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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Remaking the University of Winnipeg Add to ...

Almost four decades ago, fresh from a doctorate at Princeton, Lloyd Axworthy began teaching urban studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Today, with a distinguished career in Liberal politics well behind him, Mr. Axworthy is literally remaking that same university, turning it into one of the most innovative, interesting institutions for its size in Canada. In the process, the university is improving part of inner-city Winnipeg.

Mr. Axworthy, now in his second term as president, has brought the same passion for social change, community engagement and using public institutions to help the disadvantaged that he brought to politics. He has given the school a mission to integrate fully with inner-city Winnipeg, to improve access for disadvantaged students, to take the university into the community.

Working on the improvement of the downtown is something Mr. Axworthy has done throughout his life, as young professor, activist, provincial MLA and federal cabinet minister in the Trudeau years, when he shovelled huge sums of money into the city and earned the nickname (at least here) as Big Lloyd.

The financial costs of realizing Mr. Axworthy's mission are considerable, and it remains unclear if the university can shoulder them all. The Manitoba government, after all, increased universities' operating budget by 2 per cent this year, while its health-care budget soared - the same pattern seen everywhere in Canada.

That mission, however, has obviously galvanized some of Winnipeg's most prominent families, whose names now adorn new buildings and programs: the Richardson College for the Environment, the Buhler Centre, McFeetors Hall, the Sanford Riley Centre for Canadian History, the Great-West Life Student Residence, CanWest Theatre.

These are the kind of families who used to devote their time and money almost exclusively to the much-larger University of Manitoba. That they have also been attracted to and by the University of Winnipeg represents an important change.

The University of Winnipeg sits amidst the troubles and challenges of the city's inner core. It's in a part of the city with immigrant populations, refugees and many aboriginals. Getting young people from these communities into school - and through to graduation - is arguably the university's most challenging mission.

Its outreach programs try to assist economic development on some reserves, but the institution, like others in the city, must deal with the inflow from those reserves that swells the existing city population of aboriginals.

Manitoba's future hinges in no small measure on somehow advancing the education standards and economic achievement of the burgeoning aboriginal population.

Winnipeg absorbs, often uneasily, those aboriginals who leave isolated reserves scattered around the central and northern parts of the province - reserves that are often economically marginal at best. Too many arrivals land ill-equipped for urban life, and so fall into poverty, gangs and, too often, crime. It's estimated that half the aboriginal urban population drops out of school long before finishing.

For inner-city kids and families, the university has built residences with space for families in need, founded a special class of 25 high-school students who had dropped out of school, created drop-in centres for aboriginal students and an innovative learning centre for 1,500 inner-city youth, established a summer camp for inner-city children to teach math, science and indigenous cultures. These programs flow from Mr. Axworthy's belief in "community learning," whereby the institution and its surroundings interact and learn deeply from each other.

A particularly interesting program is the Opportunity Fund, under which the university sets aside money for eventual use for fees by any student who completes his or her school year, starting in Grade 4. Another program sees professors going into elementary schools to explain some of the excitement of science.

Just recently, the university received $800,000 from the U.S.-based McArthur Foundation to create a master's degree program in organizing and supervising indigenous development projects around the world and in Canada.

Despite these efforts and programs, it's slow going to raise the share of aboriginal students. About 6 per cent of the student population was aboriginal when Mr. Axworthy began his tenure in 2005. It is now 10 per cent.

No university president is without detractors, given the politics of a university, its many constituencies and ambitions, and the multiple obligations on a president. It's not surprising therefore than grumblers complain Mr. Axworthy's mission pays insufficient heed to core academic matters, and that he bulls ahead without adequate consultation - an almost endemic complaint from faculty unions and associations across Canada.

To an outsider, however, this mission looks like a multiple winner, although realizing it will undoubtedly place stress on people (and budgets) within the institution.

Physically, the university has become both more imposing and accessible. It's trying in innovative ways to perform its historic role of integrating newcomers into Winnipeg (and Canada). It's become a more exciting, interesting place, and is that not what all universities should aspire to become?

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