Universities: Enduring opportunity equalizers

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Universities… are the great opportunity equalizers. They are society’s educators, generators of new ideas, and engines of social, cultural and economic prosperity.  

Clark Kerr, one of North America’s most influential university administrators of the 20th century, once observed that there are only about 75 public institutions in the western world founded before the Reformation which are still around, doing much the same things they always have.

Of those 75, sixty of them are universities. The others include the Roman Catholic Church, the parliament of Iceland, and a handful of Belgium breweries.

What a powerful testament to the role universities play in society.

What is it that explains their value and endurance?

Universities endure because of their unique role. Universities hold us all to account.

No other institution in society has as its ultimate purpose the search for truth and knowledge.

No other institution has the freedom to undertake curiosity-driven research, research that may have no apparent utility but from which we know all major social, scientific, and technical innovations flow.

No other institution has the license—indeed the responsibility—to pass on the value of such pursuits to the next generation, so that they can become critical, creative thinkers, citizens, and leaders able to deal with our ever-changing and uncertain future.

Universities endure because they reflect and champion fundamental democratic values of intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression, and the equal rights and dignity of all persons.

Recent events remind us of how fragile these values can be and how vitally important it is that universities protect and sustain a space where free thinking is championed above all.

In doing so, universities maintain the public trust. With that come important social responsibilities that few other institutions are afforded—to question accepted truths, refute tired assumptions, and re-imagine the possible.

Universities endure because, at their best, they mirror the diversity, multiplicity, and complexity of nature and society. Biology has taught us that mono-cultures always fail—resilience, adaptation, innovation, and development does not occur in a homogeneous environment.

So too in human cultures—resilience, adaptation, innovation, and development come out of communities where conflicting perspectives, experiences, approaches, and truths can flourish, clash, adapt, transform, and connect.

That is the university and that is why universities endure.

David H. Turpin was installed as the 13th President of the University of Alberta on November 16, 2015. The above slightly edited excerpt from his installation speech speaks to the vital role of universities in society, and why these institutions endure. To read the full speech, visit: http://blog.ualberta.ca/2015/11/together-let-us-build-better-community.html