Canada’s ethics commissioner sees need for academics to reach out

In a speech delivered to delegates and guests of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds), Canada’s ethics commissioner, Bernard Shapiro (right), spoke to the past of Congress and pondered its future. “Longevity is important,” said Shapiro. “We have clearly survived. Have we, however, succeeded?”

Shapiro delivered his remarks in a formal lecture to mark the 75th anniversary of the Congress. The lecture took place on Wednesday, May 31, in the TEL Building on York’s Keele campus.

He outlined what he saw as the three objectives of Congress, including strengthening the community of scholarship, enhancing the role of the public intellectual, and nation building. As the past president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the former principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in Montreal, Shapiro spoke from the heart about what he has experienced in his leadership role within the academy and outlined his vision for its future.

Shapiro praised Congress’ role in building inter-university communities, contrasting their growth and development with that of Canadian universities. “I believe that the Learneds and now the Congress has made and is making its most valuable contribution and that is in building Canadian inter-university communities of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.”

Seventy five years ago the concept of a transnational community was very important to the development of scholars in the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences and provided an important structure to support the rapid expansion of Canadian universities following the Second World War. “A real contribution was made historically in preparing the Canadian soil for a harvest that would be possible given the expansion of the number of scholars,” said Shapiro. “In this success, the federation played a key role.”

This strong foundation laid by such inter-university relationships has provided support for research and innovation in Canadian universities, which in turn has fueled the growth of membership in academic associations, sometimes with mixed consequences, said Shapiro,. “The fit between the interests of the associations with those of the host universities became a little less comfortable,” he said. “On one hand, the increased levels of research funding were something that both the universities and the associations wanted. On the other hand, it was a long time before the federal government funding agencies recognized and began to pay the indirect costs of sponsored research.”

To cover the indirect costs of such research, many universities were forced to rob the provincial grants intended to support teaching and undergraduate education. At times, this resulted in monies flowing into research at the behest of the universities’ core.

The second potential contribution addressed by Shapiro examined the role of professional/academic associations in fostering the role of the scholar as a public intellectual. He described his vision of this role as: “someone who can and does actively participate in public life – someone who is an active participant not only in his or her professional life but also in the democratic life of his or her community.” This is of particular importance to the humanities and social sciences because, Shapiro said, “it illustrates the value that the social scientist and humanist have to give to the rest of us.”

Advocacy illustrates the value of work done by researchers and academics in humanities and social sciences, Shapiro believes the function of scholars as public intellectuals are important to the future of the academy and it is a challenge he states has not been met. “Most individual scholars do not seem to see this as part of their obligation to the wider community in which they live,” said Shapiro. The situation at the level of the academic associations is somewhat better. “I do not see a lot of evidence that social scientists and humanists — at least those who have not decided to become politicians — are widely seen in public life outside their specific professional milieux.

“The price for a vibrant and well-supported community of scholarship, at least in democratic regimes, is visible participation in the public marketplace of ideas,” suggested Shapiro. “In this area, a great deal needs to be done, both for individual scholars and groupings of them.”

Outlining the academy’s role in nation building, Shapiro laid the groundwork for his observations with a brief history of Canada before targeting the role of academics and their associations. “In what way or in what ways have the Learneds and now the Congress contributed to Canada’s sense of itself and Canadian’s views of themselves as the members of a national community?” he asked. 

He asserted that many Canadian social scientists and humanists have contributed in nation building and provided knowledge to the development of public policy. “I have a vague and unsubstantiated feeling, however, that its value has not been fully understood by those responsible for public policy and this represents a further challenge for the future.”

Looking forward to the centenary of Congress, other challenges await, said Shapiro. He highlighted six, including:

  • The humanities and social sciences need to reach out beyond their traditional colleague groups both beyond the university community and to new colleagues within the university community;

  • The development of a fuller scholarship of university teaching. Humanists and social scientists not only need to make sure our teaching is informed by research within the relevant discipline, but also by what can be learned about the art of university teaching;

  • The growth of scholarship and the practice of university teaching as it relates to how the community of scholarship is organized, including addressing the shortcomings of peer review, enhancing the standards and value of teaching, research and design of publication programs;

  • The necessity to address the challenge of development of technology to present scholars with a new range of choices of how their work can be best accomplished and how to use technology to streamline work practices and routines. This, Shapiro said, could include re-imagining work processes both in teaching and research;

  • The internationalization of scholarship, which Shapiro acknowledged is welcomed and encouraged by the academy. Enhancement of the value for learning in social interaction could mean that future Congresses could feature virtual dialogues with international colleagues;

  • The enhancement of resources to a chronically under-resourced community without using inadequate funding as the excuse for doing less.

In closing, Shapiro said, “All I can offer is hope; all you can offer are brains. All that we can offer is effort. Our work, your work is at least partly based on faith. We should not be embarrassed by such faith, we should flaunt it as we move ahead.”