October 1st, 2009
Is collaboration a natural act? Eddy Campbell, who used to be our guy, but who is now the top dog at UNB in Fredericton, is calling for Atlantic Canada to get its act together, with emphasis on together. Specifically, Campbell is advocating a kind of joint international recruitment initiative. Why should we be working alone in each of our four provinces when we can be pitching the advantages of a shared maritime-based suite of options?
Makes sense to me. I like this collaborative impulse. We almost all have recruitment offices, marketing campaigns, special projects, and specially guarded action plans aimed at luring as many international students as possible to our respective campuses. We work alone and against each other. How counterproductive is that?
I once heard a university president in western Canada eloquently argue for a shared national identity of post-secondary education, in the interest of international recruitment. It sounded shocking at the time, but he said that when we show up in Asia or the sub-continent, earnestly trying to attract people to our provincial campuses, our audiences have never even heard of a UBC or a UNB, or, for that matter, anything about Canada itself. What do potential students think of when we show up in their countries with our brochures and our power point presentations? What’s Canada’s brand? Do we have one? Is that bad?
Perhaps the best way to start answering the question is by collaborating regionally. That’s what Eddy Campbell is calling for. The particular group he is addressing is the Association of Atlantic Universities, comprising 17 member associations in the region, a sizable number of all shapes and sizes. This body already works together to facilitate mobility between campuses and manage program credit exchanges, and so it has a history of making minds meet where necessary. But will his provocative suggestion for a shared international recruitment strategy be taken up? It’s a jungle out there, isn’t it?
Along with the quest for external research funding, recruitment is the most competitive sphere of university activity these days, and not just in Canada, of course. Any meeting of academics in the United States is being shadowed by the recruitment industry. You can’t attend even the most scholarly conference on the most esoteric subject without bumping into a set of tables at which some agency or firm is hawking their particular sales techniques. It’s the scholarly tourism racket, complete with banners, bells, whistles, and giveaways.
In such a competitive climate, the reflexive tendency is for institutions to work for themselves, and only themselves. Why would we share? Primatologists spend a lot of time studying this very question. I was lucky enough to have once met one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, Professor Frans de Waal, whose research at Emory University has had profound effects on how we understand social behavior. As he has repeatedly said, “there is nothing more logical than to look at human society through the lens of animal behavior.” The first line of his Peacemaking Among Primates is: “Fires start. Fires also go out.” Now that’s the way to open a scholarly tome. You can’t help but keep reading. By studying aggression among chimps, de Waal is trying to get at patterns of survival, and, more to the point, what role reconciliation has in strengthening social ties. True, universities are not really at war with each other—we’re too civilized for that, right?– but we are definitely working against each other, because we all want as many bananas as we can possibly gobble from all the trees we have all been asked to shake.
Frans de Waal’s message really appeals to me. It is far more heartening to believe in the natural tendencies towards reconciliation and mutuality than it is to see natural patterns of infinite regression, irresolvable competitiveness, and, ultimately, self-destruction. I know this might seem to be a far stretch from what Eddy Campbell is advocating, but I don’t think so. The laws of the jungle, as with all laws, need to be regularly reviewed to see whether or not we really are working in our best interests. Perhaps our closest biological cousins have more to tell us about collaborative potential than we realize.
What would an Atlantic Canadian international recruitment strategy look like? Obviously, the answer could only be found by sharing information, thereby violating the laws of competition. Some laws are meant to be broken. Pass the bananas.