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President & Vice-Chancellor Address

Autumn Convocation 2007


Dr. Lloyd Axworthy
President & Vice-Chancellor, The University of Winnipeg
Address to the 2007 Graduating Class
Fall Convocation, October 21, 2007

Welcome everyone to this 85th Fall Convocation.  Autumn on the prairies is the traditional time of harvest when we celebrate the fruits of our labour.  In the words of Alfred Tennyson, “Rise in the heart in looking on the happy autumn fields.”

For this university too it is a time to feel a rise in our hearts as we celebrate a new harvest of graduates whose labour and efforts are to be recognized by the granting of a degree and to thank those who support, inspire and serve as examples for them as they venture along their respective paths.  This eighty-fifth Convocation of The University of Winnipeg is an occasion for all of us, both individually and as an institution, to rejoice in our achievements and look towards the future. 

This ceremony can help us all engage in that reflection.  The academic procession, the ritual of being declared graduates, the honouring of those from within the university and the broader community provides a rare moment when we can bring meaning and significance into a world where often times the ephemeral and transitory are the norm.  These ritualistic actions help set this day apart from the mundane and create a space out of which landmarks and guideposts are etched in our lives.

It is also a special time for reflection because this year marks a turning point in the life of this university.  In 1967 we began as a small but highly regarded liberal arts and science college serving a relatively homogenous student body in downtown Winnipeg.  Today, in the 40th Anniversary year of our founding, we offer a full range of graduate and undergraduate programs to a highly diverse student body of more than 9,000 in an urban community experiencing dramatic changes and challenges, and influenced by our myriad connections to the global village.  Graduates, you are now part of a network of 40,000 alumni around the world who will forever carry the lessons and outlooks, friendships and associations garnered here at The University of Winnipeg.

In thinking about the world that awaits you, I am drawn to the rollercoaster of events at The University of Winnipeg last month when an unknown person threatened the University community with a note on a washroom wall.  Whether this was a messenger with serious intent or a malicious prankster’s empty threat, this event serves to highlight what is now so much a part of our lives: our sense of community is affected by those who want to instil fear into innocent populations.

We are dealing with the dark underside of our global existence, the terrorist, the criminal, the trafficker, the drug dealer, the human smuggler.  Nor are these the only forms of violence and victimization.  We must think also about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the suppression of rights in Iran, the unlawful confinement of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and the tragic situation in Burma as authorities cracked down with the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators – the list can go on.

And in our own community, we struggle with the challenges that come with inequality and indifference. For many our cities are no longer places of welcome. They have lost the inviting scale of human communities and are cut off from the world of fresh air and green spaces.  They have lost many of the amenities of recreation, housing, public schools and easy access to jobs that give cities their vital centers. And rather than mounting a call for support of remediation and reform our media feeds us a sensationalized diet of crime and disorder.

These threats are not threats to nations or to states; they are threats to the security and well-being of individuals. Globalism has brought us face to face with the world-wide reality that our common humanity is at risk from the predators and violators of the most fundamental human freedom, the freedom from fear.  And, as has recently been so disturbingly illustrated at The University of Winnipeg, we are all vulnerable – no-one is immune.

When I was working in foreign affairs we introduced the idea of human security.  It is not the state or the market that faces a multitude of security threats, but the individual.  For this reason, human security insists on placing the individual front and centre in security calculations.  It includes the security against economic privation, an acceptable quality of life and a guarantee of fundamental human rights.  It recognizes the links between environmental degradation, population growth, ethnic conflicts and migration.  By acknowledging the vast array of issues threatening individual security, the human security approach is entirely consistent with the complexities of our current local and global realities.

The tragedy of Darfur and the recent events in Burma highlight the importance of an idea born out of the human security concept: “The Responsibility to Protect” is a made-in-Canada principle that dictates that all the world’s citizens, regardless of wealth or geographical location, have a right to live with basic human dignity and a freedom from fear and suffering; this not only is the fundamental right of human security, it is also an international imperative to protect that right. As we face challenges in our own community, we must ask: how does this idea apply not just to international institutions, but also to the neighbourhoods that we inhabit? 

