The globalization and provincialization of universities

Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Here’s Part 1. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In this series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but there’s no substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

The globalization and provincialization of universities

My first post in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for. Today, some thoughts inspired by Skúlason’s thoughts about what a university is.

Skúlason suggests that a university is best understood as

a conversation, a place where people who are trying to understand the world and their own existence within the context of a common pursuit for knowledge and learning come together to converse and exchange ideas (p. 13).

While “a conversation” might sound a bit new-agey, in fact this is an important observation that goes back to the revolution in European science in the 1600s. Medieval science had been largely an individual pursuit, something that Francis Bacon criticized in his utopian novel New Atlantis (1620) and something that the Royal Society of London was founded (in 1645) to reverse*. Science became something pursued by scientists working and talking together, even collaborating. This was further normalized as science became professionalized (much later, especially in the 19th century) as something done not by hobbyists but by people employed as scientists in institutes and universities.

What’s interesting about this is that originally, having scientists work together meant that they had to be together – and the university was one way that could happen. It was by necessity a local university, and it would have been natural for scientists at the University of Beaverdam (let’s say) to concern themselves primarily with things that matter to Beaverdam. In other words, the University could have been very provincial. To some degree, it was; but less than one might think, perhaps because the 17th century was a time of burgeoning global exploration and trade, with new wonders returning to Europe from the farthest reaches of the world, and people’s attention was directed outward by that.

With modern communication technologies, of course, it’s now routine for us to converse and collaborate with scientists all over the world. This ought to make it very easy for the university to become globalized – both in the sense of teams of scholars being distributed around the globe, and (not coincidentally) in the sense of these teams having interests that transcend purely local concerns. Skúlason points out that technology has allowed the creation of virtual institutions that needn’t have any particular place at all, and this may be the globalization I’m thinking about, taken to its logical conclusion.

This hopeful perspective makes it all the more distressing (and here I’m abandoning Skúlason’s argument and indulging in my own crankiness) to see many universities becoming more provincial. My own, for example, is developing (for reasons that are unclear) a Research Strategic Plan, and I’ve been struggling to prevent that Plan from talking only about how we’ll improve things for residents of New Brunswick (the Canadian province in which I’m based; so we’re becoming “provincial” with both an upper-case and a lower-case “p”). I don’t know that this trend is universal, but I don’t think it’s unusual, either. Why? I think it’s part of a broader social and political pattern of retrenchment. Once upon a time, I think we (humanity) made something of an implicit bargain that we would all contribute to a global network of science, not restrict the focus of any particular institution too much, and all share in the benefits of advancing knowledge. Globalizing technology should make this easier and more effective than ever; but instead I see us retreating from this bargain, as we more and more expect the University of Beaversdam to devote itself to the betterment of Beaversdam, and never mind humanity as a whole**.

If I’m right about this trend, and if it’s not a good thing, how can we resist it? Skúlason suggests one important argument: that a university can best serve provincial interests by becoming more global:

That is why an international and cross-cultural cooperation between universities is so important, giving academics the opportunity to share their ideas and beliefs and learn from different academic traditions….[With] the ambition to serve not only their local communities but humanity at large…they can help the nations of the world deal with the many theoretical, technical, and ethical problems confronting them (p. 38).

This argument sounds exactly right to me; but unfortunately, Skúlason doesn’t offer an easy prescription for having it carry the day – and neither can I. This seems to me a high-priority concern for science advisors to governments, university Presidents, and the like. It’s also something all of us should repeat, as often as we can, to anyone who will listen.

© Stephen Heard ( February 18, 2016

Related post: Three things a university might be for (Part 1 of this series)

A Critique of Universities is available as an inexpensive e-book (print copies seem to be more of a challenge). Here are some links:

United_States USA, via

Canada Canada, via

150px-Globe.svg Rest of the world, via Google Books (or search through your local bookseller)

*^This capsule sketch is of European science. An important and much-overlooked contrast to this is Islamic science, which had a collaborative golden age in the “House of Wisdom” beginning under the direction of Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and especially of his son al-Ma’mun. After this period, for many reasons Islamic science became rather disconnected from the progress of Western science, and many people are now unaware of its scope and of this fascinating era.

**^This is not a political blog, so I won’t run on about this, but I think this is an instance of our single biggest societal problem: at least in North America, we all seem to have decided that we don’t like paying taxes. We don’t even like paying taxes to support things we all individually use and want (roads, firefighters); we certainly don’t like paying taxes to support things other people might need (social programs, foreign aid) or things more abstract like the advancement of human knowledge. This is completely insane, of course. It’s convenient to blame the insanity on politicians, but they only take this ball and run with it; the real responsibility lies with all of us for handing them the ball. Wait, I promised I wouldn’t run on about this…

9 thoughts on “The globalization and provincialization of universities

  1. atiretoo

    I find it interesting that UNB is only now going provincial. My sense of land grant universities like NU is that they were pretty explicitly provincial from the outset. Even when I arrived in 2003 I was regularly asked by the research dean when I was going to start working in Nebraska. I’m happy to report that we’ve gone down the global engagement path since then. And my comment here might only apply to my peculiar subset of NU (Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources) and not to other parts like the College of Arts and Sciences.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, it’s too strong to say UNB is “only now” going provincial. After all, it started (in 1785) as explicitly provincial. But before long it saw itself, I think, as part of a global academic community, as well as (of course) still New Brunswick’s university. But I do see a strong recent trend to at least talk up the provincial and de-emphasize the global.


