Canadian universities need re-schooling

Peter Calamai
September/October 2015

Wendy Cukier, vice-president research and innovation at Ryerson University, says that universities need to focus on the employability of their graduates.

Ryerson University in Toronto is different from many Canadian universities. Founded in 1948 as the Ryerson Institute of Technology, it draws upon a two-century-old history of European polytechnics — schools that emphasized practical studies. Following in that tradition, Ryerson stands out today among post-secondary institutions in Canada for its determined focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The most publicized example of that focus is Ryerson’s DMZ, short for Digital Media Zone, a business incubator set up in university facilities at Yonge and Dundas streets in April 2010. The DMZ is now the leading university-based incubator in Canada and ranked among the top half dozen in the world. Open to all would-be entrepreneurs (only half are associated with Ryerson), the DMZ claims to have created 1,783 jobs of which 1,456 are from start-up companies. 

Prime responsibility for Ryerson’s strategy on research, innovation and international ties rests with Wendy Cukier, vice-president research and innovation since August 2010. Cukier came to Ryerson in 1986 as a professor in the School of Information Technology Management after seven years in the Ontario public sector. In 2002 she was awarded a PhD in management science from York University’s Schulich School of Business. 

Cukier is no stranger to the public spotlight. She founded the Coalition for Gun Control in the weeks after the 1989 killing of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique.  

How would you describe the state of the scientific community in Canada today?



I think the role of science in policy making is one area of real concern. Everything from the erosion of the long-form census to what we hear from government scientists in Ottawa — the feeling that their voices are not being considered in the development of policy. I think you would hear the same thing at many levels of government, the extent to which evidence-based policy — whether in health or environment or economic development or social policy planning — many people feel that is neglected.

The bulk of the research in this country is done at universities. Have we got the right model for supporting research at universities?

I’m actually one of the few people perhaps who thinks the government has maintained a fairly decent commitment to funding science. My sense is that there had been a fair amount of consistency in the funding for fundamental research but there’s more now in other areas. As well I’m a bit of an ….


Outlier, heretic, in the sense that I think that universities have to take a long, hard look at themselves and think about their role in the 21st century, which is very different than their role in the 20th century. In the current environment universities have to be thinking about the employability of their graduates.

I say this being an absolutely committed defender of the humanities and social sciences. I did medieval history before I switched and I’m not one of the people who argues that traditional academic pursuits aren’t absolutely critical to a strong, well-informed citizenry.  

Be specific. What other things would you provide to people taking medieval history today so their chances of employability are better? 

Learn how to do a short presentation. Learn how to network. Learn how to make a project plan. Learn how to read financial statements. I know that really horrifies many people. But I would challenge them to identify any job in any sector — for profit or non-profit — where some basic financial literacy is not essential.

The other thing I think universities have been incredibly resistant to that is absolutely essential in the 21st century is really using new technologies as a mode of learning and of education. University classes are still being taught as they were when you and I went to school, even though our students are among the most technologically literate generation that’s been seen.  

Aren’t you saying that an attitudinal change is needed on the part of the people who run universities?

Absolutely. I think the structures of universities have not changed, certainly as long as I’ve been here. The reward system has not changed. Faculty members are rewarded for publishing in journals. Teaching is secondary at most institutions and innovation is just on the periphery in terms of the rewards system.

Is innovation the same thing as entrepreneurship?

No. Entrepreneurs create new products and services. Innovation requires the adoption of a new product or service to fundamentally change the way we do things. Much of innovation is driven by entrepreneurs, whether they’re social entrepreneurs or technology entrepreneurs or economic entrepreneurs. But not all entrepreneurs drive innovation.

Commercialization is a part of innovation and yet the model of moving things from the lab to the market really doesn’t work, does it?

It’s a mistake to think that the solution to our global economic success is going to be driven by trying to turn professors into entrepreneurs. I believe very strongly that we should let professors do what professors want to do. Rather than trying to change faculty members into entrepreneurs we need to build systems that allow entrepreneurs to have access to the intellectual property that faculty members are producing in order to move things forward.  

How do you pick out what to support? It seems like it’s just a crapshoot.

It is a crapshoot but what’s fundamental to entrepreneurship and innovation is risk. And personally I’d rather have three out of five than two out of two. You have to understand ...

You’d rather have three out of five than two out of two?

Exactly. Because I’d rather have three than two. We have to accept that failure is part of success and we have to start to celebrate failures. I can’t think of a single successful entrepreneur who hasn’t had at least one big failure before they’ve pivoted and tried again.

Governments talk a lot about picking winners when they support innovation.

Government itself would be foolish to think that it could pick the winners. What it ought to be doing is setting up adjudication processes where you pull in people who have a track record in innovation and commercialization. The criteria, the adjudication, the people making the decisions need to be aligned with the goals. If the goals are commercialization, innovation, job creation and so on then you need people with a track record in doing those things and adjudicating those grants.

This interview has been condensed and edited.