Priorities: Creative Inquiry, Conversation, and Community


William Robins
Victoria University

October 2017


In my installation address as the 13th President of Victoria University, in October of 2015, I described the role that Vic has played and can continue to play as a leader in Canadian post-secondary education. At that time I drew attention to how Vic successfully creates an environment where students discover how to match their distinctive talents to some of the world's most pressing questions. I stressed that by nurturing their spirit of inquiry inside and outside the classroom our students will cultivate habits of inquiry, respect, and resilience that will serve them throughout their lives.

During my first two years in the presidency I have had the opportunity to test these and other ideas about Vic’s transformative potential with many groups of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. My consultations have led me to appreciate more fully just how distinctive and positive Vic’s style of education is. I found widespread respect for Vic’s outsize impact upon liberal and theological education in Canada. I also found deep regard for the welcoming, supportive culture of Victoria. I found a common sense that if Vic is to stay true to its ethos and history it should elaborate new ways to champion its approach to education and its culture of respect.

With this document, “Creative Inquiry, Conversation, and Community,” I offer for discussion a set of four presidential priorities for Victoria University as we move forward. They map out a set of areas—diversity and inclusivity, intercultural understanding, undergraduate research, and transitions beyond university—where we can intensify our focus, even as we sustain current initiatives that already make Vic distinctive, tailoring our mission in light of the changing landscape of higher education today. With the title “Creative Inquiry, Conversation, and Community,” I celebrate three ideals of practice which characterize Vic’s academic ethos, and which blend together in each of the four priorities. By speaking of the priorities as “Directions,” I hope to signal that they are natural outgrowths of what Vic already does well.

Victoria University has been well served by a tradition of nimble, organic, and collegial direction-setting. In preparing this discussion paper I have reviewed two decades’ worth of presidential messages and annual statements in Vic Report and of institutional priorities as presented annually to the Board of Regents. I have examined the strategic plan of Emmanuel College, the annual reports on the Principal’s priorities for Victoria College, and the self-studies and periodic reviews of all departments of the University. Helpful for setting Vic within its wider Toronto context have been the reviews of the Faculty of Arts and Science, the “Toward 2030” strategic plan of the University of Toronto, and especially President Meric Gertler’s “Three Priorities: A Discussion Document.” I have consulted broadly within the Victoria and University of Toronto communities, and I look forward to the further consultations to which “Creative Inquiry, Conversation, and Community” will give rise.

The ideas behind “Creative Inquiry, Conversation, and Community” will be presented to the Victoria University Senate, the Victoria College Council, the Board of Regents, and the Emmanuel College Advisory Committee in the Fall of 2017. This document will also be shared with academic leaders across the University of Toronto, and posted on the President’s page of the University website. In the subsequent months further consultative conversations will be arranged with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members in order to hear what resonates within the Vic community and in order to better understand the opportunities we face.


The Distinctiveness of Victoria

For nearly two centuries Victoria University has strengthened the communities of Ontario, Canada, and the world by transforming the lives of students in an academic community dedicated to intellectual curiosity and engaged conversation. Federated with the University of Toronto, Vic integrates the strengths of one of the world’s great research universities with the personal scale, responsiveness, and warm camaraderie of a rewarding college community. The University’s two colleges, Victoria College and Emmanuel College, are recognized as leaders in upholding the ideals of undergraduate liberal education and graduate theological education, and in adapting these ideals to twenty-first century needs.

Victoria University is known for a distinctive approach to education. Victoria was the first college in Canada explicitly founded upon the ideals of a liberal education. From its Methodist origins to the ideal formulated by President Emeritus Paul Gooch that education is “More than a matter of degree,” Victoria has always encouraged students to build bridges between their academic studies and their conscientious engagement with the world beyond the campus. Vic understands that small-scale, face-to-face conversations are fundamental for harnessing intellectual energy, for stimulating inquisitiveness, and for building respect for others. 

Vic’s approach to education emphasizes curiosity-driven intellectual inquiry, engaged conversation, and a passion for community. These three ideals of practice are attested in our curricular offerings, our co-curricular programming, and our support services. Our two colleges aim to empower all students, irrespective of cultural background, gender identity, or socioeconomic status, with capabilities for critical thinking, creative inquiry, conscientious discernment, and the civil exchange of views. By honing these skills, students become well equipped to deal with complexity, diversity, and change during the course of their studies and over their entire lives. Our common purpose creates a strong sense of community that brings together students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, and does so in the environment of Vic’s inspiring, historic campus in the heart of the vibrant city of Toronto.