  2. Cassandra R

    What Skuleson describes sounds similar to how the University of Ottawa seems to orient/advertise itself, at least on paper. They bill themselves as serving the local community, but they also don’t seem to be retracting from a theoretically global perspective. It seems odd when I think about it, that a University would try to present itself as anything else: proporting to be both global and locally benevolent at the same time comes off sounding like the best of both worlds, so why not!? 🙂


  3. Dr. Zee (@docdez)

    I see it as a both/and rather than an either/or. It may depend on location, local needs, unique presence (is it the only university in the region, or are there several?), discipline and sub-discipline, etc.

    It likely also depends a bit on institution size (which in Canada, at least, correlates to research funding levels and overall research output), and on relative size within the region (which I suspect also correlates similarly, but perhaps to a lesser degree).

    I.e., How much beyond-the-region influence can a university reasonably expect to have considering its situation? Will it get more overall bang-for-the-buck with a tendency toward a local focus?

    Also, what do the regional residents expect? What are the historical and current missions of the university? UNBC, for instance, was founded in some large part by local residents to serve the region in which it resides. Ditto with US land grant universities.

    That’s not to say that places like my institution or land grant schools should ignore the wider world. It might mean, however, that their overall regional:beyond emphasis ratio will be different from a place like (for instance) UBC or Stanford.

    And the reality is that every school should focus locally and beyond. The further reality is that any successful school will do both, but the ratio will differ depending on many factors. And in the end, diverse approaches should contribute to better resiliency in the overall “academic biosphere”.


  4. Tobi

    I think Skúlason’s notion of “university” is accurate. The word “place” seems more like an emphasis on formalizing the practice of learning and discovery than its literal connotation. Also, I don’t think Skúlason is advocating that universities cater to global concerns at the expense of local issues. At least there is no idea or innovation that is globally accepted that does not have a local origin. He is merely encouraging universities to think beyond their immediate environments. Of course, not every learning or research would have a national or global appeal to it but incorporating global perspectives into research and teaching programs would guarantee better citizenships, stronger industries and economy and generally better human welfare.

    There’s something regressive about UNB’s view of itself. Universities are supposed to be boundless. At least we are talking about business of the mind. UNB shares similar experience with many older institutions that are now better placed in terms of research innovations, human development and endowment. I’m not sure I understand their logic but given the state of the university relative to what it could have become, I think those in change are operating from a parochial view of what a university is. Instead of shrinking the scope of a university that is struggling to be visible, they should make an attempt be more competitive.


  5. Brian McGill

    Very interesting post. And FWIW U Maine is definitely going provincial, as are I think most state universities. We are desperately making the case of local relevance as our funding is cut.

    For me the take away question is the challenge of why a local physical place in the age of the internet?

    I think teaching the next generation (both undergraduate and researchers) has to come into that question in a big way. MOOCs have not exactly kicked universities/colleges out of their central role and I predict never will. I think teaching being such an intense personal interaction and also depending on the “conversation” as defined above is always going to need a local place.

    But I also think money has to enter the conversation. The state/province/government has traditionally funded teacher/researchers. And it is of course more efficient to centralize their teacher/researchers to share classrooms, facilities/HR/IT/accounting, lab equipment, etc. As governments increasingly defund their teacher/researchers, we see the natural responses of increasing focus on our teaching role to attract/retain student dollars. And a rear guard attempt to convince governments to continue to fund research by making it “relevant” and “local”.

    Once current governments have made teaching self-funded by students and defunded research (to carry a current trend to an extreme), there is little reason for a physical place for researchers (outside of a few fields that are large equipment based). The logical outcome of this would be teaching-centered physical local places run largely as businesses and a diffuse virtual network of researchers*.

    Ironically, I think this logical extreme will kill the main value researchers bring to a state or province. It is not new research that is locally focused and applied (although this value is not zero). The main value having a research core brings is in the openness and global connectedness to the flow of new ideas which brings innovation and value on a scale much wider than the researchers own output (agreeing with your point). This strikes me as a classic externality problem – who pays and how to pay for an indirect communal good.**

    I don’t know if I believe that prediction or not, but it is a fun thought experiment. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    *Where exactly those researchers are funded from is a fraught question – while states are devaluing research faster, it is clear that national governments and business are both trending down on research funding too. Military-relevant research is about the only funding guaranteed direction. I guess one has to hope commitment to research funding is a pendulum and not a trendline. I think there is a decent chance of that being true. I certainly hope so!

    ** In the federal model of US and Canada there have always been states/provinces that get this better than others and their economies are booming (North Carolina, California, Massachusetts).


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Brian – great reply, could pretty much have been a post by itself! Yes, your framing of it as a classic externality problem makes sense to me. Interesting point about North Carolina etc – would that NB would see that…


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