Eileen M. Herteis,
Mount Allison University
In April, 2013, four of Canada’s top mainly undergraduate universities: Acadia, Bishop’s, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier, announced the formation of the U4 League. A strategic alliance to promote high quality undergraduate education, this announcement was exciting, if somewhat intriguing, news on the four campuses as we tried to imagine what it might herald.
The media has been quick to describe this as an alliance of “four small universities.” While we cannot argue that the member institutions are small, our commonalities transcend size; indeed, I would suggest that “small” here is a metaphorical term that, once parsed, helps to illuminate shared vision and values: a focus on the critical and analytical skills that derive from a liberal education; predominantly residential campuses, where engaging co-curricular activities can thrive; class enrolments and learning activities that from first year to graduation help to foster rapport between students and professors; and opportunities for students to participate in independent studies and undergraduate research.
In addition, the U4 member institutions offer students unique learning opportunities that are usually reserved for graduate students elsewhere: research and scholarly publication in collaboration with professors, and experience teaching in classrooms, laboratories and in the wider community.
Having worked at two large, research-intensive universities, I believe that the U4 member institutions also share another singular benefit: geography. Their small-town locations provide undergraduate students, through service or experiential learning, with many avenues to make authentic and consequential contributions in public schools, youth and seniors’ groups, and other community milieus. Such experiences, including several that were highlighted at an April conference at Mount Allison, enrich not only the students’ learning and leadership capacity but also the broader curriculum and institutional environment. Size does not constrain, rather it liberates.
As part of the U4 initiative, each of the member universities will host an event to showcase the academic and extra-curricular aspects that distinguish them. So far, two events have taken place:
In February, Bishop’s launched the four-university event series with Up for Debate: The Future of Undergraduate Education. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators from the four universities participated in a student debating tournament and TEDx Talks on the future of undergraduate education in Canada. And in April, one day before the announcement about the League’s formation, Mount Allison hosted a conference on undergraduate students’ contributions to Teaching In and Beyond the Classroom. The program included presentations from students and professors from all U4 member institutions. Through interactive sessions and discussions, the more than 70 conference participants examined the many teaching roles undergraduate students undertake inside the university and in various communities beyond campus.
Student presentations were at the forefront of the conference and included a site visit to a local elementary school to help design an outdoor education classroom—typical of the place-based, action research small universities can offer; active learning demonstrations such as learning to play musical instruments, physics experiments and outdoor games for all abilities—again led by students; and a panel presentation and discussion about the issues of training, supporting and assessing students in their instructional roles.
Two other U4 events are planned for this fall: an Undergraduate Research Showcase at Acadia and a Student Leadership Forum at St. Francis Xavier. These large events are but a stepping stone for the nascent League, helping to solidify a broader sense of collaboration and cooperation in other areas.
More focused conversations have already started at the faculty level, where the real benefits and outcomes will accrue, about how we can collaborate on research projects and find ways to help complement each other’s curricula by sharing disciplinary expertise. From my own perspective as an educational developer, I am excited by the potential to enrich the scholarship of teaching and learning through joint studies, reciprocal visits and workshops. As members of the Association of Atlantic Universities, Mount Allison, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier already participate in regional teaching conferences; the League allows us to do even more.
In short, the creation of the U4 League is revealing the many mutually beneficial and enriching ways our universities and communities can interact. There is no suggestion that this cooperation will result in dissolution of individual identity for the four universities; indeed, every indication is that the “friendly rivalry” the League’s website describes will continue. Nevertheless, as interest grows, and joint initiatives emerge, I hope that our universities can continue to develop independently and jointly as unique learning environments where our undergraduate students acquire knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that distinguish them and set them apart from others.
Eileen M. Herteis is director of the Purdy Crawford Teaching and Learning Centre at Mount Allison University and chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities Coordinating Committee on Faculty Development.