The Road Ahead – speech by Elizabeth Cannon

October 28, 2015
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Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary, giving her inaugural speech at Universities Canada membership meeting.

Inaugural speech by Dr. Elizabeth Cannon

President and vice-chancellor, University of Calgary
Incoming Chair of Universities Canada

Universities Canada’s fall membership meeting

Check against delivery

Colleagues and friends, I’m honoured and very happy to be with you today and to speak to you as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Universities Canada.

For those of you who are new to our association, this is our first full meeting as Universities Canada, our new name having been announced six months ago during our last meeting. It was very easy to change from a four-word name to a shorter one that better reflects who we are and what we do. Not all change is so straightforward though.

Both the amount of change and the pace of change happening around us today are truly remarkable. Consider just some of the events of this month of October.

On October 5, negotiation of a Trans Pacific Partnership agreement was completed with Canada’s participation. Though the details of the deal are still not public, in any event, the very existence of a tentative agreement signals major changes ahead, sparking both fear and excitement about jobs, industries, opportunities and what will happen to the way we live and work as Canada becomes more integrated into the global economy.

The very next day, October 6, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Dr. Arthur MacDonald of Queen’s University together with his Japanese colleague Takaaki Kajita at the University of Tokyo. They were recognized for research that showed neutrinos produced by the sun change their identity on their way to the Earth. This is new knowledge about our universe that explains puzzling observations about the energy output of our sun. It brings with it no immediate practical application, nor did anyone expect it to. Will it affect quantum computing in the future? Or efforts at harnessing nuclear fusion?

At this stage we can only wonder, and congratulate these scientists on their remarkable contribution to our world.

Also in October, another event is bringing change much more immediately into our lives in Canada: We have a new federal government.

The result removes some sense of uncertainty because it is a majority government.  It indicates that there is public support for decisive change ahead.  The House of Commons will welcome 214 Parliamentarians, 14 of whom are returning after a time away and fully 200 of whom are brand new, never having represented their constituents in Ottawa before. There are more women in the House than ever before, and a record number of visible minorities.

This transformation of our federal government is a reminder that we live in a time of constant change. It is also a time in which the pace of change is accelerating.

Such times resonate strongly within communities of higher education. Universities are well adapted to uncertainty and complexity. We incite change, we respond to it, and we help others navigate through it. And as the pace of change increases, we recognize that our role becomes more and more important. We understand how people and countries navigate change. It requires knowing who you are, where you are and what you stand for. It also requires good information about conditions as they currently exist and as they develop. And it requires a vision of the road ahead, a sense of where you’re going.

When I talk about how universities are so important in times of change, I like to compare it to the GPS we use on the road. As an engineer whose research discipline is with global positioning systems, this is often my go-to analogy. Sometimes, if all you have is a map, and you don’t know quite where you are on that map, charting your course is difficult.

But the way a car’s GPS system works is that a device in your vehicle is in constant communication with satellites orbiting the earth.  Your real-time position is computed from these satellites to select the right route to your destination – right now. And if you take a detour, the system can get you back on track.

Universities, and a university education, help us get to where we choose to go not simply by offering us a single route, but, not unlike a GPS, by continually providing the means to correct our course or take another tack. Universities give us the skills and the critical thinking to constantly address changing circumstances. That’s always important. And never more so than now.

Canadian universities are timely, and reality-based in their guidance. They don’t limit us to just one track. Our universities help us be resilient, responsive, creative and versatile, as individuals and as a country.

In order to serve Canada and Canadians in this role, universities need something similar to GPS satellites – ways to remain oriented to who we are and what our purpose is. We need, and we have, a few fundamental constants that we depend upon as we move. These are our enduring values.

Chief among these values, universities must be open and actively engaged in society and committed to its betterment. Universities must be committed to pursuing truth, to educating each successive generation, and to creating and communicating new knowledge of value to the world. To do this universities must have the freedom to explore, challenge and question without bias. And inseparable from that freedom of inquiry comes the responsibility of openness, accountability and transparency, not only in each individual research endeavor, but also in the operation of the institution itself.

These values are our True North. Or, to push the metaphor, by staying true to these values, we help provide Canada with reliable navigation through an ever-changing world.

