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Universities 100: A century of meeting the needs of Canadians

By Paul Davidson

NOTE: In the coming weeks, Canada's universities will be sharing their visions and priorities with readers through this column, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Paul Davidson is president of the organization.

One hundred years ago, leaders from 15 of Canada's universities met face-to-face for the first time to discuss the day's pressing issues.

There were no BlackBerries. No women either. Telephones were still new. University leaders travelled by train and ship to McGill, where the meeting was held. Canada was just turning 44-years-old. Later that year, Sir Robert Borden's Conservatives would win the "free trade" federal election, sweeping Sir Wilfrid Laurier's government out of office after 15 years.

University leaders were brought together by Sir William Peterson, principal of McGill University, and Sir Robert Falconer, president of the University of Toronto, to discuss admission requirements, student mobility and graduate education. This is how universities first came together to work for the benefit of Canadians. So pressing were these issues, they decided to meet again, regularly, but in a reflection of the different pace at the time, the next meeting would be four years later.

While times have changed, university leaders still meet regularly to address these kinds of issues. Today's Canada may be very different from 100 years ago, but universities continue to help address challenges, improve our quality of life and position our country as a leader in the years ahead.

As AUCC marks its centennial in 2011, it is an opportunity to commemorate the pivotal role universities have played and continue to play in making Canada what it is and what it can be. At this year's meeting in October, today's university leaders focused on the future needs of Canadians.

AUCC also hosted a unique panel discussion titled Smart Healthcare: The Role of Canada's Universities in Addressing our Healthcare Challenges. This panel drew on expertise from across the country to discuss how Canada's universities can respond directly to the upcoming health care needs of an aging population.

Another centennial initiative is an online dialogue on the future of university education in Canada. The University Commons blog (www.aucc.ca) offers diverse perspectives on what university education should look like in the years ahead and how it can meet the needs of a nation.

Canada's universities are also focused on enhancing the undergraduate experience in Canada. AUCC led a national workshop on undergraduate education in Halifax last March, attended by many presidents and other university leaders, as well as students. This workshop reflected a growing consensus that university leaders must do more to strengthen the undergraduate experience. One of the results was the development of a new online tool to help strengthen undergraduate education.

AUCC's fun, social media-based centennial project involves a small, carved, wooden polar bear named Ursula. She has been on a whirlwind tour of campuses across Canada since May. Throughout the year, Ursula is capturing a slice of life of Canadian universities on Facebook, Twitter and her own blog, www.ursulaontour.ca.

Rounding off AUCC's centennial year, Canadian universities will open their doors to visitors Nov. 4-13. Open Doors, Open Knowledge is a series of open house events on campuses across the country to showcase the new and improved research and learning facilities made possible through investments of the federal and provincial governments and other parties.

From 1911-2011, the story of Canada is reflected in the story of universities. As we mark 100 years of achievement, Canada's universities invite all Canadians to be a part of the celebration. Learn more at www.aucc.ca.

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