Unintended consequences: With red squares in the sunset, what is the value of a University education?

Tree growing out of bookExcuse me while I back into this.  In Charlottetown PEI, when I was young, for one day each year children would wear masks and roam the streets at night, walking from door to door to get candy from neighbours.  At some point children started to wear face paint instead of masks so they could see cars coming.  At some point parents started to walk with children to ensure their safety.  At some point people only visited homes of those they knew.  And, at some point in Charlottetown PEI and everywhere else, people started to lock their doors, and groups of masked children no longer roamed the streets on Halloween night calling out trick or treat.  With the benefit of hindsight, an unintended consequence is revealed – a last Halloween trick – our fear for our children diminished our community: our neighbours first became strangers and then potential predators.

I have been pondering unintended consequences.  Groups of masked and unmasked teenagers roam our streets at night, demonstrating for free or very inexpensive University education.  Many have said there can be no value attached to something that is free.  And perhaps that is the whole point.  Some of our articulate student leaders cannot seem to identify the value of a University education – and indeed they already wield influence without one.  An unintended consequence of these demonstrations is to raise the following question: what is the value of a University, what is the point of attending an elite institution like McGill?  A further unintended consequence is, if we were to demonize or belittle our future students, this would give rise to a potential estrangement from them.  Our respect for our future students means we must make our case to them, not be fearful or dismissive, not treat them as children, but treat them as the adults they soon will be.

Sometimes we forget what we do at a University, but it is simple enough: we change young people’s lives for the better through our teaching and research programs.   That is what we recognize and celebrate at convocation.  The conferral and acceptance of an honourary degree provides a opportunity to reflect upon shared values of the deepest nature.  Indeed, the singular success of one former student can be sufficient evidence to make McGill’s case.  That case is based on our empowering values: our respect for excellence and achievement, our embrace of high standards, our commitment to elitism in the service of changing young people’s lives for the better.

Bob Wares graduated from McGill University with an Honours BSc degree in Geological Sciences in 1979.  He then followed his dream of mineral exploration, mainly in the Labrador Trough and northern Ungava, with support from different companies and the Government of Quebec.  In 1998 he became President of Osisko Mining Corporation, a company with minor holdings in northern Ungava.  Bob took advantage of a downturn in the mining industry to do a new kind of resource exploration, a new kind of prospecting.  He researched a Quebec government database on old or abandoned mining prospects.  He had a theory that a potential – shall we say – gold mine of opportunity had been overlooked: low-grade but large-volume deposits.  His considerable experience in mineral exploration combined with his deep understanding of enrichment processes led to his new approach.  His research led him to a gold deposit in an old mining camp at Malartic.

That is impressive of itself, but there is more to the story.  Malartic is inhabited.  Bob and his company’s approach to the development of this low-grade high-volume deposit is a model of how to accomplish a major industrial development in an inhabited region, through constructive engagement with the local people.  Bob ensured the local population of Malartic were brought into the decision-making process for the mining development.

So, through his vision, entrepreneurial skills, his empathy and engagement with the local community, and through his sheer enthusiasm, Bob has seen his dream for this kind of deposit realized.  The Malartic deposit is recognized as one of the world’s top gold finds of the last decade, and its discovery has galvanized the search for other deposits of the same kind in Canada and around the world.  Bob Wares’ singular success in the exploration industry is testament to the value of a deep understanding of the science underlying enrichment processes in the Earth’s crust.  He is the quintessential scholar/entrepreneur.

This true-life adventure in geology is inspiring.  As well, Bob is a tireless, deeply committed volunteer for our University.  He is responsible for a generous and visionary gift that has revitalized McGill Geology – exactly when the resource industry is crying out for new young talent, and exactly when government plans are afoot to develop the North.  Simply put Bob wanted future students to benefit from an education of integrated teaching and research, an education of the kind Bob, an exemplary role model, himself received at McGill.  That is, an education based on our empowering values: our respect for excellence and achievement, our embrace of high standards, and our commitment to elitism in the service of changing young people’s lives for the better.  This is our case.  It gave Bob a leg up in 1979; it will give tomorrow’s and the future’s graduating students a leg up as well.

The unintended consequences of a university education are not always easy to foresee. However, I am confident that just like honorary doctorate recipient Bob Wares, the other members of McGill’s graduating class of 2012 will change the world as they move on in academe, commerce, politics, and the advancement of noble causes, in our own backyard and around the world.

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