The Public Responsibilities of Universities

Universities in a Global Marketplace

It certainly feels like there has been much talk of the role of universities in the marketplace of late.  It also seems that much of this discussion is presented from an increasingly sensitive, and at times defensive perspective.  Although much of my professional focus has been within colleges and polytechnics, conference planners for an upcoming Eurasia Higher Education Conference have asked me to share my views on the future responsibilities of a modern university. This abstract reflects early thoughts related to this topic.

Four Historical Responsibilities of a University

A university’s historical responsibilities include four broad themes. First, universities have contributed to the creation and preservation of civil society.  In addition, universities have also had the responsibility to enhance a region’s economic well-being and to develop artistic and human values.  Finally and more recently, universities have had the responsibility to serve as an accelerator of change (although the efficacy of accomplishing this last responsibility has been scrutinized recently).

Over the years, these responsibilities have served both the university and their communities well. However, the task for higher education leaders now is to test the currency of these traditional responsibilities. University leaders must face higher education’s paradox that the responsibilities that guided their university to success today may not be the same responsibilities that will make it successful in the future.  In my view, higher educational leaders must rethink a university’s responsibilities if  these important institutions are contribute to success tomorrow.

The University’s Responsibility

Civility and open public discourse are accepted norms of behavior at modern universities. Almost every social change in North America was incubated to some degree on a university campus. With this demonstrable success, it would seem reasonable that a university’s future responsibilities might best be reflected in those of the status quo. However, universities exist within a global economy that has become ultracompetitive and within a domestic environment that is often resource constrained.  This constrained resource perspective cannot be understated, particularly in Ontario.  Over the last several years, Ontario has retrenched itself as Canada’s lowest funded higher education system and recent budget announcements makes it apparent that the Province is not likely to relinquish this lowly position at any time soon.

Within this context, I believe that higher education leaders should consider realigning their traditional responsibilities into two priorities:

  1. The University as Economic Catalyst – Higher education leaders must embrace the university’s responsibility to positively impact long-term economic and social prosperity.  Universities are uniquely positioned to be a community’s economic engine and these institutions must rethink their learning environment to ensure curricula meets the professional needs of industry. A university’s first responsibility is to educate and prepare graduates who can contribute to the economic prosperity of the community the university was meant to serve.  Note: To champions of liberal arts programming, this responsibility is not necessarily in competition to arts programming, yet I do believe arts programming must be adjusted to include professional learning outcomes.
  2. The University as Innovation Generator – Higher education leaders should heed the advice of Irish poet Brendan Kennelly who wrote, “The best way to serve the age is to betray it”.  University leaders need to create internal operating systems that encourage innovation and measure entrepreneurial outcomes. Universities have significant capital assets and intellectual power that must be harnessed to support the economic growth of their communities. A university has the responsibility to focus more of its effort on research that can be commercialized and developed. A university’s second responsibility is to serve the age by leading the region’s research and innovation agenda.

The Community’s Responsibility

Universities cannot work in isolation.  Their success is related to the broader governance framework in which they operate.  With a renewed focus on a university’s economic and innovation responsibilities, that same renewal must be applied to the community in which the university operates.  That is, universities do not operate in isolation and their success is greatly influenced by public policy. Universities will be more successful in achieving these two primary responsibilities above when they can operate in a political and economic environment that provides autonomy, empowers innovation and encourages private investment.

In many jurisdictions, and certainly in  Ontario, there is a growing interest by political leaders to get more involved in the operations of universities (and certainly colleges).  A university’s sustained quality, relevance and growth requires a managing environment whereby the university is left to operate within a relative autonomy that is free from centralized control and one in which innovation is rewarded.  We can only hope that universities are unleashed from this increasingly centralized approach to university governance so that they can best execute the two primary responsibilities that will ensure their long-term relevance and success.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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