By Dan Rubinstein
Three dozen Carleton students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors sat down together in the MacOdrum Library on March 20 to talk about the university’s collective ambition for the next 75 years, and about the shorter-term legacy they want to build for future generations.
The gathering, the first ever “Talk Exchange” organized by the Board of Governors’ Community Relations and Advancement (CRA) committee, provided an alternative forum — beyond the formal board and senior administration structure — for a cross-section of stakeholders to engage in an open and honest discussion about Carleton’s future.
“We know where we come from as a university and where we are today,” CRA Chair Linda Ann Daly said in her introductory remarks, after Board of Governors Chair Chris Carruthers welcomed everyone on behalf of the board and Carleton’s administration. “Let’s talk about where we are going.”
Daly cited Carleton’s founding ethos in 1942 — a commitment to giving back through education while pursuing contributions to the common good — and noted that these values still speak to the heart of the university. “The motto ‘Ours the Task Eternal’ is appropriate,” she said, “because the job never ends.”
“Conversations like this are important,” said CRA Vice-Chair Nik Nanos, telling participants to consider their comments a “mini-time capsule” that could be reviewed in 25, 50 and 75 years, and asking them to listen to one another and have fun.
“It’s important because we’re all busy,” he continued. “Because we all fight through the day to get things done, whether we’re faculty, staff, students or alumni. So it’s important to take a pause and talk about our ambitions.
“We’re all here because we love this university. We want to hear and respect a diversity of opinions. There’s no right or wrong.”
Attendees at the talk exchange broke into five small groups to tackle the two topics at hand. Volunteers from the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities sat at each table, and their notes will be compiled into a report that will be posted on the Board of Governors website.
At one table, participants included longtime library staff member and alumnus, Anant Nagpur, artist-in-residence and alumnus, Kellylee Evans, research facilitator and alumnus, Darlene Gilson, fourth-year economics major and Carleton University Students’ Association front desk supervisor, Kelsey Gilchrist, retired journalism professor and Aboriginal Education Council member, John Kelly, and aerospace engineering graduate and alumni association executive, Mathew Main.
Responding to the question about the university’s collective ambition for the next 75 years, their discussion ranged from why individuals choose to study at Carleton — mostly because of its supportive, encouraging environment — to the importance of remaining accessible to people from a wide spectrum of cultural backgrounds and the university’s potential to evolve into an arts hub that draws audiences from throughout the city to campus for events on a regular basis.
This type of interaction, between members of the Carleton community and others from the National Capital Region, stood out as a priority, as did the potential for the university to grow beyond its 153-acre campus and current geographic boundaries.
“If we take up all the green space on campus with buildings, it’s going to lose its character,” said Gilson. “If we want to grow, where do we want to grow?”
The rise of distance learning may take the pressure off the need for more bricks-and-mortar infrastructure, but Gilchrist preferred the sense of community one gets from assembling in a classroom. Online courses, she said, “can feel more than a chore than going to a lecture.”
“For me,” said Nagpur, a frontline worker at the library’s circulation desk, “the big lesson is to always listen to students.”
In summarizing their discussions, other tables highlighted the value of maintaining a comprehensive university supporting a variety of programs beyond core areas such as engineering and business, Carleton’s focus on interdisciplinarity, the university’s larger role in society thanks to its strong Faculty of Public Affairs, its relationship with Indigenous peoples, and the need for more transparency and student representation on the university board.
But one idea that most groups circled back to was the inclusive, nurturing environment at Carleton, which is reflected in how grads tend to stay involved as alumni, as well as the importance of preserving that atmosphere as the university evolves and expands.
In their discussion about Carleton shorter-term legacy, a table that included John Osborne, an art history professor and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, talked about the importance of financial stability — and how solid financial footing fosters independence and freedom.
Justine De Jaegher from the Graduate Students’ Association noted that encouraging voices of dissent has been a proud tradition that should continue. “Carleton doesn’t need to adhere to what others are doing,” she said. “Let’s not strive for average.”
Jack Coghill, a multimedia technician, alumnus and Music Department bagpipes instructor, suggested that the administration should work to counter cynicism on campus, not with cheerleading, but through self-examination.
Carol Gariepy from the Registrar’s Office suggested codifying the values that guide members of the Carleton community and include a commitment to social justice and a spirit of collegiality.
“If we are establishing a community of caring, with caring faculty and staff, then students begin to care for each other,” said Gariepy, “and they take that attitude with them when they leave.”
Other tables focused on short-term ideas such as creating more opportunities for community engagement and experiential learning for students, the importance of emphasizing teaching and mentorship among faculty, the value of transdisciplinary connections for students and faculty, and a need to move away from “abstract academia” and “subvert the isolation of the ivory tower.”
“I hope we do this again, because it’s important that we’re talking to each other about where Carleton is going,” Daly said at the end of the two-hour gathering — a sentiment shared by attendees.