The Engaged University

My university now has three campuses, one of them being downtown where I currently work at the Centre for Dialogue. The original Simon Fraser University opened in 1966 at an isolated site high atop Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. We established an urban beachhead in 1989, taking over a few floors of a former department store as our second campus.

SFU downtown is on my mind this week, because I was just interviewed for a video celebrating the upcoming 25th anniversary of our entry into the city center. I’ve never been much of an ivory tower kind of professor, but I recall being irritated when I heard about the opening of another campus. The university was experiencing budget cuts at the time and I didn’t see the value in diverting scarce funding from the mother ship on Burnaby Mountain, where I then worked.

I was so wrong. SFU downtown is an unusual campus for any university, and illuminates the vibrancy that emerges when universities fully engage with the communities they serve. Today, we have four major buildings that are filled to capacity with the faculty, students and staff who work here and the thousands of community members and dozens of programs that come to our campus every week.

The original building, Harbour Centre, has expanded by a number of floors, and is a heavily used meeting facility for non-profit, government and corporate organizations, in addition to the many outward-looking university departments and programs that are housed here and a cornucopia of non-credit Lifelong Learning courses.

The Wosk Centre for Dialogue is one of the premier spaces in the city for reflective conversation around the deep issues of the day, while the School for Contemporary Arts is full to capacity with dance, drama, music, film, painting and other arts programming.

The Business School houses many community-focused initiatives, from an aboriginal executive MBA to corporate sustainability enterprises and social venture incubation. Like our other buildings it’s full up day and night with university and community members collaborating in common purpose.

SFU’s community engagement profile is not the norm for academic institutions, where town and gown tend to exist in uneasy proximity rather than collaborative comfort. Why are academics, the gown, frequently disengaged from community, and the town too often uncomfortable with universities?

The barrier may not be lack of common interests as much as how we communicate. Academics live in a world of nuance, see ambiguity everywhere, and are uncomfortable with clear, definitive statements. We’re trained to write and speak with long words, complex language, and considerable jargon, making us hard to understand at times. We can appear disdainful through language and style that emphasizes complexity rather than simplicity, although at heart most academics are the nicest of people.

Non-academics prefer a direct bottom line over meandering language, clear and strong opinions presented without the ambiguous discourse typical of academic exploration. The town gravitates to media shock and awe rather than reflection, warming to short statements made with the certainty that academia rarely embraces.

SFU’s success at being an engaged university is a heartening reminder that university and community do have much in common, and we can learn from engaging together. Catalytic conversations and change-making outcomes emerge when we take the time to understand each other and work collegially.

It’s in diversity and interaction that our greatest wealth resides, and engagement is the tool that opens the door of what’s possible.

Teaching More, or Teaching Better?

A cranky column by Margaret Wente appeared in the Globe and Mail last week, complaining that professors don’t teach enough. It blended a few sketchy statistics together with a warmed-over discussion of teaching loads, an issue that has been around the block a few times before.

Wente missed the more interesting conversation about what is actually going on at universities today. How much we teach may be important, but how teaching is changing is considerably more significant. It’s in the how rather than the how much that the most fertile conversations are percolating.

One steadily growing change at universities is that disciplines have become more porous. When I (and Wente) were in university, teaching was rigidly aligned in silos, biology students learning in the Biology Department with the occasional foray into Chemistry, History students taking History courses with the occasional required course in the sciences thrown in to provide the illusion of a broad education.

Universities still are organized into departmental siloes for convenience, but now strive to build webs of interdisciplinary teaching programs that connect diverse departments. In my university, for example, we have a program that merges molecular biology and business, training students who emerge primed to take on entrepreneurial positions in biotechnology firms.

Our Cognitive Science program focuses on an array of subjects including consciousness, language, learning, information processing and decision-making, at the intersection of Linguistics, Psychology, Computing Science and Philosophy. World Literature focuses on life in other nations, cultures and religions, drawing from English, Cultural Studies, History, Art, Religion, Psychology and Film Studies.

For professors, teaching in these programs requires more work rather than slacking off.  These interdisciplinary offerings exist in the interstitial spaces between fields, spaces that require more preparation and interaction with students and other professors than simply delivering a lecture in our own narrow discipline.

A second trend at universities has grown from students’ passion to learn from sources broader than just their academic professors. At SFU, for example, we now have a new category, Professor of Professional Practice, practitioners from whom students will benefit by exposure to their professional experience.

These new appointments are expanding how students learn by providing practical examples of what they might do with their education. A performing artist teaching in Contemporary Arts, a successful corporate executive in Business, or a federal fisheries scientist seconded to Resource Management, all add a dimension to education that enlivens the classroom and broadens students’ ideas about what they might do after graduation.

