University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Trouble with Scholars that they insist on real data

When I joined the staff of U of T Magazine late last year after 25 years in the private sector, one thing I had to learn was a new vocabulary. The word “provost” (the title of the university’s chief academic officer) took time to master, in part because no one seems sure how to pronounce it. I already knew that a chair is not just something to sit in; sometimes it’s a department head, but it’s also an endowed research position.

But one word I had trouble with: scholarship. You hear it a lot at this university, in reference to the disciplined methods of academic research. It seemed to me a musty old word, more suited to 19th-century Oxford than the modern U of T with its striking new engineering and computer science building, its entrepreneurial business school and its growing cluster of Starbucks outlets. “Scholarship.” The word made me think of caps and gowns, footnotes, reviews of the literature and all the other fussy accoutrements of academia that so many of us left behind when we graduated.

My comeuppance took place in two parts. First came the green papers of Provost Shirley Neuman. She is leading a thorough academic-planning exercise that will determine the university’s strategic priorities over the next decade. U of T president Robert Birgeneau has already set out his vision of a university that ranks among the world’s top research institutions. It is quality of scholarship that will attract the best faculty, and make U of T a more desirable destination for the best students. Neuman, in probing the characteristics of the best research universities, says that they encourage “informed scholarship that is methodologically and theoretically rigorous.”

In an era of increasing competition and shrinking resources, embracing a standard of excellence makes sense. Still, I wondered, why does excellence depend on theses and bibliographies and peer reviews?

Then I chanced to find, in this magazine’s library, an article by former U of T president Claude Bissell. Back in 1963 he gave a precise description of the university’s mission: “to create knowledge as well as disseminate it.”

Of course, new knowledge can come from anywhere: industry, government, backyard astronomers. But Bissell contended that a university’s unique tradition of academic discipline and academic freedom makes it the most reliable place for developing and testing new ideas. “The university teacher must first of all undergo a rigorous preparation and a long apprenticeship, before he (sic) is admitted into the community of scholars; but once admitted, he is given complete freedom to pursue an idea or a fact wherever it leads him.”

And that’s it, really. Creating knowledge is hard work. New ideas can turn on you; your data could be flawed; some people might not like what you say. As the world gets more complex, we need confidence that new ideas – whether in engineering or economics, science or social work – are legitimate products of disciplined inquiry. Fussy or not, scholarship works.

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