Re-imagining the ivory tower / Reconcevoir la tour d’ivoire

By David Phipps (ResearchImpact, York)

KMb is enhancing transparency and access to universities but as we work hard at engaging we remain struck in silos inside the ivory tower.

La mobilisation des connaissances accroît la transparence et l’accès aux universités. Toutefois, malgré le travail acharné que nous accomplissons en ce sens, nous demeurons prisonniers des silos à l’intérieur de la tour d’ivoire.

Recently I attended a curling bonspiel in Ottawa and because my team lost as soon as they could I ended up on twitter and saw this @fedcan tweet

Good morning all! We’re live blogging @fedcan‘s annual conference this morning at

The Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences (FedCan) was holding their Annual Conference,  which featured a talk by SSHRC President, Chad Gaffield. The theme of the conference was “The Humanities Paradox: More Relevant and Less Visible Than Ever?” and the title of Chad’s talk was “Re-imagining Scholarship in the Digital Age“, both of which had a theme of exploring the relevance of academic research outside of the academy. Chad’s talk was wide ranging but for anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing Chad speak as many times as I have his observations were familiar. They were all linked by the theme of “re-imagining”, imaging a new paradigm of scholarship that is emerging on campuses across Canada. Specifically, Chad spoke of re-imagining in three areas: teaching, research and campus-community connections.


  • The old “professor push” method of teaching is evolving into a student centred, inquiry based method of learning. Text heavy, power point slides are being replaced by image heavy and digital rich media. Students are exploring problems rather than being told solutions.


  • Researchers are pursing horizontal connections across different ways of knowing. This means that researchers are not only reaching out to other scholarly disciplines but they are embracing community, Aboriginal and other traditions of knowledge.


  • Scholars are moving from a unilateral “producer push” knowledge transfer methodology to a multi-directional knowledge mobilization method of connecting with communities, governments and the private sector as active participants, not passive subjects throughout the research cycle.

Chad’s re-imagining of our campuses exchanges a paradigm of privilege with one of engagement. Learning, research and connections increasingly happen across the campus, across communities and across countries. This doesn’t replace the ivory tower but it creates windows for transparency and doors for access into and out of the ivory tower.

My question to Chad was not about the re-imagining, which is clearly underway. I observed that the new paradigm is being practiced but in silos. Although interdisciplinarity is emerging, engaged scholars in homelessness don’t speak with engaged scholars in immigration who don’t swap stories to those in business ethics (and that’s just on my own campus of York University). While universities like those in the ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche network are supporting KMb and engaged scholarship, the researchers and their partners remain in their silos. The ivory tower might have windows and doors but it remains a collective of individual offices each with walls and a door.

We need to re-imagine not just the walls of the ivory tower but the inside as well. Ivory towers need to open up inside as they are opening up outside. We are at risk of becoming good at talking to everyone except each other.

4 Responses to “Re-imagining the ivory tower / Reconcevoir la tour d’ivoire”

written by richard On 7 April 2011 Reply

Good post, David, and Chad’s comments really resonated for me (as they usually do). The challenge inside the university, though, is the important takeaway. When Deans and Chairs receive funding with an absolute dependence on bums in seats, they’ve got next to no motivation to support interdisciplinary teaching, team teaching, or alternate course delivery, unless it gets them more bums in more seats. (Or in fewer seats, if the course can move online and reduce the overhead costs!)

I was excited three years ago to establish teaching collaborations with my colleagues in other departments (environmental studies, history, and so on). I remain passionate about it, but since I’ve made no actual progress, it’s not easy to remain excited. Our silos are maintained in part through budget-driven administrative structures, and those continue to prove difficult to overcome.

Mind you, it’s not always easy just to find someone to talk to in other departments. When a great visiting speaker with multiple interests only draws a dozen attendees, all from the same department, it’s a bad sign for development of the genuinely interdisciplinary collegiality that we need individually to demonstrate.

written by researchimpact On 7 April 2011 Reply

Thanks for your comments. For a full accounting of Chad’s talk see the video at

I agree that our undergrad business model skews our ability to have a more engaged campus. Standard T&P also constrains academic creativity (see my previous blog on this at:

There is a lot of blog interest in this topic. I am pleased you have enjoyed our small contributions.

written by Sarah Morton On 4 May 2011 Reply

This sounds like an exciting presentation and its messages really resonate with some of the work we are doing here in the UK. In a time of recession and harsh budget cuts people are looking for new ways of working. Often the need is for people to be reflecting and learning while doing, and creating smarter ways of integrating academic knowledge with other kinds of learning. If the Universities can be brave enough to overcome some of the issues highlighted by Richard then we might create more room for innovation and different modes of operating.

written by David Phipps On 4 May 2011 Reply

Thanks for your comments Sarah. I like how you framed univesities needing to be BRAVE enough. We do need to embrace some new ways of thinking and acting or else we risk acting with our heads in the sand.

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