An outcome from the traumatic situation at our university last month was that we received an outpouring of support and witnessed a remarkable coming together of our community and as we struggled to make difficult decisions about how to respond and protect the University campus and community.  This profound display of cooperation and support highlights the importance we attach to making connections both locally and globally; it underscores the fact that our work at the University would be impoverished without these community connections; and it shines a light on the reality that we have a major responsibility. 

To put it quite simply – we cannot have a safe university if we do not have a safe community.  Like other institutions and societies, we must continually find new ways to adapt.

I am reminded of Judith Rodin, the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, who recently wrote about challenges that her university, enveloped by the physical decline, poverty and crime of West Philadelphia, faced.  Rodin writes: “by virtue of their mission, intellectual capital, and investments in physical facilities, urban universities are uniquely positioned to play a leading role in their communities in powerful ways.”

And so, though we, like institutions and societies all over the world, face many challenges, we are finding ways of adapting – in fact, in many ways, we are thriving. 

In the Globe and Mail Report Card released just this week, The University of Winnipeg comes out as one of the best universities in the country.  The University finished first among Western Canadian universities for academic reputation, quality of teaching and availability of public transportation.  Our students gave the University ‘A’ marks in class sizes, teaching quality, overall quality of education, satisfaction with the university experience, faculty-student interaction, faculty members’ knowledge of subjects, and availability outside classroom hours.

This is a tribute to our faculty and staff whose wisdom, expertise, and generosity of spirit have contributed so much to this University and to the personal growth and academic success of our graduates.

As we build on this success and respond creatively and effectively to the needs of this changing world, we must merge the strong traditions of our past with a vision for the future.  In so doing, the University must act as a catalyst for ideas and action, research and education to address the urgent issues that confront us in this early stage of the third millennium.  Central to any solution is the concept of sustainability.  I outlined in detail the University’s sustainability strategy during our Homecoming Celebrations – let me take a moment here to give you the flavour:

The University of Winnipeg is on the road to becoming a national, if not global, leader in sustainable development as this concept must be broadly understood in the 21st century.  We have steadily worked towards fostering an increased sense of global citizenship within the University community – bringing human rights, social justice and environmental responsibility together to address our most pressing issues and to prepare our future leaders for the world they are inheriting.

Our ultimate goal is to create a truly sustainable campus that acts upon its local and global responsibilities to protect and enhance the health and well-being of humans and the ecosystem.  In achieving this, the physical operation of our campus must reflect sustainability in all of its aspects.  To echo David Orr, “Academic architecture is in fact a kind of crystallized pedagogy; buildings have their hidden curriculum that teaches as effectively as any course taught in them.” 

Thus, we are bringing rigorous sustainability criteria to bear on all of our operations and are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the short-term goal of making the University Kyoto Protocol compliant and the long-term objective of achieving zero net emissions.  We are carefully retrofitting older buildings and creating additional green space on campus and in the community.  And our sustainability strategy has also grounded the future development of the university in a strong vision – Spence Street/Duckworth Expansion, CanWest Centre for Theatre and Film, Convocation Hall renovation.

Perhaps the biggest demonstration of our new strategy is the construction of a new campus and science complex and The Richardson College for the Environment.  The College will be one of the most environmentally sustainable buildings in Canada(perhaps even the world) and will work to address some of the pressing problems, particularly in areas of The Global North, Urban Ecology, Forest Ecology, Water Resources and Environment & Health. 

The College will also be home to the Institute of Environmental Finance – a place for students and academics to find innovative ways of transitioning to a sustainable economy.  This institute will be a hub of applied research in the study and development of financial instruments and market-based mechanisms that help facilitate environmental conservation and sustainable development in the public interest. 

We are working towards the vision of our University as a ‘living laboratory’ where everything from the bricks and mortar, to meetings and consultations, research and community engagement are all processes whereby learning can take place and a culture of cooperation and partnerships can develop. 

This brings me to the second ingredient of our strategy.  We have launched initiatives that will make this institution a socially-sustainable development hub for

Winnipeg’s inner city.  Dealing with a growing university population with changing demographics in a diverse neighbourhood made up primarily of Aboriginal Peoples and New Canadians, our University has embarked on a strategy of engagement that incorporates and responds to the wisdom of local governments, community organizations, school divisions, businesses and various ethnic and cultural groups. 

