Shepard: Meet challenges of future together

On Oct. 22, President Alan Shepard and Chancellor Linda Hasenfratz, BSc’89, MBA’97, LLD’19, were installed into their respective positions in a first-ever joint ceremony celebrating the two top spots. The text of Shepard’s installation address follows:

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I am for sure thrilled to be installed today as the 11th President of Western, one of Canada’s leading research-intensive universities, founded a decade or so after Confederation.

It’s an honour to be welcomed into an academic community so rich with proud traditions, with great intellectual advances and social achievements – truly a world-class track record – and a community that strikes me as filled with bold energy, ready to build on that track record in making Western today and tomorrow even stronger, even more competitive.

So thank you for participating in this celebration of the promise of a new chapter for Western. There is a lot to be proud of, and because of that, there’s also a lot to do.

The Western community pursues excellence, expects ambition.

Which is fantastic.

This installation comes just after the 70th Homecoming, and just before Convocation. Homecoming Western-style was a spectacular experience for me, to see thousands upon thousands of alumni back in London to renew friendships and reconnect with Western. At the football games, I enjoy seeing the Mustangs circle the field – a lot.

Western graduates are deeply loyal because they have had such a powerful, transformative experience in this academic community and this city. They are a great, great asset, and more than 300,000 strong, across more than 150 countries. The alumni provide a global network that helps to extend the university’s impact, influence, and reputation.

Later this week, we will welcome more than 2,600 new graduates into our alumni family – ‘Purple and proud.’

It’s one of the greatest pleasures of university life to follow the careers of new grads as they set out to make their own marks in the world. I’m still in touch with some of my students all the way back to the beginning of my career in Texas.

‘Purple and proud’ is more than a tagline.

It’s shorthand.

It expresses the joy, the beauty, the surprise, the rigour, the fun that happens as a Western student makes their way through all of the pressures and pleasures of earning a degree here. For some, their research experiences will have mattered most. For others, their personal development so that they are now equipped to take on the world.

As far ahead as I can see into the future, the Western Experience will continue to be transformative.

But the experience is likely to evolve.

To quote that surprise-Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

The mutability of life is actually an ancient idea.

Indeed, the irony of this beautiful pageantry today is not lost on me. I stand here this afternoon dressed in almost-medieval church robes, to deliver some remarks. My remarks are on the bold, new thinking that is needed by universities as we chart our way through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution, call it what you will.

When I explained to a friend the dilemma of starting these remarks with the ancient formality of a public oration in order to say something about how Western might grapple with a turbulent and fast-paced 21st century, one wag suggested putting my words today into rap.

Uh, maybe not.

For most of recorded history, lectures have generally unfolded in some semi-linear and digestible fashion. The hyperlinks were carried principally by the imagination and by intelligence. Less so today, for in the Digital Era, thinking itself will be affected.

Distraction is everywhere.

At this very moment, for example, you may be distracted by a smart phone in your pocket. You may be craving the dopamine spike that comes with a ping. You may be twitching to check social media. You may feel compelled to fact-check me via Google.

These are all elements of our new reality.

What it means to be human – how we communicate, how we experience community, how we understand, navigate and interact with the world – we human beings are in some uncharted territory. And it will continue with disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, virtual reality and the melding of digital, physical and biological systems.

Things are getting really interesting.

It follows, then, that how we learn, if not always what we learn, but probably that too, will also necessarily change.

Not a news flash, but not to be ignored.

These changes will have profound implications for many of us, and certainly for those who teach, research and otherwise work inside a university. And for students.

I think it’s a glorious time to be a student – the best time in half a century, even more.

So, what to do with all this change?

It will become increasingly urgent for universities to grapple with the effects of the Digital Era, if we want to be excellent stewards of our legacies.

Simply put, we will need to be more nimble. Bold universities will prosper when they experiment, collaborate, differentiate, maybe even obviate.

OK, now I’m rhyming, if not rapping.

Those that shy away from innovating in their academic programs, in their teaching methods, in their engagement with students born into a digital world, those not bold enough, will struggle to sustain their currency and their promise. It will otherwise be the slow hemorrhage of reputation.

There’s a second irony here.

Much of what counts as human progress during the past millennium – I’m thinking of lifesaving technologies and medicines, of course, but also research on social issues, that protects children from dangerous environments, and that seeks to make the world more just for everyone – much of what counts as progress has emerged from within our universities, or at least through the ingenuity and toil of people who studied at them.

Here, at Western, we have some powerful local proof points.

It’s always a risk for a leader to name a handful of representative successes keeping in mind our thousands of researchers over the years.

But take the first ‘cobalt bomb’ cancer treatment, which doubled the survival rate for early stage cervical cancer patients; and major transplant surgeries; and the HIV vaccine work being done today.

And the discovery of natural surfactants from a cow’s lung to help premature infants breathe, saving millions worldwide.

And the pioneering test lab to engineer many of the world’s largest wind-sensitive structures.

And our Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children, established 30 years ago following the murder of young women engineers at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

And Canada’s first French-immersion program established in 1932 at Trois-Pistoles, Québec.

