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What is the role of universities in modern society?

May 1, 2015 — 

The final Visionary Conversations of 2014/2015 featured a discussion on the role of universities in today’s society. The panel of experts talked about what universities need to do in order to continue to survive, and what these institutions can uniquely provide to our communities.

Jeffery Taylor, dean of the faculty of arts and professor of history, opened up the evening with a presentation on the type of education students will receive in the 21st century. “The best universities in the 21st century will offer flexible learning and multiple pathways,” said Taylor, who specializes in the history of Canadian labour. According to Taylor, modern universities will need to recognize the learning that occurs outside of the labs and lecture halls.

The next presentation of the evening came from Doug McCartney, senior executive director of science, innovation and business development for the province of Manitoba. McCartney discussed the new economic reality that is changing how universities operate.

McCartney cited the example of Exigence Technologies, a company formed by two MBA students at the U of M, in collaboration with a researcher from the faculty of human ecology.

McCartney also discussed the need for increased collaboration between universities and businesses, colleges, industry groups and community groups. “Universities need a vision for what their role is in the broader community,” said McCartney. He continued by explaining that university students that recognize their place within the broader community are able to gain insight into their global reach. “I would hope that every student gains an appreciation for for their global impact,” explained McCartney.

The U of M’s students, faculty, staff and alumni are actively engaged in communities around the world. Launched in 2014, the Community Stories website shows the global reach of the University.

Sharon Macdonald, associate professor in the faculty of health sciences, began her presentation by referring to a very recent op-ed written by David Barnard, president and vice-chancellor of the U of M. “As community partners, universities have a responsibility to support our citizens and economy,” writes Barnard. Macdonald built on Barnard’s thoughts when she discussed the need for engaged scholarship, which Macdonald explained as the connection between the university and the community.

One of the primary roles of the university is to train future workers and leaders. Macdonald discussed some of the key outcomes graduates need in order to be responsible and connected members of our communities. “I would hope that every U of M graduate has an ethical framework, is able to operate with other people, and every student should have some training in the humanities,” said Macdonald.

Jeffery Taylor continued with this idea, discussing outcomes that are not necessarily tied to traditional methods of classroom learning. “I hope that every graduate has the skills to receive wisdom, question authority, and come to their own conclusions,” said Taylor.

The role of universities in modern society may not be apparent, but this conversation made it clear that a spirit of collaboration and a focus on providing value to the community (wherever that community may be) will lead these institutions forward.


This discussion wrapped up Visionary Conversations for 2014/15. Stay tuned for information about the Visionary Conversations in 2015/16.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.


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