We, the academic elite,
need to reach out
by Martha Crago
ou will have to bear with me. I am both
a Canadian and an American citizen.
I am also an inveterate reader of The New
Yorker magazine, whose weekly arrival I
This year my stack dated back to early November. Sitting down to read them reminded me
where I was during the weeks before and after
the U.S. presidential election.
On election night I was in Ottawa at the
Canadian Science Policy Conference, where
colleagues and I watched the results. Confronted
by an unexpected new reality, I began to wonder
what it meant for our universities.
A little over a week later, I was with fellow
panelists of the Advisory Panel on Federal Funding of Fundamental Research. Anne Wilson, a
panel member and astute social psychologist
from Wilfrid Laurier University, suggested we
read American Amnesia, a book by Jacob Hacker
and Paul Pierson (co-director of the CIFAR Successful Societies Program). The book sketches out
the socio-political process that has contributed
to the public's rising distrust in government and
suspicion of “elite” thinkers which have set the
stage for the recent election’s surprising outcome.
Dr. Wilson reminded us that a similar phenomenon could happen here in Canada and queried
how we could keep our universities relevant and
understood to be useful by the electorate.
I promptly, thereafter, buried these thoughts
under holiday merriment until late in December,
“Many Americans [have] lost faith in a govern-
ment that has failed to address widening inequal-
ity, and in policy-makers and academics and
journalists who have barely noticed it.”
By January 10 (and several New Yorkers later),
I heard outgoing President Obama also invoke
our universities’ responsibilities to engage when
he said, “For too many of us it’s become safer
to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our
neighborhoods, or on college campuses ... sur-
rounded by people who look like us and share
the same political outlook.” By now, I had started
to think hard about how universities are impli-
cated in the state of North American society, and
about what we need to do to address what was
staring us in the face come inauguration day.
As universities, we are clearly facing a challenge. We need to ask ourselves how we will
make our teaching and research relevant, understood and useful to people on both sides of the
inequality gap, as well as what to do about that
gap. People need to know and understand how
what we do is related to their well-being. We need
to educate our students to understand fact from
fiction, to produce and interpret evidence, to
grasp social inequalities and where they come
from, to value diversity and – last but not least –
to prepare them for an ever-changing job market.
This brings me to another holiday read,
Elizabeth Kolbert’s article, “Our Automated
Future,” with the subhead, “How long will it be
before you lose your job to a robot?” (New Yorker,
December 19 and 26 issue). Canadian research-
ers have become among the world leaders
in artificial intelligence, the very science whose
impact Ms. Kolbert describes in her article.
She demonstrates how these new and exciting
frontiers of knowledge have, perhaps uninten-
tionally, led to job stagnation for the very middle-
class voter who has become disenfranchised
from academics and other elites.
On the flip side, we are in an era of fascinating and exciting innovation that has the capacity
to improve many aspects of peoples’ lives. Yet,
some of these inventions have made a relatively
small group of people very wealthy while others
lose their jobs. In his farewell speech, Mr. Obama
said, “The next wave of dislocations won’t come
from overseas, it will come from a relentless pace
of automation that makes a lot of middle-class
jobs obsolete.” This led me to two simple-minded
questions: When robots take over jobs, will they
pay taxes? And, if not, how will our governments
afford research funding, never mind health care?
My holiday reading has left me convinced
that, for the citizenry to elect politicians who are
dedicated to the cause of university education
and research, we need to make our work, our
ideas and our campuses accessible and meaningful to all, not just our students and ourselves. We
need to become aware of the social realities that
set us apart from many of our fellow citizens and
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie University.
Her column appears in every
second issue of University Affairs.
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