What Birgeneau believes . . .
27 July 2004
During his tenure at the University of Toronto, Robert Birgeneau has written and spoken frequently, and often forcefully, on a range of topics he views as crucial not just to that campus, nor to the Canadian academic community, but to people everywhere who are interested and engaged in the progress of education and human values. Often his themes have focused on issues of topical concern to faculty, students, and staff at UC Berkeley. A sampling follows.
The value of education
As a public university, we must remain faithful to our educational mission as our highest priority. First and foremost, we must remember always that our responsibility is to "educate" students, not to "train" them. … [We] must ensure that we educate our students broadly so they understand fully "who they are, where they come from, and where they are going." We must expose our undergraduate students to a rich mixture of humanities, arts, social science, science, and technology. Such a broadly based education, which we might call the "new liberal education," will prepare our students properly for leadership in the 21st century.
From President Birgeneau’s installation address
at the University of Toronto
October 12, 2000
The role of the research university
What do I mean when I speak of a leading research university? In my view, the top universities give equal value to teaching and research, and they combine research, scholarship, and education in unique ways that shape not only the graduate but also the undergraduate experience. Such universities attract very talented students, and the reasons are manifest. There is nothing more exciting for a student than sitting in a classroom, or lab, with a professor whose own work is helping to change the paradigm in his or her field; or who is deeply engaged in the major, current questions on the frontiers of knowledge. Nothing can replace the educational value of studying with the people who are transforming knowledge as they speak. ...
In modern societies, research universities are the principal sources for the creationof new knowledge, and as such, they have a disproportionate impact on the economy. By inference, universities are critical in an environment that prizes and nurtures innovation.
Evidence of the centrality of the modern research institution to the wealth of nations comes to us from the United States, Europe, and Japan. In particular, the health and vigour of the American economy in recent decades owe much to the dynamic and innovative research enterprise in that country, which includes both basic and applied research. Universities are at the heart of this research activity. Governments in the United States, in particular, have long recognized the vital role research plays in stimulating economic growth; funding levels and public policy initiatives have facilitated the transfer of knowledge for development in both the commercial and non-profit sectors.
— February 6, 2003
Some people believe that growth in technology, or emphasis on technology transfer, can have a negative effect on universities. In fact, the overwhelming evidence in the research-intensive universities in both Canada and the U.S. is that the process of technology transfer has in no way blemished the purity of basic research, at least in the leading institutions. … Indeed … [the University of Toronto has] rejected research funding that does not meet our policy guidelines. In fact we have done this twice in the last year with a government sponsor, I might add, not a private company.
It is often a long road from the laboratory to the marketplace, with many stops along the way. From basic research in the lab, to economic impact, a phenomenal technological development is also required, and that is how it always is. You need research, and technology, and venture capital all coupled together. These are the necessary ingredients that ultimately will provide an economic impact. This message needs to be communicated to a public that, more often than not, views such partnerships with suspicion.
— February 9, 2001
It is natural that corporate sponsors of research are keenly interested in the outcomes of the research they support. Accordingly, we are exceptionally vigilant to ensure that academic freedom is respected by all concerned. The ultimate safeguard would be to reject all corporate research support in its entirety. But this would mean that we would be failing to serve … society responsibly by not contributing our knowledge and skills to the direct benefit of the economy. More importantly, we would be violating the academic freedom of faculty members who want to pursue research where their preferred source of support is non-government sponsors. We cannot do that. Rather, we must ensure that in all such research programs the rights and freedom of all involved parties are protected. This is exactly what we do.
— October 9, 2001
I believe that as an institution of higher education, we have an obligation to show leadership in areas where the general public may lag behind. This was the case during the era of civil rights, and it is the case today as we address issues of gender and sexuality. We cannot let controversy or inflexible opinions deter us from raising awareness and promoting understanding. Our campus must be an inclusive and welcoming community, and it must be so in full awareness of our religiously pluralistic environment. We can have diversity within diversity by being respectful of each other. At the same time, we can learn much more about what it is to be human by understanding humanity in all of its rich variety. In the process we can become an even greater university.
— October 20, 2003
The importance of staff
An excellent faculty will attract both a superb staff and outstanding students. I cannot emphasize too much the importance of having an outstanding staff. … It is through their dedication and hard work that our university is able to function, and certainly we will not be able to achieve high international stature if we do not have a staff that equals those at the best institutions worldwide.
— October 12, 2000