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The common denominator, the phrase associated with every recommendation for change in universities, is the necessity for radical transformation. Whether it's government asking us to 'tweak' our research agenda to speed up commercialization; industry questioning our ability to meet the need for skilled workers; grantors placing geographical limits on eligibility for funding; or students wondering why our entire course calendar and library system aren't online yet; we are getting it from all sides.

We do need to change, we need to change a lot, and we need to change fast. But "vital change' is not the same as radical transformation. 'Radical' means 'root.' It means changing in essence. And if we do that – and some of us are already making moves in that direction – we've lost.

I have one change driver that you can use as a lens to look at all change drivers; and one criterion you can use to evaluate every next step. The common denominator of every driver of change, from digitization to climate change to global mobility, is direct experience. Universities arose out of an ecclesiastical culture that presumed a responsibility for mediating its followers' experience of the sacred. That paternalistic dynamic stayed with us even after our transition to secular institutions, and has perpetuated that 'ivory tower' reputation among those we're meant to educate and serve that persists to the present day.

Other sectors have led the way for us, demonstrating both what to do and what not to do. The music industry now has its iTunes, and the film and video industry, its Netflix. In both cases, the end user has access to all available content at any time and in any way she wants it. The business model is both economical for the user and profitable for the owner.

The proprietary, exclusionary control of content is obsolete. Every change, from the ones that are upon us to the ones we can't see coming, is going to be driven by people's desire for ever more direct experience.

It is a university's job to lower barriers that limit or disallow direct experience. I'm talking about the invisible barriers between individuals of different backgrounds, cultures, and orientations on our campuses; I'm talking about the borderlines we've drawn between our campuses and the communities we serve; the boundaries between disciplines, fields, and faculties, and those between our institutions that exist because of geographical distance or philosophical difference or market share competition.

Why are our undergrad students left to make so many of the connections themselves? To do the integrating and synthesizing? Why do young professors with joint appointments fear they won't get tenure? Why do so many of our funders limit the grants and scholarships available to international scholars, and so limit the nature of study and research partnerships? Why do so many of our staff see themselves as 'supportive of' rather than 'integral to' our mission and vision?

I'm also talking about the barriers – from financial to political – that keep too many local students and scholars homebound and too many would-be international students and scholars locked out. We claim to be graduating global citizens, but how many of them have traveled? How many have had a transformative encounter with someone whose views and beliefs differed markedly from their own? How many, actually, have left our campuses after four years without ever having thought seriously about how their fields of study – whether music or mathematics or marine biology – relate to the fundamental challenges of our day?

I will say that universities' failure so far to fully democratize access to direct experience – whether it be information or intercultural encounters – is based in fear. Our fear – of losing control. Of being irrevocably and detrimentally altered.

So what do we do? Is there one magic criterion by which every decision in the difficult decade to come may be safely gauged? I believe there is …Be yourself.

Universities have a mission that is unique in all the world: to serve the world, through the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge. That is our task, and our task alone. Our survival rests in holding to the unique and necessary role we carved out for ourselves 800 years ago. Our challenge lies in the fact that we are no longer optimally organized to fulfill it.

We're nation-based, and our national systems do not fully support our need for mobility. The classrooms in our older buildings are physically structured for a hierarchical and passive dynamic of pedagogy, and don't reflect what we now know about how people best learn. Our most important funding mechanisms are inwardly focused. And we are often preoccupied with superficial measures of reputation, short-sighted research funding, and commercialization over sustainability.

We have forgotten the value of the core service we provide. Four years ago, UBC launched the most ambitious fundraising and alumni engagement campaign in Canadian history, with parallel goals of raising $1.5-billion and engaging 50,000 alumni annually in the day-to-day life of the university. With two years still to go, we're already approaching both targets, and I believe it is because we are better serving our alumni and because we have opened up meaningful opportunities for them to serve.

Show – don't tell, show – your political leaders of every stripe the economic long view, and your place in strengthening it. Offer your faculty members incentives for crossing barriers of discipline and geography. Reward your staff for the ways they contribute to sustainability, intercultural understanding, international engagement. Expand free access to course content. Add online components to your face-to-face classes, and vice versa.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." Know yourself. Know your value. Let your barriers down and invite in the messiness of transformation. Change structurally if you must, but don't change radically; keep your medieval roots.

Stephen Toope is the president and vice-chancellor of The University of British Columbia. This article is adapted from a speech to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Centenary Conference earlier this month.