Over the next eight years Canadian universities expect a 20 to 30 percent increase in student enrolment. Canada’s universi- ties will have to replace approximately 20,000 retiring faculty members, and hire 20,000 more to respond to student needs.

If Canadian universities are to be competitive by international stan- dards, we will need to attract $6.4 bil- lion in new research funding, and another $6.2 billion in operating rev- enues. At the same time, we will award 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees and 330,000 graduate degrees.

Canada’s university graduates will form the core of this country’s educated professionals, entrepreneurs and com- munity leaders. They will form the vir- tual heart of Canada’s economic prosperity, health and social well-being.

The competition for the best stu- dents, for the best professors and staff, for superb ideas, high impact innova- tions and for investment is already intense. It is also worldwide. The time when competition was essentially local is long gone. Canada and Quebec will prosper only to the extent that they can place in this worldwide competition.

Early on, the city in which this university is located, Montreal, quickly found its identity as a port, a trading city, a place that benefited from a mix of cultures and a diversity of new ideas and high aspirations, a place that was open to the world.

Paradoxically, our city is also an island, separated from the rest of North America by water. And this fluid border serves as a subtle reminder for us to stand back from the buzz and clatter of an accelerating, and, increas- ingly, non-reflective society.

Just as the brain is surrounded by protective and nurturing fluids, our presence on this island reminds us to think deeply. To question accepted ways. To take the time to seek pro- found solutions to problems that oth- ers may be unwilling to face.

And like our island, our university also has a mountain at its centre, " encouraging us to lift ourselves to higher standards. To be truly worth- while, our efforts must have a higher purpose and we must achieve our higher purpose. And our presence on this mountain facing the St. Lawrence River encourages us to ask ourselves, ”œWhat is our higher purpose?” What are we doing " not just for survival or comfort but, linking out to others, for the benefit of our environment, of humankind, and of the other species with whom we share this world?

The privilege of standing on this mountain confers on us a duty to see farther than others, to share what we see, to consider our place in the world, and to act on our insights, to seize our distinctive leadership role. And that is what we are doing.

Consider for a moment the ”œinfor- mation revolution.” Twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate stu- dent, I did my research on huge main- frame computers. To make sure we could get time on them, we had to book these days in advance. At that time nearly 100 percent of the world’s computer power was in stand-alone mainframes. Today, nearly 100 percent of it is in small personal computers whose capacity, according to Moore’s Law, doubles every 18 months.

And most of those little desktop and laptop computers are connected by millions of Web sites to approxi- mately a billion Internet users. But even though we call this the ”œinforma- tion revolution,” these computers at best manage and multiply information. The university champions knowledge over information " knowledge that continues to be created by human imagination, human curiosity and human intellect. The computers just collate information and move it around quickly and indiscriminately.

Yet even in the case of informa- tion, where it is unmanaged, unreflect- ed, or without conscience, the action of moving it around can give rise to computer bugs, viruses and the spread of non-productive and, sometimes, destructive information " hate litera- ture, child pornography, Internet pred- ators. Twenty-five years ago, we did not see that coming.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student in epidemiology " the study of epidemics " we were told that the age of infectious diseases was over. Conquered. From now on human health considerations would be limited to the so-called ”œman-made” diseases " cancer, heart disease, psychiatric disorders.

But that vision, too, was limited. It did not anticipate the return of tuberculosis, or the emergence of AIDS or SARS, or the new generations of super-viruses. Twenty-five years ago our confidence in biomedical science was cocky. We let down our guard. Now we find ourselves engaged in a desperate race with unanticipated immunological diseases and super- viruses. But we can be comforted that at McGill, we have people working on these problems 24 hours a day… Health professionals, life scientists, we are a research-intensive university with a renowned medical school. This is what we do.

And there is another, equally dan- gerous and perhaps more pernicious, development that we did not anticipate 25 years ago: the re-emergence of sectar- ian hatred and intolerance. With the exception of some ancient conflicts in distant parts of the world, we did not see this coming. We did not expect hatred and intolerance to reach across the globe and invade our modern lives. But here it is. And we have to marshal our resources " all of us " our physical resources, our spiritual resources, our intellectual resources, and our human resources to pursue ways of eliminating this incendiary ignorance that has reap- peared to attack our civil society.

The ability of humankind to advance is the result of learning and research. And there is no differ- ence, in my mind, between pure and applied research or between hard and soft science. In fact, all research is pure until, miraculously, it finds its application. Let me give you an example:

In 1924, a French physicist, Louis de Broglie, suggested that elec- tron beams might be regarded asa form of wave motion. In 1926 it was demonstrated that magnetic or elec- trostatic fields could serve as lenses for beams of electrons. This initiated the study of electron optics, a new area of research offering the hope of being able to look more deeply into very small things.

It took another seven years before a true electron microscope was built, and an additional thirteen years before the achievement of a high resolution elec- tron microscope was made possible by the invention of a device known as a stigmator, a device that compensates for astigmatism in the objective lens. So it wasn’t until 1946 that the first really good electron microscope became available.

