Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Doing “good work”: the intersections of progress, innovation, and virtue at the University of Toronto, By Morgan O’Brien (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”


This ethnographic project began with the idea of a race between institutions. Securing a position at the top of the annual national and international university ranking scales is a high priority for academic institutions. There are various questionable measures employed by independent ranking publications to determine who among them is ‘ahead’ figuratively speaking; but what do the universities themselves do to ensure aheadness, to substantiate claims to global leadership? My search began with new research endeavours at the University of Toronto (U of T). I sought to understand which projects get the University’s support, assuming those would signal something about what the University is striving for, or values, moving into the future. This led me to the University of Toronto’s Institutional Strategic Research Plan 2018-2023. As I expected, the plan highlights the institution’s goals over the next five years. What I did not expect however, was for “innovation” to be at the forefront of the University mandate. At first I glossed over the distinction between research and innovation. Surely a university would strive to be leaders in research and innovation? It seems self-evident. But the more I explored U of T documents, publications, websites, and promotional materials, the more I encountered the word innovation. I began to question why a high ranking research university had made innovation their top priority. What is innovation and what does it do for the University that research alone does not?

This paper will explore how and why innovation came to be at the forefront of the University of Toronto’s mandate. It will analyze the development of innovation as a concept and a category, an evolution that academic institutions like U of T are not merely responding to but actively engaged in. The reimagining of innovation involves remnants of what it once signaled – notions of technology, (economic) progress, and commercialization, but it further mobilizes virtue to suggest another understanding of progress associated with human welfare. This discursive shift has practical implications. Among other things it employs a future-pointing narrative such that anyone or anything engaged in this kind of innovation is a catalyst for an imagined better human world. Second, the reinvented innovation self-evidently intertwined with virtue serves to protect the University from potential criticism. Through an analysis of institutional documents and academic endeavours this paper will illustrate how the University of Toronto intertwines innovation with virtue as a mechanism for both reflecting aheadness and deflecting external attacks.

The University of Toronto spans three campuses, over 700 programs and over 14,000 faculty members. It is important to note that the centres and faculty who comprise the University of Toronto may not share the goals of “the University” at all, or they may reflect the goals of the university mandate simply because it is necessary in order to procure funding and remain or become relevant. In the following analysis however, the University of Toronto is described as a cohesive entity with unified claims and aspirations. I am relying on this rhetoric precisely because the documents my analysis is based upon present the institution as a cohesive whole with a shared set of goals, strategies, and performance measures. The language, opinions, and goals that are referenced in what follows should not be taken as a holistic representation of everyone and everything associated with the University of Toronto; they should instead speak to the image of a cohesive institution that is actively constructed, projected, and performed by and through official documents (and those directly involved in drafting them).

In addition, aheadness will refer essentially to the perception of having done and continuing to do more of a good thing – in this case innovation. While U of T uses the term “leadership” in their mandate goals, my research suggests that their measures of success reflect aheadness rather than leadership. Leading points to those behind, while aheadness points to what is in front. I argue that U of T is not concerned with leading other institutions, it is concerned with being ahead of other institutions. Moreover, the University of Toronto is concerned exclusively with measuring quantitative data. Where claims to leadership can be substantiated through qualitative measurements (the effectiveness of innovation for creating impact), claims to aheadness are substantiated through quantity (the amount of innovation produced). The University is therefore striving to claim aheadness, not leadership, through innovation. The use of words like “leading” “leaders” and “leadership” strewn throughout the institutional plans are a mechanism for further protecting the University against potential criticisms. By employing such language – that which signals virtuously propelling the world forward through leadership rather than selfishly advancing through aheadness, the University deflects potential attacks on their motivations. The vast application of deflection language suggests something else: that the public expects an academic institution to have particular values, and that the University consciously works to predict and appease public expectations.


