The purpose of the university, ripped from the headlines

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has surpassed that of the pandemic of a hundred years ago. The world has vaccines and superior technology and communications, but it is evident that science and technology cannot help people who lack a sense of living together or any feeling of responsibility for others’ well-being. The pandemic of the wilfully unvaccinated is upon us.

Current events such as the pandemic can help us grasp the purpose of today’s university. It is far from obvious. I hope I am not being grandiose if I suggest a few principles that might lead to defining a purpose. These four principles interrelate and can lead to varying statements of purpose, different for each institution.

The first principle addresses the question, “What can we trust?” This first principle relates to truth.

The purpose of education is not “critical thinking,” if by that we mean merely questioning and challenging. Every anti-vaxxer (or climate-change skeptic) is a critical thinker, weighing “evidence” to support their conviction that the truth is being hidden from us by powerful forces.

The university can’t let students go with the idea that everything must be doubted, without also instilling the idea that there are truths in which we can trust. Critical thinking is not just about what we reject; it has to be about what we embrace.

That does not mean indoctrinating students in what we take to be true. It is about setting up and protecting the space within each student to do the inner work of deciding what is deserving of trust.

This suggests the second principle, which addresses the question, “What truths from others’ experience can we embrace?” This second principle relates to justice.

In connection with the pandemic, I am thinking of Indigenous people and people of colour who have their own reasons for mistrust and hesitancy. They are not in the same class as anti-vaxxers who are lost in a cloud of ignorance and fake news.

So when we talk about “truth,” we have to ask, “whose truth?” I’m not saying all things are equal; I’m saying that truth often has an inside and an outside. What I see on the outside may look different from what you see on the inside. Representation in lecture hall seats is good; representation in front of the class is even better.

Related to trust, truth, and justice is the third principle, which addresses the question, “What is our responsibility to others?” This third principle concerns a public purpose.

In the days following the insurrection by the mob at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, viewers were shown many disturbing videos. I was struck not only by the anger, stupidity, and violence but by the resemblance of many the insurrectionists to normal-looking folks who could be my neighbours – except that they all seemed so lost. They were angry and mistrustful, with nothing to hold onto: No help to expect from anyone, no help to give to anyone, and no real common cause.

My neighbours and I are fortunate to live in a region that has mostly had very low COVID case counts, and health services have not been severely impacted. Geography, good leadership, and luck are factors, but I prefer to think it’s because we all wore masks, stayed home, and got vaccinated – to protect each other, not just ourselves. To some that makes us sheep, but we’re more like a forest: When the hard winds blow, the trees in a healthy forest lean on each other and all survive.

A public purpose recognizes that there is such a thing as the common good. If, as the cliché has it, the university develops the leaders of tomorrow, then this principle suggests leadership is defined as a role devoted to service.

The fourth principle addresses the question, “How can truth, justice, and the common good endure?” The fourth principle is conservation.

In some places, something as simple as wearing a mask or getting vaccinated is a political statement, so one can imagine that embracing “truth, justice, and common good” will invite controversy and opposition. The university isn’t going to carry the day on its own, or anytime soon.

Fortunately, the university is in it for the long haul. These principles might seem liberal in nature, but they endure and are advanced in the embrace of an institution that is essentially conservative, in the best sense of that word.

Higher education addresses itself to all aspects of the individual human in society, but the “universe” in “university” does not suggest we should be all things. As the university expands to include more and more, we risk losing sight of what’s at the core. The conservative, enduring, focused institution is the opposite of the jittery, twitching institution enamoured with the example of big tech or the world of disruption, start-ups, or what-have-you.

If sculpting a statue is, as they say, chipping away all the marble that is not the statue, then the pandemic might help us chip away at everything around the university that isn’t the university.

Credentialing leading to employment, driving the regional economy, developing commercial application for research – these all have their place in the case for the existence of a university, but I have to wonder if these can be delivered in other ways, more directly and more cheaply. Not that they don’t belong in the university, but an institution that limits itself to these functions will slowly wither in a world that craves more.

What the world craves is an antidote to hate, ignorance, isolationism, nationalism, racism – a vaccine you might say, a positive formulation of purpose for an institution with the power to inspire the purpose of a life – many lives.

