Opinions

Funny thing about

Imposing interdiscipline in a faraway land

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Five million dollars. Three hundred students. One new building.

The O'Brien Centre for the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program--yes that is the name of the building--promises to bring together leading students and researchers for a multidisciplinary, problem-solving, group-learning experience.

This is a noble goal made possible by a noble gift from the O'Briens during a time of financial turmoil for the rest of the university. Academic units face a seven per cent cut over two years, tuition is about to skyrocket, jobs are downsized and here we are sprouting another new shiny building for science and/or technology. Every undergraduate student whose program faces restructuring or elimination will surely benefit from a new, far-away building at Foothills Hospital filled with researchers and 300 students living in an academic bubble.

Though competing U of C press releases claim that either 300 or 345 undergraduates will be able to use the new building, the university's aim is clear. "Educators and researchers from faculties across the university... coming together to create a remarkable educational experience... Graduates of the program will be in high demand, and will help meet Alberta's need for professionals..." the university says.

Alberta needs skilled carpenters, truck drivers, and teachers too, according to the want ads, and a lot more than 75 of each per year.

Will this wonderful public institution that has served Calgary and Alberta for almost 50 years now start responding to the community's needs, or simply keep abreast of its own desires?

"We believe that the O'Brien Centre will attract applications from some of the very best students across Canada," proclaims U of C President Harvey Weingarten. "This gift will help us mount a program that incorporates the kind of learning experience we want for all of our undergraduate students: high quality, inquiry and research based, and interdisciplinary."

One wonders why the kind of experience Weingarten desires for his new building--and the education of students within it, too--sounds like a lofty goal and not standard practice. Contrary to the beliefs of some in the university bureaucracy, we do not need a new building, particularly this new building, to achieve co-operation among faculty.

Multidisciplinary study has been a staple of the U of C for decades. All of the pre-Academic Plan buildings on campus have, since they were constructed, crammed scholars from many fields together by necessity. Academics at the university, be they students, faculty, researchers, or other interested parties simply had to walk down the hall to speak to someone whose academic interests differed from their own.

Artificially wedding distant faculties in a new building will provide mixed results at best, especially when computer scientists, kinesiologists, sociologists, biologists and all the others Weingarten hopes to interdiscipline together already collaborate on the main campus. Unlike the ICT or CCIT buildings, where scientists of almost any variety can find intellectual companionship and germinate new ideas, the O'Brien Centre has the potential to become a font of leading-edge research, or a sterile mule born of parents of sound academic lineage.

Before the mule can drink, one must bring it to water. But who would come to the main campus for the Nalgene bottle of Science B water, when you bathe in Evian and Perrier?

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