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Four small universities launch joint recruitment campaign

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., will join Acadia, Bishop’s and Mount Allison to comprise the Maple League of Universities in Atlantic Canada.

PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Four Canadian universities are betting their futures on collaboration rather than competition, beginning a joint national recruitment campaign this week that aims to contrast their tightly knit communities with the big-name but impersonal attractions of urban postsecondary institutions.

Acadia, Bishop's, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier will showcase their campuses under the Maple League of Universities banner at recruitment events in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver this week. All four focus primarily on liberal arts and science education for undergraduates.

That type of education is needed now more than ever, the presidents of the four universities said in a joint interview the morning after last week's U.S. election.

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"If you look at schools like ours that are deeply wedded to liberal arts and science, but also very collegial … [students] are more likely to develop sensibilities that are not going to tolerate racist or sexist arguments," said Robert Campbell, the president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

The partnership began three years ago as the U4 league, but is now intensifying with co-operation on recruitment, curriculum and rebranding.

With the relaunch of the collaboration, students at each of the four campuses will be able to take some classes from any of the other universities in the group. This fall, the video technology was tested to offer a Mount Allison course in Greek to students at Bishop's. In the winter term, other courses will include social justice and genocide and Mi'kmaq.

"I am sitting and watching at Mount Allison and can hear the whispering of the students at Bishop's," Dr. Campbell said of observing the class.

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The four also plan to expand a lecture series that is broadcast across the four campuses and has featured author Joseph Boyden and will include Justice Murray Sinclair, former prime minister Paul Martin and lawyer Marie Henein.

The hope is that recruiting together will help students understand that all four offer the possibility of conducting research early in their academic careers with professors, and will choose among them rather than set their sights on larger universities.

"We think we have a better chance of communicating together what our model is, and [then] we will fight amongst ourselves [for each student]," said Michael Goldbloom, the president of Bishop's in Sherbrooke, Que.

As major universities have grown, the undergraduate experience has changed in ways that are not recognizable to the parents of today's students, from the increasing reliance on teaching assistants to larger first- and second-year classes, the presidents emphasized.

At some urban universities, "if you are not in the front row of a class, it's called distance education," said Kent MacDonald, the president of St. FX. "There are not many of us left that think small is beautiful."

The more intimate experience often translates into better educational outcomes for students, who then have the academic resumé and marks to do graduate work or attend professional schools at larger institutions, added Ray Ivany, the president of Acadia.

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"In the upper-year courses at our schools, you are essentially a graduate student in your ability to do independent research," Mr. Ivany said.

Demographic trends in the Atlantic provinces have made it challenging for the region's universities to find enough local students. In response, many of the institutions have looked to the rest of Canada, and increased the proportion of international students.

That diverse student body helps cultivate understanding for other cultures, Mr. Goldbloom said.

"In Canada, only 10 per cent of students cross their provincial borders. That's not us," he said. "I think the model of bringing people into a residential setting from different backgrounds, and getting them to navigate the challenges, that is one of the ways you ensure a more respectful society."

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