Most of the methodology for this project involved an analysis of documents including the University’s Institutional Strategic Research Plans between 2008 and 2023, the 2017-2020 Strategic Mandate Agreement between the University and the Province of Ontario, and the memorandum agreement for the establishment of one of the University’s centres. I also explored the University of Toronto Bulletin Brief and other news resources produced by the University, as well as promotional material, mission statements, and websites of centres affiliated with the University. I will discuss three specific centres, ranging in size, established in 2009, 2012, and 2019, as well as U of T’s upcoming institute for innovation. I had the opportunity to speak to faculty members involved in the establishment and management of some of those centres over the phone as well as in person. Finally, I attended public talks by two of the centres that discussed some of their ongoing research endeavours. In order to protect the identities of my interlocutors I will not be naming them or the centres with which they are involved.

Technological Innovation 

“[Innovation] is uniformly admired and aspired to — though almost never questioned” (Bernstein, 2010)

In The Invention of Technological Innovation Benoit Godin explores the history of what he terms the category of innovation – a category that is at once ideological, political, and economic. In it he traces linguistic and discursive changes associated with technology and how it came to be tied to innovation. The term “innovation” has been used for centuries, but until the twentieth century it held exclusively political connotations (Godin, 2019). After 1945, innovation shifted from political to economic and industrial through associations with technology (Godin, 2019). Godin argues that the discursive genealogy of “technological innovation” is as follows: technological unemployment to technological change to technological progress and finally technological innovation (Godin, 2019). Technological unemployment was concerned with labour issues but the debate was resolved in the 1930s with the understanding that despite issues of unemployment, wages, migration, etc. society would benefit from technology in the long run (Godin, 2019). Technological change and technological progress added notions of productivity and economic growth to the debate through increased output and input leading to capital gains (Godin, 2019). Economic progress then came to be defined by the output of knowledge-based products which are the source of profit and basis for competitiveness. According to Godin, this latter conceptualization which is distinguished from the former due to its emphasis on commercialization, is what produced the term technological innovation.

Along with the emphasis on economic progress through the output of knowledge-based products came the intellectual property wars of the 1980s (Bernstein, 2010). In The Shadow of Innovation Gaia Bernstein critically examines innovation through an analysis of case law spanning several decades. According to Bernstein, “The adulation of innovation crosses ideological frontiers and battle zones” (2010:2264). On either side of patent debates and copyright controversies, all parties support the promotion of innovation (Bernsteini, 2010). She argues that the naturalized celebration of innovation is relatively new, and related to the intellectual property wars that followed a shift in means of production from physical to intangible knowledge production (Bernstein, 2010). While innovation rhetoric was present in case law at least as early as the 1940s, it did not become central to the court’s reasoning – on both sides of the debate, until the 1980s (Bernstein, 2010). Since then the promotion of innovation has become taken for granted in law and public discourse as self-evidently good. In fact, since the 1980s Bernstein remarks that innovation has earned a distinct place in legal documents under the heading – “Public Interest” (Bernstein, 2010). This suggests that the recent adulation of innovation is associated with its perceived capacity to help all people by addressing epochal issues facing humanity. 

Using Bernstein’s analysis, I will argue for a fifth iteration in Godin’s genealogy that omits the technological discursively (but maintains associations to technology conceptually) and emphasizes a new kind of progress – the advancement of human welfare (Bernstein, 2010). In this sense, innovation still elicits associations to economic progress and the commercialization of technology, but these effects are enveloped in ideas and motivations tied to human welfare. Innovation today is imagined to serve a utilitarian function (Bernstein, 2010). In other words, innovation has come to be defined through a capacity to do good, which assumes the universality of some human problems and posits innovation as the solution. As Godin emphasized, these terms are not mere linguistic inflations, but involve conceptual and practical implications (Godin, 2019). They create new objects of study, a new academic specialty, and inform policy and influence the public agenda (Godin, 2019). Innovation is therefore an ideology that shapes part of our collective imaginary (Godin, 2019).


