The annual State of the Academy address is meant to be an opportunity for the Provost’s office to share information with the rest of the university on the school’s progress over the year. But this time, it was supposed to be different.
The 2012 State of the Academy was promoted for its “new format,” a conversation between university administrators and the greater campus community, rather than a speech. According to current Provost David Wilkinson, it was meant to “engage [McMaster] in a cross-campus dialogue.”
Convocation Hall, equipped with two audience microphones, reflected this change. Wilkinson and university president Patrick Deane, who joined him for the presentation, were seated comfortably in armchairs at the front of the room.
In elaborating on talking points offered by moderator Gord Arbeau, Director of Public and Community Relations, the two administrators made it clear that their impression of McMaster’s current situation was positive.
“When you look at the [McMaster University Factbook], what it would show you is that…as an institution we’re doing very well in difficult times,” said Wilkinson.
“There are lots of great things going on, lots of challenges, but the future really looks rosy at McMaster.”
Although a variety of topics were offered for discussion, the speeches from both Deane and Wilkinson circled back to “Forward with Integrity,” the president’s 2011 letter that offered a set of guiding principles for McMaster as it moves forward.
The emphasis of the presentation, in conjunction with “Forward with Integrity,” was to “rephrase” the goals of McMaster, and to reemphasize the “research-focused, student-centred” nature of Mac.
“We’re at a phase in laying out our sense of the institution’s future in which we need to build on what has been strong historically here and that very close connection between teaching and research, which is part of the Mac culture [and] has been since the beginning,” Deane explained. The president was intent on underlining McMaster’s reputation, reaffirming that “we are an institution devoted to learning through inquiry and discovery.” He encouraged students and faculty to “bring…[the] power of the critical and inquiring mind.”
It was broader ideas like these that made up the bulk of the presentation.
In addition to the university’s culture, Deane and Wilkinson also touched on such initiatives as the “learning portfolio,” a new emphasis on experiential education that was encouraged by “Forward with Integrity.”
“[We want] students [to] actually have a portfolio of experiences that extends beyond what shows up on their transcripts,” said Wilkinson.
The most controversial topic of discussion was the internationalization of McMaster, something the president has admitted to not always being comfortable with.
“I am very much averse to what I regard as an exploitative model of higher internationalized higher education,” Deane said, elaborating further to say that he is “not persuaded, either in terms of the long-term benefits or the ethical compulsions of this model which basically sees the world as a market to be drawn on to subsidize our current operations.”
International students now make up roughly five per cent of McMaster’s student body. The recruitment of these students is seen by many universities to be an economic benefit because of the hefty additional fees they pay. Deane emphasized that true internationalization would involve “being changed by the students who are invited to come here.”
It seemed that the audience, made up primarily of faculty and staff, with only a small representation of students, was not moved by this, or any other topics. When the floor was opened to questions, no one in the audience stepped up. Despite the insistence on dialogue, the new townhall format did not result in the high amount of audience participation that was initially envisioned.