The Trent University Draft Strategic Research Plan (SRP), presented for senate approval, was met with a surprising result of “Opposed” at the recent February senate meeting.
The SRP was defeated with 11 opposed votes and only six votes in favour of the plan. Six eligible voters were declared abstentions, but there were still a number of people who did not vote or declare an abstention.
“I found certain things in [the] SRP were either problematic or [that I] wanted to know more about,” said the Graduate Student senator Kaitlyn Watson. As a graduate student, Watson observed there are no programs necessarily dedicated to a research area although one could still do research.
“So there is a tension between programing and describing some of these as our strategic research areas,” she said.
Watson commented on how it is interesting that Trent prides itself on interdisciplinary learning because although some research areas are interdisciplinary, she still finds an interesting tension between the research that is happening and the way one has to describe the research conducted.
In addition, Watson noticed, “As a graduate student, other than being a student senator, I don’t know how graduate students were involved in the SRP.”
However, Watson finds the SRP to be forward-looking, even if it has identified places where Trent doesn’t have programming, because it is looking for growth in areas that can be strengths for Trent.
Lady Eaton College senior senator, Duc Hien Nguyen, explained, “I didn’t see a clear link between [the] SRP and the Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA). I don’t want to see one of them contradicting the other, so that’s why I voted prudently.”
For instance, Nguyen described how the SRP has three main themes and one of them is healthy and sustainable communities. “There is something about health in there but Trent don’t necessarily have a medical program,” he said.
There is no mention in the SMA that the university is developing such a program, so according to Nguyen, it is not within reason to tell the government one thing and then have an internal document that is different. “It had not been explained to us, so we are not sure what is happening there,” Nguyen said.
But it is not to say that it is not a good document, Nguyen assured.
It is a visionary, comprehensive document that talks about elements such as commercialization and how to improve the strength of faculty and researchers, he said. So, as a whole, it makes a lot of sense.
One particular idea in the document is that by 2030, Trent will have an institute for humanities research. This goes to show they are trying to take a bold step and give a firm answer as to what Trent’s identity could be in the next 30 years, Nguyen noted.
Further, he mentioned that this a strategic plan for five years that is still in the making. Being delayed by a month doesn’t mean much, as long as they have more time for communication and time to think about it, he said.
Vice-president of Research and International Senator Dr. Neil Emery, addressed the senate after the vote, “Frankly, I am surprised and I don’t feel like I have clarity on why it was defeated and would appreciate comprehensive feedback over the next week.”
According to Emery, there are two types of concerns raised that might have played into SRP being defeated. The first is academics, which is natural given this type of document. However, in his defense, the research committee had made changes to the SRP, incorporated the comments, and took on all the feedback that had been gathered from the academics at the senate last November.
The other type of concern had to do with the earlier discussion on the SMA. This created a lot of anxiety, Emery supposed, since it is government-imposed. The concern was that the SRP was not aligned with the SMA.
According to Emery, the research plan is very flexible and it aligns wells with the mandate agreement.
“In fact, the SMA was informed by the research plan as it was being written in its earlier forms,” he reported.
The main job of the SRP is to state the research strength of the university and that’s what it has done. It layers very well with the SMA, which is a work in progress and which will continue to be informed by the SRP.
In fact, when one of the representatives from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU) had come to see what makes Trent different and what Trent is all about, the one document that he was given and was most impressed by was the draft SRP.
The next step for the SRP is to open it up for comments in an effort to get it to the March senate meeting, but Emery doesn’t feel much is going to change.
However, there has been one strong argument in particular that may lead to minor changes, and that is from the humanities area. He pointed out that in the last round when they closed off in January for comments, it was mostly humanities feedback.
He explained that they are in a vulnerable position these days so they are quite concerned about a plan like this. Emery has been working with the humanities caucus to get them aligned with it, but he doesn’t think they are the ones who voted against it because they had a lot of input.
He went on to outline some of the SRP’s implications. He explained that the plan originates from the institutional grants. Trent has 12 Chairs as part of the Canada research chairs program, out of which three or four vacancies are currently available. However, to start the process, he needs the SRP as a foundation for the application.
Another institutional grant is the Canadian Foundation for Innovation that got a water quality centre on for $6 million. The university can only pitch these grants based on the research strength, as written in the SRP.
Currently, Trent is directed by a plan that is expiring, and it does not represent the current strengths of the university. Senator Emery said they have changed quite a bit in the last five years. For instance, they have initiatives such as launching a new research Centre for Aging & Society.
They are not in the old plan any longer; they are in the new plan and it would really help them move ahead if they had something to base that on, he said.
There is always the risk that it might not get approved, too, Emery said. “If there is something wrong with the process, I can accept that, but we have to keep bringing it back to senate until it is in an acceptable state so we can move ahead,” he added.
However, there is an opportunity lost of research performance at the university until they get it in place, and besides, Trent is not going to look very good using the six-year-old plan that is not representative of the university.
“I am shepherding this process and my field’s been very good, but I feel that I probably have not gotten that message out,” he stated.
The research office can easily be misunderstood because they are often thought of as something “over there,” separate from the rest of the university. However, and quite on the contrary, they have been dovetailing research with the teaching agenda for at least the last three years of his supervision.
Emery assured that they rarely buy out researchers from their teaching, but rather want the best researchers teaching the students.
He firmly confirmed that the research department is very much integrated with the rest of the university and is not a separate element.
Emery continued to talk about how the SRP is ultimately ready, but expressed, “I didn’t do a good job informing the senators of the process and of the value of the representation that has gone in to writing it.”
So, he is out there trying to do a better job of getting those messages out. However, in the end, if people say they don’t like what’s happened and it needs to be redone, then it will have to be redone, he said.
But he strongly feels that this is not the case.
“We are really proud of what came out,” Emery said, and added that it would very disappointing to have it tossed back, saying something is wrong, after all the hard work that was put in by the research committee and everyone involved.