Monday, September 23, 2013

The State Of The University

Last Thursday, University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera delivered a state of the university address, her first since the provincial government surprisingly cut university funding in its spring budget.  She called for the university community to be open to change.  She outlined a four point action plan for dealing with the university’s current challenges: academic transformation; a balanced, sustainable and flexible funding model; efficient administration; and a university culture change.

This plan aims to weather the current financial storm with a particular goal in mind: “to preserve and enhance the University of Alberta’s core mission of delivering excellence in teaching, research, and service supported by sustainable, balanced financial models.”  The President’s vision, supported by Doug Goss, chairman of the board of governors, remains making the University of Alberta one of the world’s great public universities.  In answer to one question from the audience, Samarasekera noted that “we cannot cut our way to greatness.”

The speech stimulated both an article and an editorial in the Edmonton Journal. The editorial viewed the speech as a skillful handling of the diverse pressures that Samarasekera faces. The article described the speech as “upbeat” and a restatement of the goal of making the University of Alberta a “top-tier school.”  Some who watched the speech ‘live tweeted’ fragments of it; these typically were quotes about maintaining or enhancing the university’s excellence.  This message certainly resonated with the university community.

Other recent developments also affirm higher administration’s goals concerning university excellence.  For instance, less than a week before the state of the university address, President Samarasekera announced the Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative in cooperation with the Banff Centre. It intends to be “one of the pre-eminent leadership development programs in the world.”  This initiative is currently in the planning stages, and may eventually involve a building with residences.  A fundraising goal of $60 million has already been set.

As part of her state of the university address, President Samarasekera drew inspiration from the history of the construction of the Arts Building in which she presented her speech.  The first president of the university, Henry Marshall Tory, intended it to be the first major teaching building on campus.  The sod turning ceremony for the Arts Building was held in 1909.  After the foundation was poured, planning conflicts and vagaries of provincial funding led to a halt in construction.  Samarasekera noted that “it all added up to a hole in the middle of campus that collected water each spring for four years.”  Funding and support was not secured until 1913, leading to continued construction – but construction halted again, before a roof was added to the building, when funding ran out.  Tory apparently convinced the contractors to complete the building and to be paid for their efforts later.  “And thus the building was finally completed and from that point onward became the heart of campus.”

What is the moral of the history of the Arts Building?  For our current president, “this building and its story reminds me that persistence and resilience are as hardwired into the U of A’s culture as excellence and ambition.”  Towards the end of her speech, she again cited Henry Marshall Tory’s persistence and resilience, which he demonstrated were fundamental to the creation of excellence.

This is certainly an upbeat message, and one worthy of taking to heart.  However, Tory taught us other lessons as well.

For instance, the halt in construction of the Arts Building did not mean that other buildings were not being created on the new university’s campus.  Alberta College South (now St. Stephen’s College) and Athabasca Hall were both in existence when the university moved from temporary quarters to its current location in 1911.  University growth at this time led to an expansion of Athabasca Hall and the planning of Assiniboia Hall, whose construction was completed in 1912 – three years before the Arts Building was opened.

In other words, the hole in the ground collecting water for four years also symbolized Tory’s willingness to patiently delay some plans while working to meet other basic needs of the university. (By 1912 Athabasca Hall had had its dining hall and kitchen enlarged.  This was done to meet the demands of 80 additional residents.)

As difficult budgetary decisions are made in the coming weeks at the University of Alberta, it is certainly important to be inspired by Tory’s persistence and resilience.  However, it may be just as important to keep in mind his patient practicality.  What university needs must be met in the short term?  What worthy goals may have to be delayed while the university faces its current challenges?  Hopefully answers to questions like these will emerge soon from the many discussions initiated on campus since the provincial budget was delivered last March.


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