Strategy as music and prayer

The power of a statement lives in its proper expression. If a thing cannot be said so it speaks to the heart, then it isn’t true, beautiful, or worth saying. “The thing set down in words is not therefore affirmed,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It must affirm itself or no forms of grammar and no verisimilitude can give evidence; and no array of arguments.”

Strategy is language. It should read well, therefore it should be written well. Strategy should be bold, inspiring, simple on the surface but exploding variform in the minds of readers.

Words come from nature. Many words, the best words, have etymologies that trace to real things – rocks, trees, wind – and our brains are wired to respond physically. This gives language its power.

Writing has its roots in accounting – squiggles for fixing information so it stays. It loves abstract nouns. Language, though, has its roots in oral storytelling. Verbs drive it. Its close kin is music. We write as accountants most of the time, but some occasions call us to sing.

On those occasions, there is no arbitrary choice – there is one best way to say a thing that is worth saying. The task is not to make small ideas sound grand, but to make grand ideas real through their proper expression. Writing is hard.

Inspiring writing is concise. Concision is not summarizing; it is a natural property of powerful statements.

And where do powerful statements come from?

I recently attended a (virtual) senior leadership retreat focused on university strategic planning. The second day of the session was led by members of the African Nova Scotian Advisory Council, comprised of community leaders, including some university staff and faculty. We started the day with a prayer. During this prayer the pastor referred to God as “the Divine Strategist.”

This image struck me with force.

Whatever your beliefs, the idea of a divine strategist implies something above and outside of ourselves and our immediate concerns, like the sun that warms us but also warms everyone else.

Above and outside our immediate concerns – even all our concerns added together. Sound strategy is only partly based on asking everyone what they think. Each person sees the university through their own lens: the mandate of their office, the realities of their work, the guiding principles of their profession or discipline, and their lived experience. The complex layering of these beams of light makes a university in the moment.  We need these beams shining every which way.

But we also need a beacon. A beacon is not for the moment; it is for the future. It shows what we are not but what we may become.

People should have their voices heard. But people also want to recognize themselves in a vision they did not make, in words that stir the limbs. They want to say “Amen!”

A long view on COVID-19

Josep Pla i Casadevall was a Spanish journalist and author who wrote in the language of his native Catalonia. A while ago, I picked up a translation of his journals from 1918-19, when he was a student in his early 20s. The university he was attending was shut due to the influenza pandemic, so he whiled away his days and nights at home and in the cafés of his home town.

When Pla’s university reopened in early 1919, he returned to Barcelona and reunited with friends and fellow students. He wrote in his journal, “We greet one another with the usual noisy glee but keep our distance, as ever – a distance that seems so small, yet is perhaps quite considerable.” (1)

While I was reading Pla, COVID-19 arrived. Even as I digest our university’s evolving plan for responding to the pandemic, I know that this event will not be anything like the so-called Spanish flu. The current pandemic is serious, but the world has changed. Governments and organizations, including my own university, are taking decisive action to slow it down and prevent disaster. Individuals are making behavioural changes to keep their families and communities safe. Disruptions to routine will be severe, but brief. Millions of lives will be saved.

It is too early to eulogize this virus. But the lesson I’ve already drawn from this event is that humanity is perfectly capable of mobilizing against any threat. Despite abundant evidence, we are not our own worst enemies. We harm the earth, we are xenophobic, we make bad choices at the ballot box – yet we manage to engage in collective action for the greater good.

Remember climate change? That thing we seemed too mired in inaction to deal with? Measures unthinkable in normal times have already come to pass. By choice or force, nations and individuals alike have altered behaviours and made hard decisions.

COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary and will be undone when life returns to normal. What’s more interesting to me is how quickly the status quo can change. How people’s mindsets and behaviours can change. Yes, we are capable of swift, coordinated action, informed by science and motivated by concern for our fellow citizens.

Universities are founded on the idea that human progress is possible. But progress is never inevitable. It requires work. Some of that work takes place in the university. Climate change can be addressed through gentler measures than we are employing against COVID-19, but they must be sustained over many years.

