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!”

Learning in the time of COVID

My university recently launched a new app. The app is intended for students, but staff are able to get it and I was curious, so I put it on my phone. Messages and posts are a feature of the app, and every so often now my phone comes to life:

“Is anyone taking Physiology 1001 or Microbiology 1011 and want a study buddy? I’m your gal!”

The vast majority of students here are attending classes online from wherever they happen to be. Their messages on the app are like flashes from fireflies across a dark field, distant and lonely:

“Hey, there is supposed to be a synchronous session today for Chem 1011 class at 1 p.m. ADT anyone know how is it gonna go or in which platform?”

I will need to turn off notifications, or delete the app, but for now I’m reflecting on these tiny, isolated beacons:

“When I try to add my courses through the search it doesn’t work. Can anyone help?”

This year’s students are going to get an education. At least, we are all going to do our best. The two most common words in student posts seem to be “pain” and “crying.” There are also a lot of hilarious memes (most of which I’m not current enough to understand), but one suspects these are fronts for the pain and the crying.

It is sad. Education, career, romance, family life – any life – the environment for twenty-somethings is so different now. If there was ever a time when the advice of an older generation was of no use, now would be that time.

Young students may not be listening anyway. Across North America, many attending university in person are ignoring warnings about partying and physical proximity. Open doors and bad planning have invited predictable surges in infections. Students’ apparent disregard for others brings condemnation down on their heads: they are entitled, selfish, and believe themselves invincible.

I try to remember myself as an undergrad. I will own up to entitlement and selfishness, but I don’t recall feeling invincible. I felt insignificant, in fact, a feeling I countered by trying to make people laugh. Some of the supposed humour was hurtful to others. It took a while to learn this. I didn’t seem to think I could hurt anyone – I didn’t think I had that power.

I’m reminded of another app on my phone, which while I was still commuting to work told me where all the transit buses were in relation to my location. Once in a while I would miss the stop where I was supposed to transfer and would be taken off course up the wrong street. I had knowledge of location of things in the world but where I myself was, I did not know.

This is how undergrads arrive on campus. They know where their friends are but don’t know where they themselves are. Higher education enables students to connect the conduct of their personal lives to the welfare of others outside the small circle of their friends and family. We might associate that aim with liberal arts, but every course of study should contain this thread, which is about purpose and vocation.

Vocation is a freely-chosen sense of responsibility to society. If a student is lucky, he or she stumbles into purpose through a haphazard exploration of possibilities. It’s not efficient and it’s definitely not cheap. It’s pursued through the interplay of outer and inner worlds that a university provides: class work and conversation and socializing balanced with study and reflection and discovery. That outer is deeply impaired at the moment but will return. Now is the time to put away the phone and work on the oft-neglected inner.

There is no excuse for willfully endangering the health of our communities. But I have to believe that the majority of students are feeling, under that don’t-care swagger, a sense of powerlessness. They are not yet aware of their agency, of their astonishing power to help or to harm.

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

Effective data governance requires a leadership mindset

The path to establishing effective institutional data governance might never be smooth, but some paths are smoother than others.

Success is more likely when people know their prime object is to advance the mission of the institution. Leaders recognize that data governance is the policy framework that establishes that key administrative data, regardless of where it is created or where it resides, is an asset of the institution, to be used to guide strategy and decision-making.

Success is less likely when people are primarily advocates for their area of custodianship or for a set of professional principles. Issues of confidentiality, security, data management, and protection of personal information are important, but do not define the core value proposition of data governance.

Advocates see policy through a lens that takes on the colour of their subject-matter expertise. Leaders appreciate the importance of these considerations, but strive to place those important pieces in proper relation to the value proposition.

The beauty is that advocacy vs. leadership isn’t about rank. You get to choose which role to play, and when. When you advise, you might do best to be an advocate. When you get to frame policy, you need to be a leader.

Data governance requires both mindsets, but ultimately leadership must prevail.

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.

The future of AI is not what you think

The website Talk to Transformer lets you to play with a new machine learning model that has been trained to write complete sentences. You type a snippet of text, hit “Go,” and artificial intelligence takes over, riffing off the sentence you’ve entered to generate grammatically-correct text in response.

Think of Gmail (and now Outlook) and its suggestions for how to respond, only way more sophisticated. The model, a neural net called GPT-2, has been trained on a massive corpus of texts to enable it to write a plausible follow-up.

I’ve been having some fun with it. In fact, GPT-2 has written the last sentence of every paragraph in this blog post that follows. Does it write better than me? Maybe. Does it write better than any editor I’ve ever encountered?

It’s a neat trick. And that’s the problem. It’s just a trick. Impressive as it might be, the machine does one thing: it predicts the next word, based on statistical probabilities. It can’t sustain a thought, it can’t reason, it can’t conceptualize. And when the next word doesn’t come, you can’t hold onto a question or an idea. It stays very much in the present.

