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Much has been written and said about universities' role in developing Canada economically, socially and culturally. Some pundits have said that universities are not embracing this role, not making a priority of Canada's needs. They paint a picture of stodgy, self-referential institutions resistant to change and deaf to calls to address Canada's important issues – in other words, ivory towers.

This tired stereotype is simply not true, whether we are talking about disciplines within the humanities or social sciences, or "professional" schools like medicine, engineering or education.

For the past 18 months, Ontario's universities have been working with the provincial government to establish Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) for each institution. Each SMA will describe its university's mandate, vision and priorities for the next several years.

A quick glance at the first SMA drafts, submitted more than a year ago, seems to suggest that many of the things Ontario universities do, or aspire to do, are the same across the board, and probably repeated at most Canadian universities. And this is as it should be; Canada's universities share traits, aspirations and much of their core missions.

However, a closer look at the submissions and at the institutions themselves demonstrates how different Canada's universities are from one another. Each is a product of its own unique history within a context – in fact a dual context.

Half of that context is the world of academe, a global world of scholarship and discovery where all universities need to have one foot firmly planted in similar, although not identical, places. After all, the laws of physics are the same in Canada as they are in Asia, so an education in physics must be informed by discovery and scholarship that meets the test on a global stage.

The other half of the context is the circle of communities that each university inhabits. Local needs and realities forge a university's nature and inform its future. For instance, it makes sense to teach and research about mining at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Likewise, energy industry studies are natural for Alberta campuses; viticulture research thrives at Brock University in Ontario's grape and wine heartland; First Nations studies are strong at University of Regina or the University of Northern British Columbia; Ocean Sciences at Memorial University in Newfoundland; and so on.

These are the more obvious examples. Scratch deeper; look at the study of history, or economics, or literature, or sociology. Each of these disciplines in each of our universities is flavoured by its location, by the university's unique place within its surrounding communities and by its history.

Can we do better in fusing these two elements – the world of academe, and the concentric circle of communities around a university? Can we better translate issues and insights across these two worlds? We can, and we must.

There are likely many new alternative ways to achieve this translation in research and teaching, but here is an option worth serious consideration.

What if institutions organized their research efforts not only along traditional lines (chemistry, sociology, economics, psychology, etc.) but also around themes that local communities identify as their priorities?

And what if the proof that these priorities are valid was measured by community involvement – private, public, or not-for-profit players stepping up to partner with researchers and their students?

And what if the definition of success required that the results benefit not only the world of academe (disseminated through articles published in scholarly journals or books and the training of the next generation of researchers) but also the development of surrounding communities (by defined deliverables for the community partners)?

Creating such community-university collaborations would have a positive impact, for various reasons. Because each collaboration would pull experts from many areas, the challenges facing our communities could be diagnosed through more than just the lens of a single discipline. (The fact is, most of our pressing challenges require the collation of perspectives from more than one discipline.)

Around each research theme, a true partnership between the community and university would evolve, as would a rich environment for students that spans the university, industry and the community.

This approach of partnering with and supporting development of local communities spurs innovation in its truest sense: It creates new knowledge, and makes it matter for those outside the academy. And it is not an unproven concept – it is already thriving at my own institution.

No doubt there are other examples at other universities.

When it comes to developing Canada economically, socially and culturally, our universities are partners and catalysts, not ivory towers.

Jack Lightstone is President and Vice-Chancellor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario

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