We can do this, if we absorb this lesson of hope in humanity. As I dust off our unit’s business continuity plan, it is this, more than anything else, that tells me why business continuity is important.


1. “The Gray Notebook,” by Josep Pla, NYRB Classics, New York, 2014, pp. 320-321

What universities can learn from the demise of newspapers

The Newseum in Washington DC, struggling financially for more than a decade, closed its doors to the public on December 31. I was fortunate to visit a few years ago, and the loss makes me sad. The fate of this museum, dedicated to the history of journalism and the free press, seems symbolic of the fate of print journalism itself. Newspapers, once mainstays of democratic societies, have largely gone by the wayside.

Universities are like news organizations in that in the free world, they are institutions that have always defined themselves. I hope universities do not make the same mistakes committed by the business of journalism.

Technology has changed the way people consume news. But the demise of newspapers is not primarily due to technology. It’s due to the bungling ways media organizations responded to technology. They conspired in their own disruption.

Newspapers are dead because for decades they tried to be everything except what they were. They turned their backs on their strengths – context, judgement, authoritativeness, thoroughness, trustworthiness – while trying to imitate their supposed rivals.

Newspapers were already in trouble when I graduated from journalism school into a tight job market thirty years ago. And the roots go back much farther than that. When radio entered people’s homes, newspapers tried to become like radio, choosing speed and sensationalism over accuracy. In response to television, newspapers became more colourful, image-oriented, and with much shorter stories. By the time the internet was ascendant, in the public’s mind newspapers had no purpose distinct from the alternatives.

Online classified advertising erased corporate profits, but the newspaper itself was already irrelevant, easily displaced by the cheap substitutes it had come to resemble.

Microwaves were supposed to replace ovens, but ovens continued to do what they always did really well, and today microwaves are mainly used to rewarm our coffee. Newspapers cut their newsrooms, turned themselves into apps offering the same content as their rivals, and most of them got crushed.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Near as I can tell, universities are healthy. Online learning has hardly been a death blow. Not because online learning is bad, but because it’s a microwave oven. The university – that blend of social, physical proximity and shelter for solitude and quiet – that balance of conversation and contemplation – is very hard to substitute.

Universities do change, and must change. But to remain relevant, they must also tenaciously cling to what they are at their core, not try to imitate everything out there that they are not.

Talking about where your university is going

If you have the chance to be involved in conversations about strategic planning for your institution, don’t miss the opportunity. The strategic direction will influence what your department does, not least because the priorities in your next campaign might depend on it. What better way to understand it and live it than to have contributed in some small way?

I recently participated in discussion circles convened by our acting president, a step toward developing the new strategic direction. Participants had a choice of which group to join, and I gravitated toward one table discussing the purpose of the institution and its role in society, and a second table discussing the student experience.

I haven’t been in a classroom or library in many years, I do not interact frequently with students, and I do not regularly grapple with our institution’s purpose. But I discovered I have a lot of questions about universities, and I enjoyed hearing the diverse perspectives of people from across the institution. It was time well-spent away from the desk.

At the first table, a co-participant talked about the difference between educating students for work and education them for “life.” This got me thinking about how well universities foster the development of students’ inner lives.

We no doubt do a great job promoting and enabling conversation and connection – group work and collaborative working spaces abound, as they should. But do students have time and space for study and solitary reflection, for consolidating their learning, for building a self? Is residence a place where a student can study? Is the library still a quiet place for reading and writing?

If recent graduates seem to have high expectations for compensation and rapid career advancement, offering their hard-earned degree as evidence, have universities been complicit in implying that university, although expensive, is an investment that is meant to quickly pay off monetarily? Have we unintentionally contributed to fostering a relationship mainly characterized as transactional? What does that bode for their lives as alumni? Will the societal mission of the institution matter to them? Is the expense of education and its perceived transactional nature detrimental to a sense of play and being adventuresome in learning? Is making mistakes now too expensive? Are the stakes so high that the pressure is contributing to students’ mental health issues?

My point is not that I had awesome questions, but that I was stimulated to have so many questions. You will wonder about different things.

“What is a university for?” and “What do students believe university is for?” might not sound like Advancement questions, but now I think they are.