Since starting as President in 2015, one of my highest priorities has been to sustain this vision which has served Victoria University so well, by supporting the programs and initiatives which have made Victoria College and Emmanuel College truly distinctive within the landscape of Canadian higher education. That landscape, of course, is continually changing. As university courses elsewhere increase in size and as online delivery of educational content becomes widespread, Victoria’s commitment to face-to-face, conversation-based learning becomes even more distinctive—and even more important. As the city and country we dwell in become more vibrantly multicultural, as universities become more global in their reach, and as a larger portion of the population attends university, students from all walks of life are wondering what it means to find their place at Vic.  Amidst these and other changes Vic cannot rest on its laurels, even as it stays true to its mission and values.


Direction 1: Practice Inclusive Excellence

Like the wider University of Toronto, Vic has a remarkably diverse student body. Such diversity is not simply coincidental. It is an essential aspect of how Canadian universities fulfill both their civic and their intellectual missions. Universities ready students to flourish in a socially variegated world, where the most pressing problems we face—environmental, political, economic, humanitarian—include cross-cultural and global dimensions. The questions that are posed in our classrooms, lecture halls and labs, and the responses we develop, become credible to the degree that multiple perspectives are encouraged and taken seriously. At Vic, students, faculty, and staff learn to share the lives and interests of people who might not have previously been in their circle, forming friendships, and expanding their horizons within a stimulating, collegial, and challenging atmosphere. Vic is committed to helping students from all walks of life, including marginalized and under-represented groups, to flourish in a community dedicated to critical thinking, creative inquiry, and the civil exchange of views. We celebrate the values of diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance as essential components of a rewarding academic environment, of a successful workplace, and of a more humane and just world.

We can strengthen our existing diversity by taking seriously our urban context and the wider international arena of which it is a part. This necessitates the further development of local, national, and international recruitment strategies, targeting Toronto high schools serving populations traditionally under-represented in Canadian universities, and explaining the Vic experience to potential students from all provinces of Canada, the United States, and overseas:  their varied viewpoints will enhance our already polyvocal classrooms. At the same time, we will further bolster services on campus for our students, so that once they have arrived at Vic they find the support required to succeed, keeping in mind the needs of students from under-represented groups, including Indigenous students, racialized students, and students from sexual and gender minorities.  We will devote special focus to students who are of the first generation in their family to attend university, seeking to develop programs that help them navigate the challenging transition from high school to undergraduate studies, familiarizing them with the resources, expectations, and terminologies unique to the university system. Likewise, we will address the hurdles which international students encounter as they adjust to university life in Canada. Maintaining an environment of diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance for the faculty and staff of Victoria University is similarly indispensable.

Along with the Province of Ontario and the University of Toronto, Victoria University holds that no students should be turned away or have to cease their studies because of financial difficulties; the discoveries of tomorrow should not be blocked by the financial pressures of today. Many of our students face difficult balancing acts, combining coursework with jobs, family responsibilities, community involvement, and other financial responsibilities. Vic’s extensive scholarship and bursary programs accordingly play a significant role in offsetting some of the cost of university for hundreds of students every year. Over the coming years we will energetically fundraise to increase the number of endowed student awards and bursaries available, and we will create admissions awards that consider need in concert with academic merit. 

Direction 2: Foster Intercultural Understanding

The second presidential priority—to foster intercultural understanding—flows naturally from the first and builds on programs already engrained in Victoria’s tradition. Liberal education is doubly empowering, enabling students to acquire important bodies of knowledge, and helping them develop habits of learning necessary to navigate the complexities of the world with sensitivity and adaptability. Theirs will be a world characterized by multicultural diversity, geographic mobility, and global interconnectedness, where established power structures and assumptions about cultural difference will increasingly be called into question. Some of the most valuable habits that universities can impart are thus those of intercultural dialogue and understanding. Our students benefit greatly from forums for discussing complex ideas with those who offer valuably different cultural perspectives or with whom they disagree. The small-scale, conversation-based, face-to-face learning environments at both of our colleges cultivate a willingness to be confident, open-minded, curious, and gracious at the same time. The University of Toronto and Victoria University are places where thousands of arguments productively collide and connect, enabling students from multiple cultural backgrounds to become patient, respectful, inquisitive, attentive—capable of discovering new ways to speak with and listen to others, as well as new ways of understanding themselves.

Emmanuel College, with its ecumenical ethos, its commitment to social justice, and its interreligious curriculum, is leading the way among Canada’s theological institutions in fostering intercultural understanding; students of many faiths study alongside each other in programs of Christian Theology, Muslim Studies, and Buddhist Studies, as they train for positions of leadership within their faith communities.