Most of all, universities exist, and they have always existed, to change the world for the better. That is true now and has always been true from the very beginning, a millennium ago. But how we do that — how we help change the world for the better — is constantly changing.

That is why Universities Canada continually compares existing conditions against our enduring values to define and refine our commitments to Canadians. This is how we ensure that universities reflect and respond to the real, current needs of Canadians, so they can do their part to keep Canada at the cutting edge.

This year we have been revisiting our commitments and I am happy to share them with you now.

We are committed to equipping all students with the skills and the knowledge they need to flourish in work and life, empowering them to contribute to Canada’s economic, social and intellectual success.

What do we mean by this commitment? First this means that any Canadian who has the ability to succeed at a University level should have the opportunity to do so. Canada’s future needs all hands on deck and every Canadian should have the opportunity to thrive personally while contributing to that shared future. Second, it means that success is lifelong and real-world, beyond the first credential, beyond the first job, into all aspects and all phases of one’s life in a changing world.

Let me cite one example. The Engineering Access Program at the University of Manitoba. This program provides access and support to empower indigenous students to complete an engineering Degree and go on to help build a better Canada for themselves and their community.

Mihskakwan James Harper is a member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, and his first name means Red Cloud. He’s a third year student in Mechanical Engineering and in the summers he works as a Project Engineer Intern with Shell in Fort McMurray. He came to the University of Manitoba as a high achiever and a scholarship recipient, yet he found himself out of place as an Indigenous student, until a friend directed him to the Engineering Access Program. It made all the difference.

He’s now the Engineering Access Student Association co-president. With some co-op experiences ahead he will be graduating in 2017. He shares a bright future along with more than 99 indigenous graduates from this program. Recently he shared this advice for other students in the university’s 2016 Indigenous Student Viewbook:

“Education is the greatest investment in your future and it will serve as the basis for the leadership you will have in your community. Challenge yourself – you will be surprised of what you are capable of.”

His words lead me perfectly to our next commitment:

Universities are committed to excellence in all aspects of learning, discovery and community engagement. 

Excellence is a favourite word in our sector, but it can be a tricky concept. It can be understood in both an absolute and a relative sense. In the absolute sense of excellence, every exam, degree, research project and accredited institution must meet a clear and defined standard. This guarantees the value of the accomplishment.

In Canada, our universities measure their excellence against international standards. We know that our country and our citizens are competing in a global environment. We pay attention to global best practices, and we measure ourselves with reference to the best of the best.

But I want also to address the relative sense of excellence. Beyond quality there is also passion. In this sense the sky is the limit. Working with students and researchers we not only set the bar high for today, but we seek to support them, encourage them, provoke them, and inspire them to set the bar even higher for tomorrow. Universities propel us to go beyond what we think we are capable of.

That is Red Cloud James Harper’s experience and the experience of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, including myself.

Excellence, for Canada’s universities, means that we continually nurture and support world-leading research, that we innovate how we learn, that we generate new knowledge by igniting the brightest minds, collaborating with key partners in Canada and around the world and marshaling resources to meet society’s evolving needs.

It is by attracting and retaining the brightest minds, and cultivating important partnerships, that we are able to honour our next commitment:

Universities are committed to delivering a broad range of enriched learning experiences.

We work on enriching learning opportunities because we need to meet each student where they are and help them do something that is unique and meaningful and fits within the fabric of their lives. We need to ensure that every researcher has the platform, resources and the team to help advance his or her area of inquiry.

There is no one way to learn. There is no set path to the next research discovery. Every community in which our universities are located is unique. Students come to us with a vast range of learning styles, learning needs, and goals. No one approach can fit this bill, and we recognize that universities don’t have a monopoly on learning. Locally and internationally we need to partner with communities and with private and public sector organizations that share our goals to go beyond what any single institution can achieve.

We are challenged to explore new pedagogical methods and to provide a range of experiences from which our students, researchers and local community members can stitch together a quilt of learning. This quilt involves advances in the kinds of learning that take place in the classroom. And it also includes hands-on learning through co-op and internship placements, research experiences, community engagement, entrepreneurship, international study opportunities and the use of new technologies.

