The Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) is part of a provincial initiative implemented by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that aims to usher in sweeping changes to the province’s post-secondary system.

On September 17, Trent University administration quietly released the university’s draft Strategic Mandate Agreement, a document that sheds considerable light on the university’s strategic direction for the next decade.

The SMA process was announced by the Ministry on the heels of its controversial discussion paper, Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Innovation, Creativity and Knowledge. The process requires all of Ontario’s 44 post-secondary colleges and universities to submit a proposal by September 30 outlining an institutional vision, a strategic mandate, and three priority initiatives. The SMA proposal, once submitted, will then constitute the foundation for the institutions’ strategic directions until 2015 and according to Ministry spokeswoman Gyula Kovacs, the submissions could very well influence “government decisions including [funding] allocation and program approval.”

The format of the SMA process is competitive as the Ontario government has set up a $30 million dollar fund to reward the Strategic Mandate Agreements of select “leading” institutions that “identify areas of… specialization and align with provincial priorities.” The fund itself has been a source of controversy as it remains unclear whether the $30 million represents new money allocated to higher education or whether it will be funding reallocated from institutions with unsuccessful submissions.

Trent’s draft Strategic Mandate Agreement was prepare by a committee of university administrators including the President, Vice-Presidents and Deans. The document clearly represents an attempt to balance the traditional conceptions of Trent University with the provincial government’s demands for a more market-oriented post-secondary system.

These demands have drawn heated criticism from those within the academy however, according to Trent University President Steven Franklin, universities like Trent will likely be forced to conform to the provincial vision. Speaking in an interview on September 19 he stated: “[Universities] are working in a world in which… there are very few new resources and we have to show that [we]’re growing… into areas that are actually generating revenue and providing relief for the government.” Trent’s draft SMA clearly reflects this conclusion as it continually employs phrases such as “experiential learning”, “student mobility”, and “private sector investment” which have been readily borrowed from the province’s discussion paper.

The three priority initiatives outlined in the draft SMA chart a path that will focus on expanding, as well as professionalizing, Trent’s Environmental and Health Sciences. According to the document, this will occur through the creation of two dedicated learning centres: the Trent School of Society, Environment and Sustainability and the Trent Centre for Aging and Community. President Franklin explained that these particular areas were chosen because they represent both a natural progression from Trent’s academic planning and an opportunity to contribute to emerging sectors of economy.

The creation of the School of Society, Environment and Sustainability would involve the introduction of a variety of new programs relating to “water science and geospatial analysis” but would also feature components of business enterprise. The School would require significant capital development and, according to the university’s draft Development Plan, Trent would invest in expanding the Environmental Sciences Building as well as developing a sustainable village, or “Living Laboratory”, located at the corners of Nassau Mills and Armour Roads.

The proposed Centre for Aging and Community would require less capital development but would likely see the the introduction of new disciplines such as kinesiology and social work. The Centre would also involve inter-institution collaboration with universities and colleges in the surrounding area.

One notable question remains how Trent will differentiate these programs from those at competing universities. The University of Guelph, Lakehead University and the University of Waterloo are already well known for their environmental programs while McMaster University has just received a $10 million donation to study the effects of aging.

In response President Franklin argued that Trent would distinguish itself by approaching the issues in ways that focus on the university’s reputation for interdisciplanarity. When questioned on the competitiveness of the proposed Centre of Aging and Community, he replied that “[Trent] represents a strong alternative because we would not approach it from a medical perspective. We would approach [the issue] from the pschyo-sociological perspective, from the humanities and from the environment.”

The final priority initiative, called “Community Catalyst for Shared Prosperity and Innovation”, would concentrate on generating industrial and private sector development through the creation of an “innovation ecosystem”. Loosely translated, the initiative would create a research park “rooted in community-based experiential education, locally focused research, University-College partnerships, and knowledge transfer systems.”

The “Community Catalyst” initiative also calls for the university to play a greater role in community development by “engaging with the Peterborough community[’s]… recreational, economic, cultural and social needs.” This would necessitate a greater integration between Trent and the city, a notion demonstrated by the administration’s draft Development Plan which has already reserved space for future joint capital projects. Further, President Franklin alleged that this priority could lead to a re-emergence of a strong university presence in Peterborough’s core. This initiative, he explained, would involve developing a coherent downtown strategy “based on the ethics and values [Trent] was founded upon” as well as an expansion of community based education through the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education (TCCBE).

The draft SMA document has been greeted tentatively by student leaders. Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) President Brea Hutchinson argues that although the proposal advances interesting ideas there are still issues that must be addressed. In a statement she confirmed that the union is currently examining the document and “looking into… proposing changes that will both strengthen the document and reflect student opinion and ideas. She noted that more information will be released in the coming week.

President Franklin has stated that the administration is open to amending the draft Strategic Mandate Agreement based on the feedback from the Trent community. There will be Open-Information Sessions held September 24, 26, and 28 in the Lady Eaton College Pit.

Read an excerpt of the interview with President Steven Franklin HERE