A year later, in 1947, Jonas Salk arrived at the University of Pittsburgh, and in collaboration with researchers at other universities, began studying the polio virus. With these new high- resolution microscopes, it was possible for Dr. Salk and his colleagues to look more deeply into the polio virus than had previously been possible.

The microscopes Dr. Salk used were of a complexity that he proba- bly could not fully comprehend, and of a design that depended on skills Dr. Salk did not possess. Still, he used the equipment well, and eight years later, in 1955, the polio vac- cine was released in North America " the result of a chain of research discoveries, largely done at universi- ties, the most important of which had no practical application at the time of their discovery.

So if you ask me, ”œIs research important?” I will tell you, ”œYes.” Vitally important. Research results in knowledge, and solutions, in every human endeav- our. Ambitious research attracts the most talented professors, and the most promis- ing students. Research is about pushing the limits of our imagination in every direction. The eureka moment does not occur in a vacuum " it requires dili- gence, it requires funding, it flourishes in a culture of optimism and excel- lence. A vision of a research-intensive culture requires world-class personnel and the infrastructure to support it. A culture of excellence creates a critical mass of excellence.

James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the chemical structure of the DNA molecule, did not work alone. They were theoreticians, model- builders, dreamers. Among the other brilliant minds that surrounded them at Cambridge was a precise, cutting-edge, x-ray diffraction crystallographer named Rosalind Franklin. Crick and Watson needed her work to confirm their theoretical musings. Without her, they couldn’t know if they were on the right path or the wrong one. Ultimately, it was Rosalind Franklin who showed concretely that the DNA molecule was a double-helix supporting a ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis. Today, she too, might well have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

There was also an American organic chemist, Jerry Donahue, who happened to share an office nearby. He told Watson to disregard the bonding measurements in the standard organic chemistry text- books. Donahue said that the traditional textbooks, which had been written with- out the benefit of the latest electron microscopes and x-ray diffraction tech- nology, were littered with errors.

This freed Watson from certain creative constraints. So, to exist, excel- lence must be surrounded by excel- lence. And there must be creative nterplay. Miracles do not happen in a vacuum. They happen in a culture.

The McGill name carries a world- wide reputation for research. If we can be reasonably competitive in terms of our resources and enormously strategic in our application of them, we can achieve a very strong comparative advantage when competing for the best talent in the world.

How then do we nurture their tal- ent and all that they contribute? For starters we need an improved, stable public funding framework that supports effectively and competitively superb teaching as well as research " and teaching linked to our research and its product. Education is at least as important to society as good health care.

Overall, Canadian universities are seriously underfunded. And Quebec universities are funded significantly below the Canadian average.

The governments that are our part- ners in this enterprise must accept that top-level university teaching and research nourish unlimited branches of economic growth, population health and community well-being. History has shown us that jurisdictions that commit wholeheartedly to advancing the boundaries of pure knowledge are rewarded. Knowledge is the most valu- able product of this age " more valuable than oil, more valuable than gold. Creat- ing knowledge and defining solutions are a core mission of our university. 

And, we know that the public purse alone is insufficient to sus- tain excellent teaching and research leader- ship, or to attract and support the best talent 

Supporting the best requires the investment of wise governments to be accompanied by funds from other sources. Part of the cost of excellence is supported by our generous philanthropists. And some of the cost must also be borne through tuition fees but always linked to increasing aid for those in need. Tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen for a decade since 1994, and not even indexed to inflation. Quebec-based students pay basic tuition fees of approximately $1800 a year, less than half the cost in Ontario, and one-third the cost in Nova Scotia. Quebec tuition fees are the lowest in North America.

And this, in spite of the fact that many Quebecers choose to pay for a pri- vate education for their children when they are in primary or secondary school, and at some CEGEPs. What’s more, research shows that low frozen universi- ty tuition fees do not enhance access to higher education. And they certainly don’t sustain high quality programs.

Quebec’s university enrolment and graduation rates are below the Canadian average. Nova Scotia, with the highest fees, also has the highest university enrolment rate in Canada. In Ontario, more young people from economically disadvantaged families are now attend- ing university than previously, even though tuition rates have increased meaningfully, but with these increases tied to increases in student aid.

Moreover, in Western European countries that charge no tuition fees, university participation rates are lower still than Quebec. You simply don’t achieve high accessibility or sustain- able quality on the public purse alone. The evidence also suggests that financially able students who invest more in their education, have a greater stake in it. And for those who are financially dis- advantaged, even with free tuition they often cannot attend university because they are unable to support their basic living costs. Quebec students and their families who have the means should pay more than 10 percent of the cost of their edu- cation. And those who are not able should be adequately supported by stu- dent aid. Our legislators, our publics, and our universities, each of us, must have the courage to address this issue and to make the needed adjustments. If we do not, we will not achieve sufficient university par- ticipation or sustain quality " and quali- ty must become a greater preoccupation of Canadians. Otherwise we will fall behind…But we will not let that happen.


Excerpted from the Dorothy J. Killam Lecture at the Montreal Neurological Institute, October 2004.