Benoit Godin argues that the term technological innovation emerged from a discursive succession of the technological, facilitated by particular epochal concerns in Western society. The key distinguishing feature of technological innovation compared to its predecessors is the emphasis on commercialization (Godin, 2019). Through my research I have found that there is an even more recent discursive generation at the University of Toronto. Namely, innovation as a standalone. Innovation is tied to Godin’s technological innovation because it remains inherently associated with the technological and emphasizes commercialization. But it goes beyond technological innovation by invoking notions of virtue and the knowledge economy. The latter association can be explained through Gaia Bernstein’s analysis on case law, whereby she argues that the celebration of innovation emerged during the intellectual property wars (Bernstein, 2010). Innovation has come to mean the mechanism that applies intellectual property to society through commercialization. It is therefore not merely the production of new methods, products, or ideas, but the commercialization of those – particularly knowledge. At the University of Toronto however, innovation also signals virtue. According to Bernstein, “Innovation is promoted as the key to progress and advancement of human welfare” (2010:2257). Innovation is therefore not just the commercialization of knowledge, but the commercialization of a particular kind of knowledge that has the capacity (or perceived capacity) to address problems of humanity. It is this particular association that I argue has been carefully constructed by U of T so that it may be mobilized to serve two purposes: 1) to signal aheadness, and 2) for deflecting criticism. 

In 2017 The University of Toronto signed a Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) with the Province of Ontario. It outlines five “shared objectives” between the provincial Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development and U of T. These objectives emphasize innovation, impact, community engagement, and equity among other things. The SMA further highlights changes in the allocation of provincial funding, some of which will be redirected towards performance in these priority areas. The allocation of funding, as a key criteria for research capacities, might appear to be a motivation for the University’s apparent adulation of innovation. However, upon further analysis it is evident that innovation became a priority to the University long before the province necessitated it. In fact, previous Institutional Strategic Research Plans (ISRP) and annual reports show that innovation was part of the university mandate at least as early as 2008. In what follows I will argue that U of T is not merely responding to and adopting the celebration of innovation, but is actively constructing the conceptualization of innovation that has led to its naturalized celebration. This is accomplished by way of intertwining innovation with virtue to such a degree that they have become inextricably linked. Through virtue, human welfare has been constructed as the problem to which innovation is the solution.

One of the ways the University intertwines virtue with innovation is through discourse. This is evident in the ISRP strategic objectives, websites of U of T centres and affiliates, news articles, mission statements, promotional materials, and so on. A recent Bulletin Brief news article by the University of Toronto highlights some of the intersections of innovation and virtue while boasting about the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre that is now in the process of being built. In it, the centre-to-be is described as something that will be “a force for good in the 21st century.” (Bulletin Brief, 2019). This statement suggests several things. First, innovation is a force. It is imagined not as a passive tool or strategy but as an active idealized mechanism of propulsion through time, towards an imagined future. Second, it is a mechanism for doing good. This statement suggests the propulsion of innovation is targeted and linear. It addresses the epochal problems of humanity (evidenced through the reference to the 21st century), in such a way that human welfare will improve. Without detailing the particular kinds of innovation that will take place at the Innovation Centre it is already assumed that not just knowledge, not just academic accomplishment, but societal good will be produced. Therefore, whatever form innovation takes at U of T, it is posited as inherently good because this new conceptualization of innovation commercializes knowledge in a particularly virtuous way. 

Another way U of T ties virtue to innovation is through research endeavours that have specific application potentials. To be clear, while innovation is loosely defined as the generation of new ideas, products, methods, etc. the University does not imagine it in this way. This means that the “normal” workings of a university, the everyday teaching and research that has been at the forefront of the university mandate for centuries, does not qualify as innovation. U of T continuously distinguishes, without defining, ‘research’ and ‘ innovation’. By differentiating between research and innovation the University is able to construct a particular kind of innovation that has come to be taken for granted, one which is able to be mobilized in ways that research alone cannot, in order to serve the University. That being said, some research does seem to fall under the umbrella of innovation when it has 1) a virtuous motivation or application and 2) commercialization, patenting, or licensing potential. In other words, when research endeavours can serve the University in the particular ways that innovation will be shown to do, it falls within the vague conceptualization of innovation. This in turn further reinforces and naturalizes ‘innovation’ as it has come to be understood at the University. 