Recently, five University of Waterloo undergraduates developed a substance that will tell people when their sunscreen is no longer protecting them. The James Dyson Foundation named this as one of the top inventions of last year. With their own creativity, enterprise and ambition – and an entrepreneurial co-op term – these students were able to start up a business while still in university.

This ability to do research, as an undergraduate, to start a business as a student… these are examples of the kind of enriched learning experiences that we want for all students.

Top talent at our universities makes these opportunities possible for our students, and that talent also allows us to fulfill our next promise:

Universities are committed to putting Canada’s best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional or local.

Where do we find those best minds? We grow them. We attract them. We retain them. And we empower them by creating and maintaining an environment of inquiry that is rich, interesting, supportive, challenging, relevant, and rewarding. We create the kind of communities that attract and develop great minds and we enable them to do the work they love.

I believe that universities are perfect places for addressing the truly thorny problems of our time. Universities are an integral part of the world so they can understand the issues and even beta-test the answers. At the same time universities are slightly apart from the world so that they are not necessarily bound by the way the world currently does things. Universities educate students to think critically and to look at things in new ways… Let’s be clear: we have to look at things in new ways, and we have to apply ourselves to what the world needs.

I want to share with you the example of Dr. Gary Kobinger who came from the University of Pennsylvania to head up Ebola research at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. His team and that of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland, working together under his direction, developed the Ebola drug ZMapp, which was administered under emergency conditions to a small number of Ebola-infected people in 2014. All of them recovered from the disease.

The drug is now in clinical trials in the US and Liberia. Dr. Kobinger is staying in Canada, moving next June to become the director of the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases at Laval University. This to me is a stunning example of reaching across borders and collaborating with governments to truly put the best minds to a pressing global problem. But it’s also an example of how Canada is able to attract and retain those great minds.

Canadian university research has far-reaching global impacts, but also tremendous impact on the sustainability and prosperity of local communities and regions. An excellent example comes from Dr. Barbara Neis [niece], a sociologist at Memorial University. Her community-university research program is helping rebuild Newfoundland and Labrador fishing communities after the collapse of Atlantic cod stocks in the 1990s.

Issues like this call for a nuanced interdisciplinary approach. Loss of their traditional livelihood has affected the way these rural communities function – how people live, work, play and eat. Researchers from the sciences, social sciences and fine arts worked together with Newfoundland communities to find ways to rebuild.  By combining local knowledge and academic scholarship, Dr. Neis and her team developed community-based recovery strategies that protect jobs as well as ecosystems.

Our next commitment highlights this need and power of reaching out to others, across communities and across borders:

We are committed to help build a stronger Canada. We will accomplish this through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector, communities, government and other educational institutions in Canada and around the world.

Our purpose and our mandate call us to do more than we alone as universities can do. We are not islands of isolation; we are part of a larger world. If we are to change the world for the better — and in this time of change nothing is more urgent – we must forge strong and enduring connections.

I spoke earlier about the question of whether research in neutrinos might contribute to the field of quantum computing. That’s an open question, but the field of quantum computing is extremely important today, not just because it promises ultra-fast computers but because it offers a path to true data security.

Physics professor Christoph Simon, at the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the University of Calgary, is working on creating a quantum Internet with global reach through what’s called an entanglement network. In a world where internet security is increasingly threatened, the ability to send secure communications anywhere in the world is of urgent interest to private industry and to the public sector. Professor Simon’s work has received recognition and support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Universities are at their best when they serve as connectors and catalysts, bringing together ideas and resources from the private sector, government, colleges, and community organizations. We are doing our part to grow and inspire great minds, to create and share knowledge and to help create good citizens and leaders in our communities. But beyond that, we serve as a meeting place and a workshop where we can invite others to challenge us, to partner with us, to test and prove new ideas in a culture of innovation for the betterment of our economy and society.

Our enduring values identify who we are. The commitments I’ve been outlining point to the road ahead.

But what about the here and now? When Canadians look at their universities today, what do they see? How do they feel? How are we doing in their eyes? If universities are to help lead Canada on the road ahead, we must also understand and reflect the views and aspirations of Canadians who are traveling that road with us. We must ensure that we are relevant to their communities.  In June of this year we undertook some research to check our course with Canadians.

