As I write in the July Report, the Maple League of Universities was originally created to solve a wicked problem. The wicked problem was a lack of awareness or understanding of quality undergraduate education in Canada. I’d like to expand on this idea here and carry this framework into the fall through a series of virtual visioning sessions with diverse thought partners.
A recap of the original wicked problem (excerpted from the July report): “Prospective students, parents, and policymakers were not, for the most part, able to articulate the differences in student experience between a large, comprehensive university compared to a small, primarily undergraduate, rural and residential university.”
In contrast, the United States values diverse models of student experience, from small liberal arts colleges to large, state-funded universities. Furthermore, American universities have long recognized the value of collaboration through a consortia approach, whether that is driven by sports, like the Ivy League, regional interests and joint programming like the Five College Consortium, or through the delivery of innovative online courses like the newly founded League for Innovation in the Community College.
Canada tops the list as the most educated country in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Universities Canada (2019) estimates that there were ~1.4 million students in Canadian universities in 2018: 77% were at the undergraduate level (CAUT, 4.8, 2019). Furthermore, undergraduate enrollment has increased 24% over the past decade (CAUT, 4.2, 2019). For the vast majority of students studying at Canadian universities, undergraduate education is the terminal degree.
Although recent polling by CAUT reveals that “most Canadians believe that it has never been more important to get a post-secondary education,” only 68% of first-year undergraduate students believe that university is worth the financial investment (CUSC 2019).
The cost of higher education, the future of work, and pressing social issues (climate change, poverty, income inequality, food instability, racism, gendered violence) exposes the need to deliver high quality, accessible 21st-century education: we must equip new generations of thinkers to tackle wicked problems. The pressure has never been higher, and yet the wicked problem persists.
Students interested in studying at Canadian universities should be able to make informed choices about their undergraduate experience. Therefore, in 2012, four Canadian universities – Bishop’s, Acadia, Mount Allison, and St. Francis Xavier – decided to collaborate on this wicked problem. The first Canadian consortium of its kind, in 2016 they formed The Maple League of Universities with a mission to raise the profile of small, primarily undergraduate universities committed to quality 21st-century liberal education.
When I assumed my role as Executive Director in 2018, I was inspired by the tremendous potential this collaboration could have on the higher education sector. As I write elsewhere, inter-institutional collaboration is no easy ask: universities are wired to compete when they recruit prospective students, compete against one another in athletics, and compete for funding in capital campaigns and external fundraising. Students compete for grades, academics compete for grants, and departments compete for resources.
In addressing one wicked problem – raising the profile of small, liberal education universities – the consortium created a new wicked problem, which was: how do we collaborate when our systems are set up to compete?
Over the past three years, we’ve made tremendous strides including attracting over $1 million in funding for high-impact practices and experiential learning, building integrated hubs and innovation networks (across research, teaching, and professional clusters), mentoring students and faculty with national recognitions for educational leadership, and more.
However, innovation and institutional change present tremendous challenges. The most disruptive interventions require us, as philosopher Ira Shor urges, to “challenge the actual in the name of the possible.” Disruption, therefore, does not occur without dissonance. The more disruptive the idea, the more likely it is “wicked,” complex, and creates significant disturbance.
As we engage in strategic visioning and create a plan for 2021 and beyond, we have more disturbances to manage, more wicked problems to tackle, and more cognitive and emotional labour to expend. This model of collaborative engagement – in the classroom, within the university, and amongst the four institutions – represents values that are essential to maintaining a civil and just society. John Dewey, American philosopher and educator, coined the term “creative democracy” in a speech he delivered in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism.
He posits that democracy is a moral ideal continually constructed through actual effort by people; he argues that “the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically.” Writing in 1939, Dewey’s insights are shockingly relevant to our current global climate.
Dewey concludes, “Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” Democracy itself is a wicked problem, always in perpetual motion and co-created through individual effort and collaborative spirit.
As we grapple with wicked problems, the Maple League (which models collaboration over competition and values complexity over singularity) does not just show us what to do but rather how to be in the world. The heart of this consortium is to encourage “inventive effort and creative activity” that Dewey believes is required to tackle the “critical and complex conditions of today.” It has never been more urgent.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities