Institutional insularity is a problem one finds everywhere. Interestingly, very few people see it that way due in large part to self-reinforcing loopbacks. Take universities for example and more specifically, Simon Fraser University’s April 17, 2014 City Conversation (in Vancouver, Canada) featuring Dr. Arvind Gupta (as of July 2014, president of the University of British Columbia) in a presentation titled: Creativity! Connection! Innovation!
Contrary to the hope I expressed in my April 14, 2014 post about the then upcoming event, this was largely an exercise in self-reference. Predictably with the flyer they used to advertise the event (the text was reproduced in its entirety in my April 14, 2014 posting), over 90% in the audiences (Vancouver, Burnaby, and Surrey campuses) were associated with one university or another. Adding to the overwhelmingly ‘insider’ feel of this event, the speaker brought with him two students who had benefited from the organization he currently leads, Mitacs (a Canadian not-for-profit organization that offers funding for internships and fellowships at Canadian universities and formerly a mathematics NCE (Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada program; a Canadian federal government program).
Despite the fact that this was billed as a ‘city conversation’ the talk focused largely on universities and their role in efforts to make Canada more productive and the wonderfulness of Mitacs. Unfortunately, what I wanted to hear and talk about was how Gupta, the students, and audience members saw the role of universities in cities, with a special reference to science.
It was less ‘city’ conversation and more ‘let’s focus on ourselves and our issues’ conversation. Mitacs, Canada’s productivity, and discussion about universities and innovation is of little inherent interest to anyone outside a select group of policy wonks (i.e., government and academe).
The conversation was self-referential until the very end. In the last minutes Gupta mentioned cities and science in the context of how cities in other parts of the world are actively supporting science. (For more about this interest elsewhere, you might find this Oct. 21, 2010 posting which features an article by Richard Van Noorden titled, Cities: Building the best cities for science; Which urban regions produce the best research — and can their success be replicated? as illuminating as I did.)
i wish Gupta had started with the last topic he introduced because Vancouverites have a lot of interest in science. In the last two years, TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, has held a number of events at Science World and elsewhere which have been fully booked with waiting lists. The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies has also held numerous science-themed events which routinely have waiting lists despite being held in one of Vancouver’s largest theatre venues.
If universities really want to invite outsiders into their environs and have city conversations, they need to follow through on the promise (e.g. talking about cities and science in a series titled “City Conversations”), as well as, do a better job of publicizing their events, encouraging people to enter their sacred portals, and addressing their ‘outsider’ audiences.
By the way, I have a few hints for the student speakers,
- don’t scold your audience (you may find Canadians’ use of space shocking but please keep your indignation and sense of superiority to yourself)
- before you start lecturing (at length) about the importance of interdisciplinary work, you might want to assess your audience’s understanding, otherwise you may find yourself preaching to the choir and/or losing your audience’s attention
- before you start complaining that there’s no longer a mandatory retirement age and suggesting that this is the reason you can’t get a university job you may want to consider a few things: (1) your audience’s average age, in this case, I’d estimate that it was at least 50 and consequently not likely to be as sympathetic as you might like (2) the people who work past mandatory retirement may need the money or are you suggesting your needs are inherently more important? (3) whether or not a few people stay on past their ‘retirement’ age has less to do with your university job prospects than demographics and that’s a numbers game (not sure why I’d have to point that out to someone who’s associated with a mathematics organization such as Mitacs)
I expect no one has spoken or will speak to the organizers, Gupta, or the students other than to give them compliments. In fact, it’s unlikely there will be any real critique of having this presentation as part of a series titled “City Conversations” and that brings this posting back to institutional insularity. This problem is everywhere not just in universities and I’m increasingly interested in approaches to mitigating the tendency. If there’s anyone out there who knows of any examples where insularity has been tackled, please do leave a comment and, if possible, links.