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October 24, 2002 Re-inventing universities: Millennium Conference breaks the ice



by Scott McRae

The ivory tower has fallen, according to Concordia’s rector, Frederick Lowy. In comments opening the March 14-15 Millennium Conference, a student-organized forum held jointly at McGill and Concordia, Rector Lowy explained that universities have undergone profound changes. They must find ways to continue evolving while preserving and cherishing their fundamental values, he said.

These comments set the stage for the inter-university conference, a venue designed by the Concordia student organizers to both critically examine the current model of universities and outline suggestions for alternative structures.

Named after the Concordia administration’s “Campaign for a New Millennium,” the conference’s goal was to create a multidisciplinary forum in which students, professors and administrators could debate the future of university. Presentation topics ranged from communicontrol technology to post-secondary management approaches.

Approximately 60 people attended the opening night, many specifically to hear Columbia University historian Charles Tilly speak; Saturday’s panel discussions drew fewer participants.

Despite low turnouts, organizers felt that the conference was a success. Abigail Shorter, conference co-chair, said she was proud to get McGill and Concordia collaborating and thrilled that the panelists boldly probed many controversial subjects.

One such provocative presentation was by McGill sociology professor Steven Rytina. He called into question the worth of much social science research, a position that had both supporters and opponents in the audience. “Many of us have an increasing difficulty in judging the validity of our co-worker’s work,” he said, adding that as researchers specialize they tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.

University of Toronto professor Edward Shorter outlined another trend which worries many: the growing bonds between the pharmaceutical industry and the academic disciplines of psychiatry, pharmacology and biochemistry. How can research remain impartial when big business is footing much of the bill?

Csaba Nikolenyi, a Concordia political science professor, said he was impressed by the quality of presentations and the enthusiasm of the presenters. “It really opened my mind to some things that I never thought about,” he said, explaining that he found the debates on technology particularly thought-provoking.

Although dialogue was supposed to be the focus, some participants felt that the panel question-and-answer periods were too cursory, especially since an early mishap had demonstrated the potential vitality of discussion. Charles Tilly, the conference’s keynote speaker, arrived hours late due to flight difficulties; as organizers scrambled to fill the time gap, a spontaneous debate broke out in the Hall Auditorium and the audience raised questions of elitism, institutional barriers, the democratization of knowledge and the university’s relation to society.

“That [debate] broke the ice,” said co-chair and educational technology student Rocci Luppicini.

“We have a smorgasbord of people here, and we want them to know it’s possible to interact.”
Although professors and administrators found many trends to criticize, almost all expressed an underlying pride in the institution they serve. Said Concordia professor Everett Price: “The university is the conscience of society. We are the summit. We are the elite.”

Like any conscience, it has its doubts, and it is with conferences like this that the university addresses them — through dialogue, dissent and debate.