Victoria College is likewise animated by a generous openness to others and a willingness to question cultural assumptions. The programs at both colleges enable cross-cultural dialogue, while making the dynamic of cultural exchange a topic of study in its own right. The Literature and Critical Theory program, for example, is predicated upon the analysis of cultural translation, studying cultures from around the world and theorizing the responsibilities that such study entails. Our co-curricular programs similarly enable conversations about cultural difference: the trailblazing Ideas for the World program creates powerful interactions among students and community members who have never before had the opportunity to participate in university classes, reconfiguring in the process assumptions about university education in a world of social inequality. In the coming years Victoria University will advance its commitment to intercultural understanding by consolidating these and other signature initiatives—such as financial support for students to study abroad—and by encouraging all academic and co-curricular programs to expand their discussions of complex cross-cultural issues.

In particular, it is imperative that we foster understanding of the cultures and histories of Indigenous communities. Victoria University must contribute sincerely and meaningfully to the steps outlined in Answering the Call / Wecheehetowin, the Final Report of the Steering Committee for the University of Toronto Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These include (but are not limited to) supporting Indigenous students during their university careers, and familiarizing non-Indigenous students with Indigenous perspectives and content. Affirming that in Canada “We are all treaty people,” the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon educational institutions to build “student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” and “to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” At Vic, first steps in this direction include a course on Indigenous Spiritualities at Emmanuel College, experiences working with Indigenous communities in the Education and Society program, and conferences addressing reconciliation on university campuses.  As Victoria University tackles these responsibilities, there will be many ways for us to increase the visible presence of Indigenous people and cultures on campus, and to integrate more comprehensively Indigenous content and ways of knowing in the programs of both of our colleges. To ensure that our steps in this direction are arrived at through close engagement with Indigenous communities, we will work closely with First Nations House, the Indigenous Studies Program, and the Director of Aboriginal Initiatives at the University of Toronto, and we will establish an Indigenous Advisory Circle at Victoria University. 


Direction 3: Engage Undergraduate Students as Active Creators of Knowledge

Victoria University, federated as it is with Canada’s premier research university, has a chance to be at the forefront of current efforts to reconceive the relationship between the teaching and research aims of Canadian higher education. For many decades, at least since the 1960s, the dominant model for universities in North America has distinguished between the research mission of the university—involving the discovery of new knowledge and its publication in peer-reviewed journals by professors and graduate students—and its teaching mission—the enduring commitment to disseminate knowledge through undergraduate instruction. But as the educational environment has changed, a new model is emerging where the teaching of undergraduates and the research enterprises of universities are increasingly intertwined. This new model is especially suited to the University of Toronto, with its extensive undergraduate programs and its uncommon research strengths, and it underpins its priority to “Reinvent Undergraduate Education.” By making undergraduate research a prime area for innovation, and by anchoring initiatives of creative inquiry within a practice of liberal education, Victoria can play a leading role in effecting this important shift. 

Through their involvement in research projects students learn methods of advanced inquiry, turning their chosen academic interests into a set of sophisticated interpretive skills. Through research, students understand more deeply the parameters, technical procedures, and investigatory ethics of a specific scholarly discipline; they participate in new forms of interpretation such as hospital labs, digital maker spaces, and entrepreneurship hubs; they gain experience in project design, problem solving, and data analysis; and they cultivate habits of communication, collaboration, independence, and public engagement. Instead of thinking of themselves as passive recipients of existing ideas, students become active creators of knowledge at the cutting edge of their disciplines, enhancing rather than eclipsing the dispositions already developed through their liberal education: intellectual exploration, probing conversation, and teamwork.

We are well positioned to contribute to the reorganization of undergraduate research. Victoria College has academically strong students, faculty fellows with rigorous research profiles, a library rich with resources, research centres that promote undergraduate research, as well as the graduate research strengths of its sister college Emmanuel. In the last two years Victoria College has made important interventions in this domain, creating the position of Undergraduate Research Coordinator, launching an Undergraduate Research Day, appointing undergraduate fellows at the Northrop Frye Centre, and, most notably, coordinating with the Jackman Humanities Institute the successful Scholars-in-Residence program.

Going forward, we will celebrate Vic as a place where creative research thrives, as we develop an integrated community encompassing undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, research fellows, and emeriti. We will continue to extend the success of the Scholars-in-Residence program, encourage Vic’s teaching staff and research centres to broaden opportunities for undergraduate research, and increase the capacity of the libraries to contribute to undergraduate research projects. To ensure that these initiatives have their maximum impact, we will be working with our partners at the University of Toronto and our donor community to achieve efficient collaborative structures, appropriate spaces, and reliable resourcing for existing and new undergraduate research programs.