The answers that came back were from 2000 Canadians distributed across all ages over 18, from all regions of the country, all genders and all levels of education. The results are extremely encouraging and validating. They strike me as the kind of information that anyone charged with shaping public policy in Canada should understand.

Canadians clearly support government funding of great universities. They agree that government should invest in basic research, even if that research doesn’t lead to immediate economic results.

Canadians are very clear that they overwhelmingly appreciate the value of education in general, and within this appreciation they value universities in particular for taking the longer view, engaging the bigger ideas, preparing the leaders of the future.

The results of this poll indicate that Canadians recognize that universities are important drivers of the economy, that they contribute to society and that they are transformative places for students. This is very heartening because these findings point to the three core pillars that motivate universities: innovation, engagement in society, and education. These are part of our commitments and a large part of why we are seeking to strengthen our partnerships with governments, civil society, and the private sector.

I think you’ll agree that we want to build upon them. And this is a crucial time to do just that.

With 214 new MPs, a soon-to-be-announced cabinet of new ministers, and a Prime Minister who began his career as an educator, we have, right now, an unprecedented opportunity to provide fresh thinking in Ottawa and throughout Canada on higher education, research and innovation.

We are extremely well positioned to translate into public policy Canadians’ already great appreciation for the central role universities play in the country’s economic, social and cultural success. It is our intention to make use of this moment of change to influence political discourse and to make a sustained and enduring impact among those with leadership roles in Canada.

In addition to the ongoing work Universities Canada undertakes in support of our values and commitments, we are envisioning three new areas of action for the road ahead:

First, we will substantially increase the awareness and impact of higher education on Parliament Hill. We will provide a solid orientation on higher education, research, and innovation for all 338 newly elected and re-elected MPs.

Secondly, we will be strengthening the role of universities as conveners of meaningful dialogue and places of new thinking on issues of importance to Canadians by cultivating leaders and third-party champions across the country.

And third, we will be promoting and helping to facilitate a meaningful role for universities in Canada’s 150th birthday.

That connects to one of the other important findings of the polling research we conducted:  Canadians recognize and appreciate that Universities have been playing a vital role in Canada and in our world for centuries. Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 is therefore a perfect opportunity to recognize and celebrate that profound and enduring relationship.

This is a glimpse of the road ahead. We have a shared responsibility to secure timely and sustained support for higher education in such a time of change. Universities are drivers of Canada’s global success and here at home, drive prosperity for Canadians and communities. We can’t afford to take our foot off the gas.

Notice that I said “shared responsibility.” As I say this, I’m looking at you, my colleagues and our partners. Every one of you is a thought leader and a much-needed champion for higher education, research and innovation. Every one of us has benefited from the presence of Canadian universities, even if we never attended one. And every one of us will benefit from a vibrant, responsive, innovative and well-supported landscape of higher education in Canada as we, individually and together, navigate the road ahead.

To our partners in the room: Over the next few months you will receive invitations to participate in initiatives on behalf of higher education and on behalf of universities in your community. I’m asking you to join with us. Our mission and our mandate are not about universities as institutions. It’s about Canadians, and about a learning, growing and changing Canada.

In that spirit, to return to my GPS analogy, I ask you to keep in continual contact with three satellites, three key reference points, as you travel forward. First, in your personal lives, reflect consciously on the lasting impact of your own education in every phase of your life. Next, pay attention to the presence of universities in your community, and their ability to effect partnerships, collaborations and contributions to local and regional life. And third, pay close attention to the conversations initiated by our new government in Ottawa: check to see how education, research and innovation are addressed in policy and in the remarks of ministers and MPs – and the opportunities we can seize to advance the value of higher education across Canada.

Let’s work together to advance the work of universities in our own lives, in our communities, and in our national interest. I’m confident that if we do, Canada will stay true on the road ahead, no matter how much or how fast things change.

Thank you very much, and l look forward to continuing our discussion.

Je vous remercie et me réjouis à l’idée de poursuivre la discussion avec vous.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Co-ops and internships, Global connections, Indigenous education, Research and innovation, Study abroad

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