One of the University’s newly established research centres is currently conducting research on the effects of microdosing psilocybin for mental health. Their research is specifically directed at addressing mental health concerns that are of particular interest in society during our epoch. Moreover, the research boasts potentials for aiding veterans who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The emphasis on veterans was described by an interlocutor involved in the centre as a political decision, since veterans are supported by people who identify on either side of the political landscape. The virtuous motivations of this research are therefore not an end in themselves but a means to an end, a strategy for positioning research in a particularly favourable position in society in order to gain and maintain support (public, institutional, and financial). In addition to virtuous applications, this research is patentable, and therefore commercializable. In a promotional video for the study researchers urge the public to donate to their project because “If we (don’t) do it, pharmaceutical companies will, and they’ll keep their results secret while we share ours publicly.” Secrecy in this case refers to patents and licenses that privatize research results for profit. The possibility for patents, whether the research is actually patented or not, shows that if the psilocybin compounds prove useful they will be commercialized in order to be consumed by the public. This research project therefore aims to take their results outside of academia to improve human welfare – the key component of U of T’s concept of innovation. What’s more, the researchers involved in the promotional video further emphasize the benevolence of their innovation endeavour (and by extension the University) by suggesting that they would not patent their results. Stating that they will make their results public while pharmaceutical companies would not, posits the University as a public servant addressing the epochal needs of society by forgoing the full potential of capital gain. In essence, this discourse positions the research project as innovation by referencing virtue and commercialization, but it also positions the University as a morally sound institution.

Each of these examples demonstrate that the University of Toronto is operationalizing a new conceptualization of innovation that relies on virtue. While still being anchored to the technological, and with an emphasis on commercialization, innovation now (at least at the University of Toronto) signals a moral imperative to care for humanity by encompassing virtue. U of T is not only responding to this generation of innovation, but actively involved in constructing it by tying virtue to innovation discursively and in practice. These efforts strategically position the University as propelling the advancement of human welfare through innovation; in turn, innovation serves as a mechanism for signaling aheadness.


“Innovation is promoted as the key to progress and advancement of human welfare” 

(Bernstein, 2010:2257)

Innovation at U of T is understood not just as good, but as good for society. The particular kinds of problems that innovation is promised and imagined to address are grandiose epochal concerns. They include issues of climate change, disease eradication, mental health, sustainability, and so on. The resolution or amelioration of any of these issues is understood as an improvement for humanity as a whole – it signals progress. This conceptualization is inherently temporal. Innovation today cares for humanity in the future. For example, genomics research at U of T that applies machine learning algorithms to select and propose solutions for particular genetic diseases is not concerned so much with curing disease but preventing it. Prevention is aimed at problems that have not yet materialized, people who are not yet born. In each case, innovation points to the future. In other words, since virtue has been tied to innovation to such a degree that they appear unquestionably related, and virtuous endeavours address problems that impact society now and in the future, innovation is imagined as a means to progress. Progress speaks to the future, specifically a better future through the amelioration of epochal concerns. The operationalization of innovation in this sense makes the work, as well as the University itself – by encouraging and conducting that work, appear not only virtuous but ahead.

What’s more, innovation references the beginning of the technological life cycle (Bernstein, 2010). It draws our attention to the creation, not the dissemination or application of technological solutions (Bernstein, 2010). These solutions are therefore actually potential solutions, work that has the potential to produce impact in the future but has not realized that potential in the present. The inherently future-oriented nature of innovation as performed by the University therefore reflects aheadness. By working on solutions that hold the promise of manifesting in the future, the University positions itself in that future. The work that is being done now therefore signals to the rest of the world that the university is ahead, since they have already secured a position in the imagined future. Moreover, as the institution creating potential solutions, the University positions itself as the catalyst to progress, the very mechanism propelling society to a better future through innovation. This rhetoric substantiates the claims to global leadership that are made by the University throughout their archives. However, as I previously explained, it is not leadership that the University reflects through innovation but aheadness. U of T’s position in the imagined future is not about bringing other institutions along, but is about securing their position in the future ahead of other institutions by being the first to innovate. The emphasis on aheadness veiled as leadership further suggests that the motivations driving innovation are not a benevolent amelioration of human welfare. If human progress were a means in itself, academic institutions would surely combine resources to produce the deepest impact. Instead, they compare and compete through metrics entirely removed from impact, in order to secure a place in the imagined future and signal aheadness. 


