The role of a university in society is debatable.
Its two main functions--research and teaching--indisputably play a vital role in society. That said, one function cannot be sacrificed for the other. It has been shown that those with a university degree are more likely to stay above the poverty line, vote more often and overall be more aware citizens. However, academic research lends important contributions by adding to a society's knowledge base, which provides a basis of inquiry for advancing further research.
However, research can be said to only impact the wealthy. If you look at diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, research has provided us with simple cures. However, these are largely unavailable to not only members of the developing world, but also those below the poverty line in the developed world.
Although an emphasis on research may add prestige to an institution's name, prestige does not necessarily make one university better than another. In order to create a healthy institution which benefits the majority, it is essential that we strike a balance between the two.
While many would feel more comfortable thinking of a university as a social institution always emphasizing the good of the majority, this is not necessarily the case. The University of Calgary's president Dr. Harvey Weingarten has explicitly stated that the university is a big business, noting over $900 million flows through the institution annually. If we are to accept this claim, then we must also ask who the customers of this business are. Although provincial taxpayers heavily fund the university, students should be the direct beneficiaries of this institution. The university has an obligation to their customers to operate in a way that best suits their needs.
The majority of students do not personally benefit from an emphasis on research, but instead, the quality of their education is directly determined by the quality of teaching they receive. Students are paying tuition to learn and when the university places precedent on research, it fails in providing students with adequate opportunity to learn.
The provincial government attempted to classify the Roles and Mandates of the U of C as a "comprehensive research institute." However, after consultation, key stakeholders decided to change the title to "comprehensive research and academic institution." This title recognizes the balance between the two priorities and it must be lived up to in practice, not just in name.
The university's increasing focus on research is becoming more and more evident, however, notably through its blatant refusal to value the importance of session instructors who do not put emphasis on research.
For example, here at the U of C, an instructor who has won teaching excellence awards four out of the last six years has not been offered a tenured position and although he is at the top of the sessional pay scale, that means just under $26,000 a year. Paying instructors as little as many retail jobs devalues the time, effort and cost of achieving a PhD.
Sessionals do not contribute heavily to research, but their dedication to improving the student experience must be rewarded. When a university does not go out of their way to retain an instructor who students have repeatedly recognized as excellent shows not only a lack of respect for passionate instructors, but also a lack of respect for the paying customers of this institution.