Not Just Another Ivory Tower

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory.” ~Song of Solomon 7:4~

When I first arrived at St. Mary’s University, almost a year to the day I am writing this, what struck me  first was a peculiar water tower that dominated thelandscape of our magnificent 38-acre site. Battered and bruised, the tower is a remnant of a different era when water was pumped from the ground and then sent to a small array of buildings. Today we are restoring it in the hopes of turning the ancient monument into Calgary’s smallest art gallery, and we have used it as the centerpiece of our 2011-2012 advertising campaign that celebrates what makes our unique, private Catholic university so special. Our slogan, A Tower of Strength, suggests the qualities that arise when values and excellence, pride in quality and care of the individual, come together to form a greater good. While we are not resource rich, we have a passion that  filters through from our faculty and staff to our students and community. We are a Tower of Strength for education, for student initiative, for social justice and alumni. In other words, we are not just another ivory tower.

The term ivory tower first found its use (as so many phrases have) from the Bible, and specifically from the Song of Solomon. It came to be used about the Virgin Mary in particular, to reference both her beauty and her sanctity. But another usage in the Bible is from Kings and has a more negative meaning. King Ahab is criticized for living in an “ivory-covered tower.” Here the reference speaks of excess and separation from the every day people.

I don’t know if the present generation uses the term ivory tower in reference to universities any more, but it was frequently used in my student days, in a negative sense that suggested a world of academic elitism. An ivory tower was a place of learning disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. This parody of academe has been re ected throughout the ages but can be summarized by two of my favourite writers: Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels and Robertson Davies in Th e Rebel Angels. Both books savagely excoriate academic obsession with minutiae through their protagonists’ study of all things scatological (or bodily functions). These satires expose all that is most unhelpful about narrow-minded, inwardly focused scholarship. I think it is safe to say that most universities recognize that this type of approach to knowledge is unhelpful.

My own focus on the water tower as a metaphor for St. Mary’s is because it is a testament to our historical location and our connection to the Father Lacombe land in Midnapore.  e tower is 91 years old. It has survived droughts, blistering summers and savage winters. So it is also an example of staying power. I also appreciate the metaphor of a water source as a place to which people gravitate. Like the well in a village, the tower provided sustenance to a community. And that community continues today, admittedly in a different form, but with a similar spirit. Today St. Mary’s University welcomes people of all walks of life, of all faiths, of all interests, to study and grow in a place that is safe, caring and academically rigorous. In all these ways it is a tower strength, and not just another ivory tower.