It is our responsibility to address issues of inequality and of socio-economic divides, and to make quality education accessible to everyone.  This is why we launched our Innovative Learning Centre in the fall, which provides opportunities for inner-city and Aboriginal students to relate indigenous values to traditional scientific and environmental issues, and connects local school children to the University from a young age. 

Our Opportunity Fund, launched just a few months ago, will help students earn financial credit for University tuition through participation in educational programming, serving as a “tap on the shoulder.”  And our new science complex will house a “Model School” for inner-city children that will support the efforts of the Innovative Learning Centre.

It was a group of students that first came to the administration to propose that we take on this type of project.  The policies that were passed were developed through a collaboration of an incredibly dedicated group of students, faculty and staff, who volunteered countless hours for a vision in which they all believe. 

This is the type of responsibility that is necessary.  The spirit of R2P is an opportunity for all of us and I hope this example offers family, friends, distinguished guests, and especially graduates the occasion to ask not what the world holds for you as the robes come off and you return to daily life, but instead what you can bring to it. 

As we ask this question, we can be inspired by today’s honorary degree and award recipients, who, in the words of the poet Stephen Spender, “Wear in their hearts the fire’s center.”

Otto Klassen, a diligent researcher, historian and scholar, has dedicated his life to telling the stories of his people through the powerful medium of film.  He has ensured that generations of Mennonites and non-Mennonites can learn about the historical trials, suffering and survival of the Mennonite people over the last century.  Jim Silver’s prolific scholarly work and significant research on inner-city and urban Aboriginal issues brings to light the challenges that we face here in our own community and it offers important solutions. Howard Mathieson has made a significant difference in the lives of countless young people through his service as an educator and he has contributed greatly to the academic and athletic fabric of the University’s Collegiate high school.  Last night at our Convocation Dinner we awarded the late Peter Liba, a distinguished Lieutenant Governor our Global Citizenship Award in recognition of his work in building a tolerance for diversity in our community.

The message that we can all recall as we recognise these remarkable people is that there are as many ways of giving to the world as there are people to give; that there are many ways we can fulfill our responsibility.  As a university, it is our job to help students develop the vision, passion, and skills with which to offer their best to the world. Beyond the fundamental tasks of imparting skills, instilling an understanding of the mysteries of the universe and honing judgement on the vital choices of career, the role of the university is to give meaning to the qualities needed to support a democratic and just society, appreciating the active responsibilities of citizenship. That is the charge I leave with you today as you leave this institution.

Today we recognise the family, friends, donors, governments and tax payers who have contributed so much by supporting us in doing our job.  We recognise university staff – those who keep this institution operating smoothly so that our students can be safe and comfortable as they study.  We recognise those distinguished faculty who have not only been extraordinary teachers, but also welcome role models and mentors to their students through their dedication to governance and community.  All of these people have brought to the world the resources necessary to allow another generation of bright young people to flourish intellectually and personally.

It is, ultimately, the graduates whom we are gathered here to recognize.  Each of you here today has a story to tell about what you have contributed to your communities and to academic work.  And, as you receive your degrees in Science, Education, Arts, Theology and Marriage & Family Therapy, there are opportunities for all of you to continue to bring the essence of responsibility into the world. 

Those graduating from Education, it is up to you to instil this vision in future generations and inspire them with a passion for learning and independent thinking.  To the scientists in our midst – as you engage in research and teaching, you will have the responsibility of developing innovative solutions to the pressing issues in environment, health and energy, only to name a few.  Those graduating with degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy, have an opportunity to bring a culture of peace and reconciliation.  Those of you who have studied Theology and the Arts would do well to follow Plato’s argument that those who are properly educated in the arts will not just delight in beauty, but will nourish beauty – to take action and practice engaged citizenship. 

Graduates, I am confident that as you move beyond The University of Winnipeg and along your respective paths, you will have the courage to nurture a vision for a more just and sustainable world and to turn it into reality in the years to come. 

I would like to remind all of us of our University’s motto:  Lux et Veritas Floreant – let light and truth flourish.  As we celebrate all of our students and their families and friends, our distinguished faculty and guests, and our highly valued staff, I hope that we will all move forward with the goal of working to spread light and truth in all that we undertake.  Today, let us shine light on the people we have the honour of celebrating so that we may be inspired to redouble our efforts at bringing light to a world in need.