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The Project of a New Canadian University Begins...

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Issue: 32 Section: Accounts Geography: Quebec Topics: education

November 16, 2005

The Project of a New Canadian University Begins...

What would a university based on principles of ecology and social justice look like?

by Wilma van der Veen

It is key that the university become a community onto itself but also be intimately interconnected with the community in which it will reside. photo: Philip McMaster info@cool.ca
What would a university based on principles of ecology and social justice look like, and one that was tuition free? This fall, individuals from across Canada converged on Arundel Nature Centre just outside Montreal, Quebec. Like the project itself, the community of Arundel is small and relatively unknown; by the time the weekend was over, however, the potential for the project began to gather energy and momentum.

Why a new university? Although a clear vision of what a new university should be did not yet exist at the start of the weekend, many arrived with strong opinions of what a new university should not be. "The current university system provides the necessary education to fill the jobs necessary in the capitalist system, while normalizing this system's destructive and dangerous operations providing a system of rewards for the participation in this destruction [e.g. labour and human rights' violations, environmental degradation, and a growing underclass]," said graduate student Steve Turpin. "It is clear that in order to contest these systems of domination and destruction, a new university will have to work towards a holistic learning environment based on mutual respect and reciprocity - both socially and environmentally". Laird Herbert, a student and prime initiator of the meetings, had similar frustrations with the choices available, "There aren't any post-secondary educational institutions in North America that are based on sustainable ecological principles and simultaneously are affordable."

The weekend focused on developing a vision with associated statements, an initial strategy for realizing such a project and next steps. "The time has come to at least imagine what an institution of higher learning would look like that was born in Canada, of Canada, and by young Canadians attuned to the spirit and rhythms of the twenty-first century," said Tony Hall, a University of Lethbridge professor and author of The American Empire and the Fourth World.

Ecological principles were to be the foundation upon which to base other principles, ecological considerations being incorporated into all dimensions: from the physical infrastructure using environmentally sustainable building materials, to the production and consumption of organic food, to research creations that would not be harmful to the planet. It was key that the university become a community onto itself but also be intimately interconnected with the community in which it would reside.

Practical matters that would realize this project were also explored. Discussions covered the use of active and inclusive decision-making processes drawing upon consensus models; mutual learning where educators and support staff would also be students, and students and support staff would also be educators; and innovative funding strategies, such as the "working college model" where students are also workers at the university. As was practiced at the meeting, the new university would exercise bilingualism to more accurately reflect the nature of Canadian society, incorporating more languages in the future. While an initial physical location would be sought, virtual and satellite campuses across the country would be pursued.

As for curriculum, the notion of a living curriculum was accepted where as needs of those involved changed, subjects taught would be modified. This would be inclusive of all subject matters for all students from the most basic of learning how to feed, shelter and clothe oneself, to more traditional intellectual pursuits.

"I was really impressed," reflected Herbert after the meeting ended. "Something has begun even though I was pessimistic about this whole idea coming to anything." A determined optimism seems to have now infected participants at the meetings who are now investigating the possibility of the first campus being situated in or around Arundel, the location of what will likely be considered the historic first meeting of a new Canadian university.

"The process of actually implementing our visions, as we are beginning to do after this magic convergence of energy and minds at the Arundel Nature Centre, can inspire a sense of hope," Hall commented as the meeting came to a close.

The next organizing meeting will be held the weekend of January 13-15th. Those who would like more information can check out New University

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