University presidents hail importance of humanities and social sciences

For Wilfrid Laurier University president Max Blouw, seeing 7,000 academics descend on his school’s campus this week will be five years in the making.

When Blouw was applying for his position at Laurier in 2007, then dean of arts David Docherty — now president at Mount Royal University — approached the prospective president about co-hosting the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences — the largest academic gathering of its kind in North America. Even then, Blouw says he saw the event’s significance.

“I immediately said ‘I’ll support that’,” said Blouw of his initial discussion with Docherty. “To celebrate the contributions of the humanities, the social sciences to well-rounded individuals, civic society, developing imagination, creativity, that’s so important.

Now, five years after Blouw’s introduction to the idea, Laurier and the University of Waterloo (UW) are getting set to host Congress 2012, an eight-day-long summit of liberal arts thinkers, which kicks off Saturday. Both Blouw and UW president Feridun Hamdullahpur discussed how important not only the Congress, but humanities and social sciences are to today’s society at a media conference Friday morning.

“Without imagination, I don’t think we can talk about creativity and creativity is the main ingredient behind innovation, any type of innovation,” said Hamdullahpur. “For that it is very important to have strong arts education.”

The theme of this year’s Congress is “Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World.” While addressing the media, both presidents spoke of how crucial it is for academia to adapt to the rapidly changing social, political and economic climate of today.

“In an increasingly connected world, I think humanities and social sciences are increasingly important,” said Blouw. “I think increasingly humanities and social sciences are intersecting with things like sciences. There is always a need for universities to produce critical thinkers.”

Congress 2012 is expected to bring approximately $7 million to Waterloo Region. But for the two host universities, it could also be an opportunity for some brand-building, particularly within the liberal arts community.

Though it is traditionally known for its science and engineering programs, the largest faculty at the University of Waterloo is the faculty of arts — something Hamdullahpur is proud of.

“Yes, Waterloo is known for many things and one is leadership in innovation and technology,” he said. “But there’s always been a very strong connection with the faculty of arts.”

WLU meanwhile, has recently put a considerable amount of time and money into building up its School of Business and Economics, most notably with the planned construction of the $100 million Global Innovation Exchange building, which will host the business and math programs. Blouw, however, maintains the university is still committed to liberal arts.

“We are known for our School of Business and Economics, but I think equally we are known as a liberal arts university,” he said. “Yes, we do have a business school, but that business school is informed by the humanities and social sciences.”

Congress will be taking place on both the Laurier and Waterloo campuses, with satellite events being held in Uptown Waterloo and Downtown Kitchener. For a full listing of lectures and panels, visit the Congress 2012 website.

Follow Congress throughout the week on and look for coverage in Wednesday’s paper.

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