Letter: Professors, students at LU make for successful equation, says chem prof

Dr. Gustavo Arteca pens personal perspective, from a window in the Science I building, at Laurentian University

Mar 15, 2021 9:00 PM By: Letter to the Editor https://www.sudbury.com/letters-to-the-editor/letter-professors-students-at-lu-make-for-successful-equation-says-chem-prof-3546149

Perhaps many of you have forgotten how it felt to be an eager, talented student at the end of high school, filled with potential, yet filled with doubts.

Perhaps you have forgotten how it felt to come from a small town – say, Sudbury – from a family where no one had gone to university before. Or from a Francophone or Indigenous background.

I cannot forget, because every year, this is what I hear from young students: 

“Am I going to be able to complete a four-year degree in science? Do I have what it takes?

Should I go to the local university, to avoid the extra hardship of being away from home at age 18, in an environment that does not use my home language?

If I’m passionate about science, will I get an education at my local university that puts me at par with the students elsewhere, at bigger universities?

Will I get training that is up-to-date and research-based, from a mentor who is as passionate as I am about new ideas, about discoveries still to be made?”

Until now, since 1960, Laurentian University (LU) has provided a place for these bright students, most of them locals, who are passionate about science.

LU professors, against all odds, ensured that these students could start their careers in an environment that represented their local culture and language, and yet offered the same value of education in science as any other university in the country.

In my case, I speak from the perspective of a professor who has been teaching and mentoring students for almost 30 years at LU. To me, students have never been tuition fees and registration statistics. They are promising young people finding their way in the world, to whom I have a responsibility.

I have seen them at all ages, from 18 to 25, undergraduate and graduates, Francophones, anglophones, and speakers of other languages I speak, happy to hear a voice that may bring an echo of home. This is the actual university that the students see, and one they care about: their classmates and professors building something together in lecture rooms and laboratories, something they can value and respect.

Students learn with us that the true university is the bond we form in the classrooms. It is not made in the towers, in mergers, take-overs, expansions, buildings, franchises, popularity contests, or empty promises. No; the university is made by the dialogues among students and professors, discussing projects, sitting side to side on the bench, in front of research equipment.

Despite all the factors that might conspire against the dream of a bilingual, multicultural university in Northern Ontario, we – students and teaching staff – make it work daily, classroom by classroom, course by course. We are what makes the place be “a university.” 

The students are not “customers,” nor are staff just “employees, creditors, or contractors.” Without students and research-teaching staff, there is no university. Without them, there is no research or any talking across disciplines. Without comprehensive research, there are no accreditations, no research grants, no validity or seriousness when it comes to teaching science and engineering. 

By dismantling this, there is no “Laurentian 2.0,” there is only a zero.

Students come and stay at a university because it offers an atmosphere to learn, to think, to grow across the walls. Some may come, and stay, because of the simple aspiration of obtaining a diploma. However, in my own experience as a chemistry professor, these students are a minority. The majority come and stay because of the complete experience they receive in teaching and research.  

We underestimate the students’ intelligence to our peril. Eventually, most are not fooled by the promise of a diploma that won’t be recognized as something credible by others. Outside our walls, Laurentian University became known, and respected, only because of the quality of students we trained, as recognized by other universities or employers. When students learn within an accredited program grounded in research, then it doesn’t matter if the students came from a small or big university.

At LU, we prepare undergraduate and graduate chemists and biochemists that continue to be accepted by all Canadian universities, should the students want to pursue further graduate studies. A university with small class sizes means we can give extra support to students who need it to succeed, and we can offer many more opportunities for undergraduate research and more hands-on experience than at a larger university.

From my window, in a modest laboratory that typically trains the small pool of undergraduate and graduates students with good mathematical background, I have seen my own students graduate with a B.Sc. or MSc. degree and continue on to complete a PhD elsewhere, and begin, in some cases, a career as professors or research scientists in the same area in which they had been trained at LU. To name just a few, these students have gone on to work as theoretical chemists at Queen’s University, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, and research centres in Québec, the USA, Norway, and Finland.

These marvelous young people would never have come to LU had we not offered them a proven, accredited program grounded on our research. Many local students who came to LU and succeeded professionally, would not have had the opportunity to attend university at all, if LU was not an option.

Many might ask: Why should LU have small English or French programs in chemistry or biochemistry? Indeed, why have mathematics, physics, modern languages, anthropology, arts, political science, philosophy, theology? 

When does the list finish?

The answer is simple: without including these enriching small programs, there is no university. There is only a glorified, expensive college or polytechnical school. Instead of being a comprehensive institution that offers an interdisciplinary education based on research, LU will be a venue that issues some professional diplomas, in popular topics.

There is no such thing as a “well-run, money-making half University.” There is simply a place where no one who wants a thorough education, with a credible degree, will come. And a place where local youth who don’t fit into those narrow openings cannot come.

Let me close by clarifying that most of us do want a Laurentian 2.0, a place where we value students, research, and our contribution to the community.

But this “dreamed university” would also be very different: it would be truly representative and democratic, transparent and accountable. It would be a place where decision makers take responsibility and apologize for mistakes, resign if needed, accept the consequences, and never walk away unscathed. The new model of the university would not be a pyramid with CEOs on top, expecting to rule over a basement filled with compliant employees, silent contractors, and faceless customers. At this dreamed university, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Dr. Gustavo Arteca
Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
Laurentian University