Although universities such as UBC have become among the largest employers in the nation with multi-billion dollar budgets and even larger economic impact, universities are not businesses.
Universities have a much more profound responsibility to society as we know it today. But perhaps more importantly, universities have a responsibility to future generations. Universities are the archives of the universe of knowledge upon which current day society has been built.
Universities are the source of new ideas and values upon which future society will be built. Universities are the guardians of truth and culture. Universities are incubators for future leaders. Universities are (and should forever be) venues for critical inquiry and debate where the values of future society will emerge. No institution will influence what the future world will look like more than the research university.
Two sentiments about universities have become increasingly common in recent years. First, some people say that universities are out of touch with reality. They exist in their isolated academic silos and have no real sense of what life is like for regular people. Second, some people will tell you that getting a university degree is a waste of time and money unless that degree leads directly to a specific career path.
As you might suspect, I disagree with both these sentiments.
Yes, Santa is his real name.
To be fair, the 15th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia is necessarily biased in his opinion. He’s got plenty of skin in the game and it is decidedly in his best interest that universities continue to play a prominent role in society, both from a cultural and a funding perspective.
Many people falsely assume that the primary role of a university like UBC is to collect tuition and to teach students. Certainly, education is a vital function, but we have to remember that places like UBC are research universities, first and foremost. I got to see some of that research first hand, both as a visitor and during my time there as an undergraduate. This is how we can continue to advance the expanses of human knowledge.
Universities are uniquely positioned in our society. They look to the past, protecting the knowledge and wisdom that we have gained thus far. They look to the present, considering solutions to today’s problems. And they look to the future, providing an environment where tomorrow’s leaders can prepare for the challenges ahead.
It’s not about rote memorization of the contents of a textbook. It’s not about a particular exam or assignment. It’s about encouraging skepticism and practicing the techniques we have to approach these challenges. It’s not about teaching what to think as much as it is about how to think critically and systematically.
Circumstances allowing, pursuing a higher education is never a waste of time and supporting the ongoing research at these institutions is a worthy investment in our future. What will tomorrow bring?