appointed by boards who are deliberately kept away from the minutiae of academic life, and who have a natural desire to “make a mark” – have, as a class of individuals, had a lot to do with the rush to research.
It’s a very valid point, but I think there’s something deeper going on, too. For all the protestations that “lots of faculty don’t like the rush to research” and would prefer a more teaching-focussed approach, there’s been remarkably little push-back from faculty themselves over the years. My suspicion is that until a real movement within faculty groups emerges to counter this, very little other than draconian government intervention is going to get institutions to snap out of the collective Stepford trance towards greater research-intensiveness.
And, to prove this point, the University of Calgary came out with a new strategic plan yesterday. Their big strategic goal is… wait for it… to become more research-intensive! Plus ça change…
Thanks to all who attended the conference and have a great weekend!
– Alex Usher