And Canada’s longest-running Writer-in-Residence program, which has attracted another Nobel Laureate closer to home, the venerable story-teller Alice Munro.

Western’s faculty is full of talent right across all of our faculties, truly distinguished. And all of us – together with our loyal staff – make up the university team.

So, at Western, we have some great historical successes and great teaching and research happening at this very moment and great opportunities to come. There’s a lot of reason to have big hopes for the future.

There will always be a place for discovery-driven research and teaching. And for those able to collaborate, to pursue multi-institutional work, to participate in interdisciplinary research and teaching, the opportunities will be even stronger.

But how we think of these opportunities, how we organize ourselves to work together, how we pull together, will really matter. Because if it’s no-good to ignore the pace of change, likewise, it’s no-good to despair.

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In 2013, the then-president of Stanford University, John Hennessy, described the disruption facing the modern research university in apocalyptic terms. He characterized the Digital Revolution as a “tsunami,” comparing its future impact on higher education to the havoc it had wreaked upon the newspaper and music industries. He warned that universities reluctant to change would be washed away.

Of course, this is hyperbole.

It’s not an exaggeration to say, however, that the hold universities have had on academic credentials is beginning to see its challengers. The challenges will mount.

So far, efforts to disrupt higher education’s traditional model have had negligible to modest success. Think of your favorite academic fads – MOOCs, for example.

But what might happen if Google, Amazon or Microsoft enters the fray? What happens if students, families, or employers at large come to believe that what we have to offer is no longer so necessary, or can be gained more quickly, more effectively? When the world moves to personalized learning, and even more online learning? What about the chestnut of deciding whether universities should be more theoretical or more practical, critical-thinking versus hands-on skills?

In all of these scenarios, I constantly ask myself, ‘How can we position Western to lead, and not merely to follow? How can we stand out as one of the world’s top research-intensive universities, where students and profs motivate each other to solve some of the world’s most challenging dilemmas? How can we compete anew, and differently, in the Digital Age?’

A giant in the world of university leaders today, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, talks about the importance of making the shift within our institutions from a culture of legacy to a culture of innovation.

There’s a lot to like about legacy, I have to admit, as someone who teaches Shakespeare and the literature of the Scientific Revolution. But there’s a lot to love in paying a lot more attention to a culture of innovation, too.

Innovation can affect the ways we research and teach Shakespeare as much as in any other discipline, from chemistry to international business to the philosophy of science.

Innovation is agnostic about the academic discipline. It’s about an entrepreneurial way of thinking, of seeing the world, of discovering and seizing opportunity. If you will, innovation is kind of a first-cousin to classical research.

In every academic field there are opportunities to do things differently, to shake things up.

And partly that’s what’s needed today.

I’ve talked about some of the global imperatives facing Western, but before I close, it’s worth remembering that all universities are deeply rooted in their local communities.

I admire Western’s Land Acknowledgment. More than mere words, it seeks to inspire action towards furthering our relationships with Indigenous communities – the very communities that host us today.

It’s possible to honour Western’s appetite to be internationally recognized as one of the world’s leading universities and, at the same time, engage locally with the community that helped found us. Western owes its early survival to the City of London and the regional counties that surround our beautiful campus.

About a century ago, following years of fiscal uncertainty and public debate about the merits of helping our church-founded university, London’s city council saved the day in 1908. That year, a $25,000 grant to be paid over five years put us on stable footing and paved the way for Western to become a secular institution.

More than a century later, Western and London continue in a symbiotic relationship.

Every year, for example, some 600 student teachers are placed in local schools. And more than 2,000 students in nursing, medicine, dentistry, and other health sciences care for Londoners in the course of their education.

Western students are everywhere, working with local businesses, with municipal leaders, with the thriving arts community in London.

On campus, we’re not an island. Western’s challenges are often London’s challenges too, and vice versa.

To make Southwestern Ontario a better place, there’s much more we can do together: Maybe it’s on transportation to London, or the economic development of the region, or working to solve a major problem like the opioid crisis.

Almost certainly, there’s more we can do with our partner hospitals in deepening the evidence-based health care of people who live here, and I hope to see greater collaboration there, too.

A game theorist on the Western faculty reminded me this summer that if we have to choose between competition and co-operation, co-operation generally makes winners of both parties.

Finally, while it’s true that we live in an ever-connected world, there’s evidence we are making less time for real connections with other people. Universities that excel at the dawn of the Digital Age will be the ones where people make time for each other.

Time to talk.

Time to share ideas.

And time for respectful debate – the heart of academic life.

Together, we can propel Western forward, and upward, or, as one line of the school song puts it, “Hi-up. / Sky-up. / Western U.”

I didn’t sing the line, and you’re grateful for that, but I admire its energy and optimism.

Again I’m thrilled to serve as Western’s 11th president. I look forward to working together in a bold, ambitious way to answer some of the big challenges and extraordinary opportunities that come our way as a leading academic community in the 21st century.

Thank you.