All Posts Tagged With: "David Strangway"
If you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.
The other $20 million the Prime Minister announced today at Perimeter Institute may be the smartest and boldest investment a Canadian government has made in development assistance in decades.
It’s $20 million over four years to support Perimeter director Neil Turok’s African Institute for Mathematical Studies, which the cosmologist has branded as his Next Einstein initiative. Turok’s South African, and his idea is simple: there is no good reason why the next Einstein or Newton or Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be a young African man or woman. That continent is many things but of course one of them is a massive untapped human-capital resource: if you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.
Turok has put everything he has into the notion by launching the first AIMS school in Capetown and planning to build a network of such schools across Africa. He told me about his plans in this 2009 interview. They’re almost unbelievably shoestring operations by the standards of Perimeter: Turok told me it takes about $1 million a year to run one of the places. And the payoff? Students educated at home for one-fifth the cost it would take to educate them at Cambridge or UBC. Staying home to tackle local problems. With a network of contacts among other AIMS grads from across Africa, a built-in antidote to the factionalism that helps hold so many of those countries back. Taught by bright young scholars from home and abroad, and able to plug into that global knowledge network just like any scholar.
The second AIMS in Abuja, Nigeria opened in 2008. Now things get harder. Dakar, Senegal is next, in 15 months: a francophone country with far less-developed physical and social infrastructure than Capetown and Abuja. The (new) (not-in-the-spring-budget) money Harper announced today will help in this crucial next phase. And how significant is this modest $20 million over four years to what Turok’s trying to accomplish?
“It’s the largest single investment in the Institutes ever, by a factor of twenty,” Turok told me today.
Really? Yes, or close, exchange rates being what they are lately. The president of Senegal recently pledged 1 million euros as host of the next AIMS. And Google gave the project a $US1 million grant last year. The Harper government has given it all a mighty push, especially because it may inspire copycats. As one person familiar with the AIMS project pointed out today, can you imagine France letting another country take the lead in such a spectacular fashion on a development project in francophone Africa?
AIMS isn’t the only so-called “smart aid” project in Africa. The Nelson Mandela Institute’s African University of Science and Technology is another; the Mandela Institute’s Funmi Arewa attended yesterday’s announcement. David Strangway’s Academic Chairs for Africa project, still more ambitious, is another.
Eager readers will already have raised two obvious counter-arguments. One is that $20 million is chump change next to the billion and then some that was pledged for maternal and child health at the G8. Well, sure. But on the scale of Turok’s project, which I hope I’ve been able to sketch for you, it’s hardly trivial. And as Dambisa Moyo and the evidence of your own eyes tells you, some very large fraction of traditional subsistence aid to Africa has gone utterly to waste over the last half-century when it hasn’t actually managed to make things worse. The failure of traditional aid is of course no guarantee that a different kind of program will succeed. Rather, it’s an argument for prudent investment to ramp up a highly promising project to a wider scale. Sort of like today’s announcement.
Second, of course, is the you-can’t-get-there-from-here argument. I’ve heard it at length from a European diplomat who’s spent serious time in African universities: have you seen some of these places? They don’t need physicists. They need bed nets, drainage ditches and wheat.
This argument made Abba Gumel laugh out loud when I rehearsed it at Perimeter this afternoon. He’s a Nigerian who runs the Institute of Industrial Mathematical Sciences at the University of Manitoba. He called the bed-nets-before-string-theory argument “totally wrong” and said that what’s made the developed world develop was scientific advancement. “Take that away, and Canada would be a developing country.”
Your mileage may vary. Anyway now we’re going to give this other thing a shot. “Canada is famous as a country with a big heart,” Turok told the crowd after the PM spoke. “It’s fast becoming famous as a country which is smart.”
The new university that wants to change everything
This is definitely not your typical first-year course. Instead of being packed into a lecture hall along with several hundred strangers, these 20 students are lounging around an oval table in a brand-new classroom and laughing almost hysterically. It’s still September, but their familiarity is already apparent. The room quiets as a generously bearded, scholarly-looking man introduces today’s topic: the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of lecturing on the finer points of the seminal document himself, David Helfand, a visiting professor from Columbia University, directs the students to present their assigned discussion points, intervening from time to time to keep the conversation moving forward with the occasional question or gentle correction.
The conversation doesn’t need much prodding. Soon the students are jumping in with questions of their own, most of which are surprisingly thoughtful and relevant for a group only three weeks into their academic careers. “What’s the point of all those countries ratifying it if it’s not legally binding?” one young woman asks. Another student: “If we’re all supposedly equal, why give special privileges to disabled or First Nations people?” Another, unembarrassed by her youthful ignorance, admits, “Man, I never even knew what ‘whereas’ meant before yesterday!”
Helfand is a leading astrophysicist and chair of the department of astronomy at Columbia, and yet here he is, teaching a first-year class on human rights at Quest University, a little-known school up a mountain in Squamish, B.C. This class—and everything else at the barely year-old university—is far from ordinary. The student body is tiny. The focus is entirely on undergraduates. Tuition is $24,500 a year. Professors teach exclusively, and do not do research. To emphasize the point, they aren’t even called professors but rather “tutors.” And students don’t take individual courses as at other universities, but instead study in intense, 3½-week-long interdisciplinary modules known as “blocks.” Today’s class is part of the year’s first block, focused on the relationship between humans and nature, covering topics as varied as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the philosopher Rousseau and the science of rivers. Although Helfand admits that he was initially skeptical of the unorthodox approach, he says it’s been a remarkable success. “So far, every subject works just brilliantly. The level of engagement is something I’ve never witnessed in 30 years of teaching university.”
Quest is Canada’s first non-profit, secular, private university—and its approach is arguably the most radical experiment in Canadian higher education since the great university expansion and transformation of the 1960s. And yet despite the promise in evidence in the classroom, this is an experiment that is not going well. Students aren’t flocking to the place. Enrolment is far below expectations. The university’s leadership has been a revolving door, its mission at times confused. The school’s financial health may be shaky. What does such a rocky start for Canada’s most ambitious and publicized higher education revolution say about the state of undergraduate education in Canada?
Quest is the brainchild of David Strangway, one of Canada’s most experienced academic administrators and a former president of the University of British Columbia. When Strangway retired from UBC in 1997, after 12 years at the helm, he had no intention of settling down to a quiet life in his hometown, the retirement haven of Kelowna. Then aged 62, he had bigger plans. He would build a university according to his idea of what undergraduate education should be: it would avoid graduate studies and research, and it would be private. The model would be the liberal arts colleges of the U.S. northeast, such as Vermont’s Middlebury College. In Strangway’s view, most Canadian universities no longer focus on undergraduates, but have instead become graduate research establishments that also teach undergraduate students.