Proponents of innovation might argue that although this work is being done strategically, the benefits to reputation go hand in hand with virtuous endeavours, which does not negate the morality of working to improve human welfare. However, as I will demonstrate, the University is using innovation to claim aheadness and bolster their reputation instead of, not in addition to, beneficially impacting the global community. 

While the goals and motivations for the various innovation projects at the University of Toronto are entangled with virtue, the measures of the success of those projects are not. The criteria for measuring leadership according to the University include: high ranking, a high number of citations, and attracting more funding than other institutions. Annual performance indicators include: invention disclosures (number compared to other universities globally), licenses (number compared to other universities globally), start-ups (number compared to other universities globally), entrepreneurship (number of entrepreneurial courses over time). Likewise, the methods for measuring success according to the provincial Strategic Mandate Agreement are: amount of Tri-Council funding, number of citations, number of publications, and number of national and international honours. Each measure of success according to the University of Toronto and the province of Ontario is quantitative, while the aforementioned objectives and motivations are qualitative. Granted, it is challenging to measure vague and subjective concepts like “impact”, but there has been no effort on the part of the University to define or quantify impact in any tangible way. In fact, the word is entirely absent from the annual performance report. This discrepancy suggests that impact, or the application of innovation to advance human welfare is not a priority for the University. The measures of success reflect instead the desire to claim a position ahead of other institutions in annual ranking publications by way of tangible metrics. Impact involves a long term process that takes knowledge and applies it to social problems through diffusion, then measures the effects of that application; ranking is a short term comparative claim that is measured on an ongoing basis through quantitative data. The failure to track the impact of innovation that is promoted as the top priority of the University suggests that innovation is not promoted for the purpose of impact, but as a means for signaling aheadness and projecting the image of benevolence. 

In addition to the failure to measure impact, the University does not concentrate resources into the dissemination and application of innovation. As Bernstein argued, innovation draws our attention to the beginning of the technological life cycle while negating its dissemination (Bernsetin, 2010). She further points out that the dissemination of these technologies is equally vital for their ability to advance human welfare (Bernstein, 2010). While billions of dollars are poured into the promotion of innovation, little attention is paid to its subsequent diffusion, or to measuring its impact. This suggests that social impact is not the driving force behind the University’s adulation of innovation, contrary to what the University claims. Rather, innovation is undertaken to reflect aheadness and to construct a morally sound appearance which in turn deflects potential criticism. 

Deflecting Criticism

Criticism of the University can come in many forms, but one such criticism that emerged during my interview with a faculty member surrounds the establishment of centres. Centres appear to play an important role in legitimizing innovative endeavours, but they are very costly. In some cases, like that of the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre, they are funded by private donations. However, in many cases centres do not gain public attention and subsequent private funding until after they are established and producing desirable work. In the meantime they are publicly funded in one or a combination of ways. First, the University allocates a relatively small amount of funding for their establishment. This however is often not enough to fund their work, as was the case with two of the centres with which I conducted ethnographic work. Second, they may receive grants for specific research projects, but grants are highly competitive and often short term. Which brings me to the third way newly established centres are funded, through stolen time. As a public academic institution, employees (faculty) at the University of Toronto are paid through each level of government (as evidenced in the province’s SMA). The faculty members are paid for their work in each respective department, however, when a new centre is being established they do not immediately have full-time faculty employed directly by the centre. Instead, faculty are borrowed from other departments, taking time away from their work in that department in order to contribute work to the new centre. This can occur on an ongoing basis for many years until the centre is self-sustaining. Centres become self-sustaining only when they are able to be fully funded through grants, income from products, or private donations. This phenomena was reflected in the newest centre I explored, where those involved in the research all held positions in other departments (and sometimes even other institutions). The ethical considerations emerge when we take into account the emphasis on commercialization that comes along with innovation. Commercialization occurs often through patents, licenses, and private partnerships. Through commercialization, the products of innovation produced at the University are sold to the public. Innovation therefore produces profit for the University and their partners. In other words, the publicly funded stolen time is used to subsidize private profit for the University and its affiliated companies. 

