February 27, 2009
Brett Fairbairn has followed through on a commitment he made the day he was named the university’s new provost and vice-president academic in November 2007 – to give an annual address to the academic community.
“Whom do we serve? Locating the Public Interest in the University of Saskatchewan” was the title of the address Fairbairn delivered Feb. 27 in Convocation Hall. In an interview prior to the event, the provost said he attended some of the academic addresses delivered by his predecessor, Michael Atkinson, “and I always thought it was a good idea for the provost to stand up in front of the community and give an address.”
In fact, part of Fairbairn’s preparation for applying for the provost position involved reviewing Atkinson’s past addresses, “and the decision to continue that tradition was coincident with my accepting the job.”
For his first speech, Fairbairn said he opted to take a wider view rather than focus on “the more pressing issues of the day. I did consider a variety of topics. One obvious one was integrated planning but I’ve been talking mainly about that since May. Another was teaching and learning, the number one priority area in the plan. In the end, I decided on something one level more general and that is how we think about university, how we think about the concept of university and ours in particular as part of that.”
The provost said the address examines the concept of autonomy and how the university functions relative to other institutions. To understand how the university relates to society’s interest, “we are going to have to think about the public’s interest, about the government, the economy, society and the communities we’re involved with.”
The address refers all the way back to Walter Murray, the university’s first president, who spoke of “service to the state, although we don’t put it in those terms any more,” Fairbairn said. “The idea of service hinges critically on the issue of autonomy … but no one outside the university dictates to us what the public interest is. The public interest in our university is something we arrive at together as a community. What is it we have in common that we work on together?” He added he approaches the concepts of public interest and engagement in such a way that individual employees could find some relevance to their own job.
Fairbairn also examines how the university remains true to its purpose in a changing environment. “I think it’s important to revisit our base, foundational understandings.”
And being an academic address, the provost noted, with a smile, that “it does have some footnotes. But not many. And I won’t read them out loud.”
Excerpts from the provost’s first academic address can be found on this page. The full text can be found on the website of the provost and vice-president academic at http://www.usask.ca/vpacademic/
The following are excerpts from Provost Brett Fairbairn’s academic address delivered Feb. 27 to the campus community.
“I want to speak to you today about the expansive purposes of the University of Saskatchewan, the reasons an institution like ours exists, and what those reasons mean for all of us as members of the university community. We participate in the university by working here, by studying here, and by volunteering our time. There are personal benefits we receive from those activities. But is the university simply a machine for printing paycheques and diplomas and other quantifiable individual benefits? Many in this university have long felt there is something more to it than that, that a university – and this one in particular – stands for something more than individual gain. But I don’t think we often spend our time talking about what this “something more” may be.
… I want to begin by posing a deceptively simple question: Have you ever asked yourself, who owns the University of Saskatchewan?
... One way to think about ownership is to ask, who benefits? Whom does the university exist to serve? And one answer, which contains an important measure of truth, is to say that the university belongs to the public because it serves the public.
… To say that we serve the public may not be a simple or an obvious thing to everyone. After all, we serve clients, don’t we? – students and research partners in particular. We run programs. We maintain buildings. We serve food and sell leisure apparel. We care for books and art and scientific apparatus. It is easy to see the individual things we do and forget that behind them is a concept that we all serve the public interest.
… our university was founded on a specific model of public service. Our founding vision was to contribute to the “prosperity of the state and general well-being of the community.”
… The benefits of the university’s activities, in other words, were meant to be widely spread.
… The question of who benefits is one aspect of ownership, and we can say the public is intended to benefit from our activities. Does that mean the public owns us?
… Usually we regard the government, in our case particularly the Government of Saskatchewan, as the collective representative of the public. It is the Government of Saskatchewan that has chartered us and made numerous stipulations about how we do our job. So does the government own the university?
… In Canada, I believe there remain principles supportive of university autonomy that are shared by a wide cross-section of Canadian society and notably by opinion leaders. Here there are deeply held traditions that universities serve the public, but do so differently and separately from how the state serves the public. It should go without saying that universities serve the public best when we serve it freely and autonomously… It may be that respect for university autonomy will continue only if universities continue to earn respect for our autonomy.
… So we belong to the public, but not to the state. We could be called non-owned, yet somehow we are still accountable.
… What is interesting is that there is no one person or group in a university who has the exclusive responsibility to interpret the public interest. It is more like it is all of our jobs, together, to do so.
… We do that as individuals when we reflect on the larger purposes of our work. But most of all, we do it together when we engage in conversations about the purposes and priorities of our university.
… The idea of a university that serves the public interest has a special significance in uncertain times like the ones in which we now live. There is economic turmoil in the world … Society needs answers and directions. Society needs knowledge, innovations, and technologies that will provide for improvement and sustainability… We will need community economic development and social development. We will need intercultural engagement, global awareness, and, above all, well-educated and highly skilled people throughout society. A university, our university, is called like never before to serve the public interest.”