Direction 4: Ready Students to Flourish Beyond University

At Victoria University, Emmanuel College offers graduate programs preparing students for leadership in faith communities, chaplaincy, and community organizations, while Victoria College upholds the values of an undergraduate liberal education, readying students not so much for any single career as for a lifetime of flourishing. The two college’s missions grow out of a shared commitment: to inculcate habits of reflection that, by speaking to the whole human being, allow graduates to become exemplary participants and leaders in their communities.

Advocates of universities are often called upon to explain the value of a liberal education, whether as a public good which benefits the society that supports it, or as an individual good benefitting the graduates as they make their way in the world. While the model of liberal education remains strong and continues to be attractive to students from around the world, the changing nature of the economy has introduced a new degree of anxiety regarding the kind of skills students hone in university and have at their disposal when they graduate. This concern, frequently voiced by parents, employers, and governments, is increasingly felt by students themselves. How will they be able to turn the experiences gained in the university to their endeavours after it? By designing new initiatives that respond to this question, Victoria College has a terrific opportunity to translate the values of a liberal education into the wider terms of society at large, and to allow students to be confident that they are ready for what lies beyond.

The liberal education offered at the University of Toronto and championed at Victoria College graduates students who are capable of analyzing complex ideas, texts, and data sets, of seeing what others have missed, and of communicating their discoveries with clarity and precision. Our approach to education helps students to evaluate topics from multiple perspectives, to understand the implications of arguments advanced by others, and to respond persuasively with arguments of their own.  When Victoria students graduate, they should be confident in their ability to work productively both individually and as part of a team, to use technology to the benefit of individuals and communities, and to solve problems with creativity, intensity, and effectiveness.

Moving forward, Victoria University will strive to develop special programs that help students hone these skills and grow aware of how they can apply them beyond the campus walls. Our award-winning Vic One program facilitates the transition of students into the first year of university, setting them up with habits of creative inquiry, conversation, and community-building which serve them in good stead throughout their undergraduate careers. Victoria College is now ready to develop analogous programs that focus instead on the transition out of university, preparing students to excel in whatever endeavours come next: full-time employment, graduate school, community work, etc. Like Vic One, the new programs will be animated by Vic’s commitment to conversation-based learning, critical thinking, high-impact pedagogy, and strong sense of community. Meanwhile, at Emmanuel College, a new Certificate in Spiritual Care will open yet another way to prepare students for a purposeful career, and plans for this innovative program deserve our full support.

Creating effective transitions programs will require the cohesive coordination of several departments at Vic—Victoria College, the Library, and the offices of the Dean of Students, the Registrar, and Alumni Affairs and Advancement—to bring into being the kind of programming that will be most feasible for Vic and that will best serve our students.  Vic already strives to support students holistically, with close coordination among academic, registrarial, career, and personal counseling services. Moreover, we enjoy a strong network of alumni who are eager to be more involved as mentors and advisers to students. Building on our existing strengths, we will work with the University of Toronto and the Faculty of Arts and Science to provide undergraduate students with outstanding transitions programming, affording them the chance to apply skills developed in university even as they move into the world beyond it. 


The presidential priorities outlined in the preceding pages touch above all upon academic programs and the student experience.  Even as we pursue the directions mapped out here, Vic is committed to sustaining the buildings, operations, and resources that make our educational enterprises possible. Northrop Frye Hall, one of Victoria College’s main academic buildings, will soon be undergoing redevelopment; the result will be a well-planned landmark that will enhance the delivery of academic programs and services. Meanwhile our other physical assets, including residences, infrastructure, and signature interior and exterior spaces, will continue to receive improvements in line with the directions envisioned in the 2010 Campus Master Plan and the 2016 Grounds Master Plan.

Operationally, we will continue to work closely with our partners across the University of Toronto on a wide range of issues, including enrolment planning, student services, communication, information technology and systems, utilities infrastructure, and security. In terms of resources, Victoria benefits from thoughtful oversight by the Board of Regents of its endowments, physical assets, and properties, from prudent fiscal management, and from talented, dedicated employees: the future health of our programs and operations will depend upon the continued application of care and conscientiousness in these areas.

Many of the directions outlined above call for new initiatives that will require financial and human capital; to plan, create, and sustain these programs, we will, as appropriate, pursue grant funding, fundraise among our generous donor community, and reallocate existing resources within the relevant academic and administrative departments.  All of the University’s departments and constituencies can contribute to these four priority directions and to the ongoing mission of the university as we collaborate on enhancing Vic’s distinctive educational identity. 

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