The current state of AI is prediction without understanding. The current state of AI has not yet reached a state where the machine can achieve the level of human understanding necessary to properly and successfully interact with its target. We believe there is more than enough room for improvement in this area.

Developments in AI, impressive as they are, will soon hit a dead end if we continue to regard intelligence as a computational problem. Thinking and feeling are not math. Pattern detection and prediction will take us only so far and neither will approach the capability of a human. Just as computer programs cannot be downloaded into human brains, human minds cannot be re-programmed and deep learning will not be able to solve very complex problems.

We have hold of the wrong metaphor. The brain is not a computer. We are focused on the neuron when the real magic is the connection between neurons. The brain is physical stuff, but it is immaterial relationships between material neurons that give rise to consciousness. The interval between two musical notes is not physical, it’s a relationship – the immaterial soul of music. The neurons we are targeting here are the ones that connect us to the spiritual universe, not the one that tells your tv remote which channel to turn on.

The big challenges and the big opportunities are not the property of the first discipline that comes to mind. The next big break in AI, or climate change, or economic inequality, or space exploration, will depend as much on the humanities as science. They are outside the realm of the current discipline. I’m looking for the broken pieces. The area where I have some hope for both the humanities and the sciences is in education.

That’s why universities are the most exciting places to work today. Where else will we discover the better metaphor, unlock the invisible music between two pitches? The university in this painting is a child learning to use a spoon, a child of a like mind on a quest to find the best spoon. The youth’s quest has driven the material into form, coloured with a painterly sense of pathos.

Oh wow – okay.

Philosophy and physics: The future belongs to institutions that combine unlike disciplines to ignite such sparks the world has never seen.

9 questions about university strategic direction and your next campaign

1. How long ago did your institution last develop a new strategic direction or strategic plan? Less than seven years ago?

2. Is it likely to radically change? Or does it just need to evolve?

3. Will the priorities of your next comprehensive campaign be determined by the institution’s strategic planning process?

4. If yes, what would it take to explicitly reframe the purpose of strategic planning as setting priorities for the next campaign?

5. How would that stated motivation shape the planning process?

6. Can we ask, “What investments are required in the next seven years to realize our strategy and fulfill our mission?” Can we ask, “What partnerships with stakeholders can we pursue so together we can do the things we want to do for students, in the community, for society?”

7. Might the entire institution “own” the campaign as a result, not just Advancement?

8. Might engaging external stakeholders in strategic planning be elevated in importance?

9. How do you feel about Advancement helping to guide the strategic planning process and not only participating?

If your university’s current strategic document includes some variant of “raise more money” as a goal, then consider whether that is really a goal, or a means to realizing goals.

(These questions are inspired by the book chapter, “Strategy as the Foundation for Advancement”, by Darrow Zeidenstein, in the 2019 book, “Advancing Higher Education: New Strategies for Fundraising, Philanthropy, and Engagement”, edited by Michael J. Worth and Matthew T. Lambert, published by Rowman & Littlefield. I recommend it.)

Working with academic leaders

Advancement Operations participates in the university mission beyond supporting our development, engagement, and marketing colleagues. We work with others across the university, which sometimes includes academic deans.

Understandably, deans are more likely to spend time with development and engagement leaders than they are to be interested in matters of processing gifts or managing alumni and donor data. Before we seek access or a seat at the table, we need to be clear about what deans ought to care about and why.

Advancement Operations serves academic divisions (in Canada, “faculties”) in direct ways. We manage the records and information of their alumni and donors, generate invitation lists for their events, facilitate the spending of gifts in accordance with donor intent, provide intelligence via reporting and benchmarking – and so on. When academic leaders are unaware of all that Advancement does, the result can be duplication of functions and undesirable behaviours that put the institution at risk.

To my mind, this is not quite enough reason to seek direct and regular access to deans. Clear policy and good working relationships with administrative staff reporting to the dean can go a long way. As well, Advancement colleagues who do meet with deans should be quite capable of conveying the general nature of operational supports that benefit academic units. To help them, I provide a one-page summary of these supports.

A larger concern is the quality of the relationship between Advancement and the academy. We can accomplish more together when there is trust in the professionalism and sophistication of the advancement organization, of which Operations is an integral part. It’s being able to show that decisions are based on evidence, that relationships with alumni and supporters are managed effectively, that donors are connected with relevant opportunities.

Perhaps the Operations story can be delivered directly to new deans and then refreshed once a year. Whichever way we seek to engage with academic leaders, it’s best to keep it relevant to their needs, and especially to the needs of the Advancement relationship.

(Thank you to Kevin Kardasz of University of Ottawa, Chris Armitage of Trent University, and Sarah Clarke of Carleton University for their thoughts.)