When the innovation produced through stolen time is tied to the advancement of human welfare through virtue however, it becomes difficult to criticize. The construction of innovation as inherently virtuous therefore protects the University from potential criticisms. Similar to the evolution of Godin’s technological unemployment which was rectified in the 1930s through the belief that potential technological benefits to society outweigh labour issues, virtuous innovation is believed to have the potential to produce significant good for all. The public subsidization of private profit therefore becomes obscured and overlooked through the promise of a better world. However, as I have demonstrated, emphasis is placed on the performance of a particular kind of innovation to reflect aheadness and bolster the reputation of the University. The same efforts are not concentrated towards the diffusion and application of that innovation. Therefore it is unclear whether the University’s innovation actually produces the impact it promises. Nonetheless, by promising social impact in the first place the University is able to deflect potential criticisms before they are even made. 


This paper sought to demonstrate how the University of Toronto intertwines virtue with innovation in order to make it self-evidently good. In so doing, it is actively involved in creating a new conceptualization of innovation that is preceded by a genealogy of technological innovation. In its new form, innovation in inextricably linked to virtue. This serves two main purposes. First, virtue directs innovation towards a particular kind of problem, namely, problems of humanity. By creating potential solutions for epochal concerns like sustainability, climate change, and disease prevention, the University effectively secures a top ranked position in the imagined future. The emphasis on impact through virtuous endeavours brings into view temporal criteria. Progress is inherently forward pointing. Therefore, solutions that promise the potential to ameliorate current and future problems are employed to substantiate claims to aheadness. Moreover, by encouraging and conducting this kind of innovation, the University becomes conceived of as a catalyst for the advancement of human welfare. This in turn bolsters the reputation of the University as morally sound and even benevolent. In turn, it becomes difficult to criticize the ways U of T achieves innovation – by stealing publicly funded faculty time in order to produce commercializable innovation for private profit. While virtue is deeply tied to innovation to emphasize the benevolence of striving for progress, the University’s quantitative metrics for “success” overlook virtue entirely. In addition, resources are not directed towards the diffusion of innovation, which is equally vital for advancing human welfare. In other words, there is no attention to or measure of impact. The evidence that innovation is the University’s mechanism for “doing good” comes into question when we consider this disparity, and suggests that the motivations driving innovative endeavours have more to do with reflecting aheadness and deflecting criticism, than moral imperative to care for human welfare.

Each of the projects I have explored that are tied to the language of innovation seek to apply research knowledge to a particularly virtuous problem. Innovation therefore puts the knowledge economy into action through commercialization. The more innovation produced by the University, the more they appear to be contributing to global progress, which in turn reflects aheadness. Bernstein argues that some treat innovation as a goal in itself, while others treat it as a means for accomplishing social goals (Bernstein, 2010). At the University of Toronto, however, there is a third application. Innovation here is not a goal in itself or a means for accomplishing social goals, but a means for performing aheadness and deflecting criticisms. 


Bernstein, G. (2010). In the Shadow of Innovation. HeinOnline. Vol. 31:6, pp. 2257-2312.

Godin, B. (2012) “Innovation Studies”: the invention of a specialty. Springer. Vol. 50:4, pp. 


Godin, B. (2019). The Invention of Technological Innovation: Language, Discourses and 

Ideology in Historical Perspectives. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. Massachusetts, 


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