We live in a time when new technologies are upending everything, when the consequences of climate change are racing at us seemingly faster than ever before, and when Canadians have rarely felt less secure about their economic futures — to name but a few issues in front of us.
These challenges have a size and complexity that can overwhelm. They defy easy answers and can lead to a feeling that the future is crashing down on us like weather — something to brace against, something to dress for, something to get out of the way of.
But the future is not an inevitable event. It is something we have the power — even duty — to shape for the better. So that returns us to the question: where do we start?
At the research university I serve, the University of Calgary, we are seized with being the answer. It’s the heart of our academic mission, it’s the core of our slogan — Start something — and it’s the focus of our new strategic plan, released Sept. 16 and appropriately titled Ahead of Tomorrow.
Universities make cities healthier and more prosperous. They support industries and create whole new ones. They anchor great societies through education, discovery, innovation and community service. And, it is our belief, they will increasingly need to be active catalysts for positive change.
We’ve enshrined that belief in Ahead of Tomorrow — the result of the largest consultation in the University of Calgary’s history. The plan tasks us with focusing on equipping our students, faculty and staff with the purpose, ingenuity and readiness to act. It gives Calgary’s answer to the challenges of our time — an evolution of universities away from bastions of knowledge to one focused on both creating and mobilizing that knowledge and connecting to the broader community.
We’re doing this through commitments to putting entrepreneurial thinking at the heart of what we do, marshalling our research capacity around society’s biggest challenges, and including the community — while increasing access to our university.
We want to educate transformative leaders. We’re embracing new technology and expanding required education around how to take initiative and enrich society.
We want to maximize our research impact. We’ve set our sights to climb from No. 4 to No. 1 in the country in terms of research activity (measured by revenue) per scholar, and we want to focus efforts toward “grand challenges” — working with our community to define and then solve society’s biggest problems.
We want to enhance community relevance. Our goal is to be top ranked among research universities in community engagement. We see it as our mission to bring together scholars from many academic disciplines — and combine their expertise with community expertise to unlock opportunities.
And we’re doing this while increasing access so everyone can reach their potential. At the community release of Ahead of Tomorrow, we announced an exciting new First-Generation Scholars initiative that will provide Canada’s most extensive support for scholars whose parents or guardians did not attend a post-secondary institution.
These are not fuzzy goals. We have put hard numbers around each objective, and we intend to hold ourselves to account. We also know doing this will have an enormous spillover effect, improving Calgary, Alberta and Canada’s economies. Already we generate billions of dollars in economic value and are the #No. 1 startup creator among Canadian universities. Ahead of Tomorrow sets our aim to be among the top in the world.
So, yes, technologies race at us faster than ever before. The consequences of climate change are here. And economic opportunity looks uneven and uncertain. But scholars, future leaders and experts — within and outside the University of Calgary — have never been better situated to explore these challenges and find holistic solutions. Success is not guaranteed, but working together and working with a clear purpose, there’s no doubt of the potential.
Ahead of Tomorrow aims to unlock that potential. We hope you will join us on that journey.
There’s never been a more important time to “Start something.” I hope you will with the University of Calgary.
Ed McCauley is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary.