Let’s dare to think and act
boldly in our universities
by Martha Crago
combination of events set me thinking
about “boldness” this summer and early
fall. Just before summer started, one of
our researchers at Dalhousie University,
Jeff Dahn, signed a contract with U.S.
electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors. This
led to a visit by Tesla’s chief technical officer, JB
Straubel, complete with a bright red Tesla that
was flown in for the occasion. Tesla’s vision as
laid out by Mr. Straubel was bold and dynamic.
After his visit, some of us read a biography
about Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX,
and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee
Vance. I took it on my vacation in July and could
not put it down. The expansiveness of Musk’s
vision, boldness and risk-taking were astounding
and very instructive to think about. I wondered
what the university equivalent of such boldness
has been and could be.
Later in the summer, I accompanied the premier of Nova Scotia on a trip to China where we
visited a new campus of Shandong University
in Qingdao. This new, not yet completed campus,
located in a port city a few hundred kilometers
from the main inland university, will focus on
marine science. In the next five years the plan is
to build a campus with over 20 academic buildings, a sports stadium, numerous tennis courts,
a major museum and library, and several student
residences. It will be located near to two large
new government institutes for ocean sciences
and a 10-storey tank of ocean water for experiments. Nearby, five research ships are stationed.
The campus will be co-located with a very large
number of housing units for professors and their
families and with an innovation centre that is
expected to have several high-rise office towers.
This is but one of the elements in the Chinese government’s Maritime Silk Road strategic
initiative to increase its ocean-based economy.
There are at least two other universities building
similar campuses in other cities along the South
China Sea. As our Nova Scotia delegation stood
in one of the first four buildings looking at a
model of what was to come, our mouths fell open
and we muttered in unison, “What a remarkably
bold plan.” In five years’ time they expect to have
25,000 students and a thousand professors on
this very large campus built from scratch with
the help of some international partners.
This set me to wonder if Canada had ever put
a new university in place so rapidly and so boldly.
In fact, yes, this has occurred. Simon Fraser University, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary
this year, was reportedly built in 18 months – a
bold space-age building located on the top of a
The Université du Québec system, modelled
after the state systems in the United States, is
another striking example that has happened in
the last 50 years. Université du Québec à Montréal, part of that system, situated in the heart of
downtown Montreal, was constructed around
the façade and remnants of a cathedral, an iconoclastic symbol of the church giving way to the
Quiet Revolution. Moreover, UQAM adopted a
bold new academic structure that does not have
traditional faculties and departments.
Finally, while I was in China, the body of
Alan Kurdi focused the attention of the world
on the plight of the Syrian refugees that are part
of the mass migration to Europe. In the midst of
this international crisis, German Chancellor
Angela Merkel and her country, in a bold act of
political courage and humanity, opened their
border to several hundred thousand refugees. I
have wondered what acts of courage and boldness universities will undertake in relation to
these refugees? Ryerson University was the most
proactive of the Canadian universities when it
had the vision to begin its Lifeline Syria Challenge
a few months ago.
Thinking about bold acts and ideas has
reminded me of when I was pregnant with my
third child and the other two were under the age
of four, and I found this quote by Goethe while
I was walking past a church on Sherbrooke
Street in Montreal: “Whatever you do or dream,
begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic
in it.” I wrote it down on a slip of paper and
immediately went to the graduate studies office
at McGill to apply to do my PhD, which I completed in the next four years, taking my children
with me on my fieldwork in the Arctic.
I have often wondered if it was bold or crazy
to do so. With time, I have decided it was the
former. Those words of Goethe’s sit near my desk
at home even today as I am writing this, urging
me – and all of us students, professors and staff –
to think bold thoughts and take bold actions in
our universities. They could have power and
magic in them.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie
University. Her column
appears in every second issue
of University Affairs.
Cet article est également
disponible en français
sur notre site web,