A third exciting trend, perhaps the most time-consuming for faculty to teach, is experiential learning, in which students go out into the world and do work that has real meaning in their lives. Student projects in our Semester in Dialogue program are prime examples of how university education can focus students on who they want to be in the world, often leading to employment.

One student created a video dance performance to explore gentrification in an impoverished Vancouver neighborhood, and was so inspired that she started a successful floral shop that employs residents from the community. A second conducted a project to reduce household waste and garbage from a few test households, after which our regional government hired her to scale it up to a neighborhood level. Another group of students became interested in reducing carbon emissions, and went on to create a thriving bicycle service delivering office supplies and groceries in downtown Vancouver.

There are endless other examples, but the point is this: experiential learning demands more faculty time and more intense interactions with students than preparing and delivering a canned lecture or the typical 5-minute encounter during office hours.

Probing, mentoring, advising, connecting; these are the kind of activities that more and more of today’s university faculty are engaging in, and they don’t show up on any statistical summary of faculty workloads.

The conversation about whether professors need to teach more is a dying discussion at contemporary universities, replaced by the more vibrant dialogue about how to make education more relevant and engaging than the lecture-heavy models that used to predominate.

It’s an exciting and provocative time at universities. I know I’m teaching way more than I used to, and loving every minute of it.

Unintended Consequences

Most of us are aware by now that antibiotics are overprescribed for human use and overused in animal feed to increase livestock weight. The consequences are tragic; disease-causing bacteria develop resistance when repeatedly exposed, and many antibiotics have become ineffective.

Physicians are left with fewer and fewer tools to combat serious bacterial infections. Thousands of patients die annually in Canada alone due to infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a medical travesty that could be avoided if we reduced antibiotic usage.

But I read an article in the New York Times on Sunday that slapped me in the face with an obvious realization that I had completely missed (by Pagan Kennedy, 8 March 2014, “The Fat Drug”). If antibiotics fed to livestock result in their gaining weight, what happens to our human weight when we ingest antibiotics?

Turns out there were studies performed in the 1950’s asking just that question. Antibiotics were fed to Guatemalan school children in one study, severely mentally disabled kids in Florida in another, and Navy recruits in a third, all with the same result of increased weight gain following weeks to a full year of antibiotic exposure. And it wasn’t just a minor weight increase; children showed up to three times the weight gain when fed antibiotics compared to those not fed drugs.

Leaving aside the reprehensible ethics of using third-world and mentally disabled children, and soldiers, for these studies, it’s tempting to attribute the current obesity epidemic in the developed world to antibiotics, at least in part. It turns out that there are known mechanisms by which antibiotics might lead to human weight gain, in addition to the obvious observation that it does so in other animals.

For one thing, antibiotics flip a switch in animal digestive systems that turn extra calories into fat, which is one mechanism leading to weight gain. Antibiotics also disrupt the diverse microbial flora in the gut that play a critical role in digesting food, again causing weight gain and possibly contributing to obesity.

Antibiotics have been on my mind lately because of the book about bees I’m working on (Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive,, due out in October). Beekeepers are like many farmers, overusing antibiotics to stimulate their animals’ weight gain. In the case of beekeepers it’s been colonies gaining due to the increased honey production that results by preventing the bacterial disease American Foul Brood (AFB).

But resistance finally developed, and AFB is now epidemic. The only “cure” is to kill the bees and either burn the entire hive or subject the comb and boxes to intense radiation.

It’s not surprising that antibiotic resistance arose, given how much drug beekeepers have been feeding to bees in sugar syrup or dusting into colonies a few times a year. But giving antibiotics to bees has had another unexpected impact, synergizing the effects of pesticides and making these agricultural chemicals toxic to bees at low doses thought to be benign.

Antibiotics fed to bees increase their susceptibility to many pesticides, including neonicitinoid insecticides, which many blame for colony collapse disorder. Essentially, antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of a component in bees’ immune systems that detoxify pesticides, lowering the dose at which a pesticide will harm bees.

Similar antibiotic interactions are well known in human medicine. For example, women have been surprised to get pregnant after taking certain antibiotics that neutralize birth control pills. Antibiotics also interfere with commonly used blood thinning medications and insulin; a simple web search reveals dozens of other harmful interactions.

There’s a bigger issue here, for bees and for us. We’re exposed to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemicals every day, from medicines to nutritional supplements, pesticides to industrial plastics, fertilizers to smog. We have some idea about the effects of each alone, but are mostly clueless as to the impacts of minute chemical exposures from multiple sources.

It’s the law of unintended consequences, a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended. Whether it’s human weight gain from antibiotics or the demise of bees, we’re becoming increasingly aware of how little we understand the side effects of scientific progress.

We’re paying some serious penalties for own health and that of the environment around us. Perhaps it’s time for interactions to be more carefully studied before we release new dangers into the world around us.