On “Society” — and Today’s Announcement that the Next President of the University of Alberta is Dr. David Turpin

Today the University of Alberta community learned that the University’s next President will be Dr. David Turpin, former President of the University of Victoria (2000–2013). A detailed biographical statement for Dr. Turpin is here

In his speech this morning at Convocation Hall, Dr. Turpin declared his belief that public universities are not just “fundamental to just and caring societies,” but shape a “virtuous circle” in which the community makes a “steadfast” investment in its members that allows them to “develop their talents and then use them for the betterment of society.” At the climactic moment in his speech, he turned to the Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, Don Scott, to offer him the following assurance: “Minister Scott, my commitment to the people of Alberta is to steward their strong support for this institution and mobilize it for the public good.” (Full video footage here.)

Samarasekera on Thatch NewTrail Nov2014More than one of this morning’s speakers was keen to construe Dr. Turpin’s appointment as a continuation of the “legacy” of President Samarasekera. Dr. Turpin’s talk of “society” and the “public good” suggests, however, that we may have a situation of greater promise before us. Dr. Turpin’s choice to talk about the public university’s relation to “society” certainly makes for a startling contrast with a bit of news that the University community received in the Autumn edition of New Trail magazine, in which President Samarasekera declares that the leader she most admires is — wait for it! — Margaret Thatcher. *

In an interview with Woman’s Own magazine in 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously pitted herself against any belief in “society.” Her remarks there not only include the notorious declaration that “there is no such thing as society” but the claim that: 

It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation . . . .

The unfortunate thing about Thatcher’s “reciprocal business”: it wanted individuals to operate without “society” — at least in the form of the social goods that would permit both individuals and “society” to thrive. British society and the British academy in particular continue to pay the price for the disinvestment in social and public goods to which Thatcher was committed. (Months later Thatcher’s remarks about “society” were still rankling sufficiently with the British public that Downing Street asked The Sunday Times to publish an “elucidation.”) Dr. Turpin’s idea of the “virtuous circle of the public university” depends fundamentally on the opposite of Thatcher’s logic: we must presume our obligations to one another, and both government and the academy must be leaders in shaping the social sense of the necessity of investment in social goods. “Communities rise and fall,” Dr. Turpin noted, “on their willingness to invest in other people.” 

How can we not heartily welcome a President-elect who used the opportunity of his first public speech in his new role not only to speak about the place of the University in our social investments but to suggest to the provincial government’s representative that he has a certain expectation of the provincial government’s obligations to Albertan society

And Dr. Turpin wasn’t the only one this morning speaking about society. From the Chair of the Board of Governors, Doug Goss, we heard the following: “This University must be a leader in addressing some of the profound challenges facing civilization . . . . I believe that our society will be measured in great part by our ability to solve some of the great challenges of our time.”

All right! Let’s get on with it.

Welcome, Dr. Turpin!

And kudos to Mayor Don Iveson for declaring in his remarks that the first thing that leapt out at him from the brief bio of Dr. Turpin placed in his hand this morning was Dr. Turpin’s role, as President at the University of Victoria, in nurturing a ten-fold increase in the number of indigenous students there.

* Thank you to my colleague Janice Williamson for bringing this item to my attention.

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