State of the University: ‘Be open to change’

President Indira Samarasekera outlines four-point action plan to ensure university delivers on excellence despite fiscal challenges.

By Bryan Alary on September 19, 2013

Watch the State of the University address by President Indira Samarasekera

(Edmonton) Persistence and resilience are “hard-wired” into the cultural fabric of the University of Alberta, an enduring legacy that will help the university community embrace new ideas and change in the coming months and years.

President Indira Samarasekera used her Sept. 19 state of the university address to unveil a four-point action plan that will guide the university through budgetary challenges. Speaking from inside Convocation Hall, Samarasekera recalled how construction on the Old Arts Building suffered a series of delays a century ago due to unpredictable provincial funding.

Fortunately, these challenges did not deter U of A founding president Henry Marshall Tory, whose vision and persistence are at the foundation of the historic building.

“Today it’s hard to imagine that this building had such a rocky beginning—and yet for me, this building and its story reminds me that persistence and resilience are as hard-wired into the U of A’s culture as excellence and ambition,” said Samarasekera.

Today, U of A faculty, students and staff face new challenges due to a 7.2 per cent provincial funding cut. Since those cuts were revealed last spring, Samarasekera said she and senior leadership and board chair Doug Goss have met numerous times with government officials to impress upon them the U of A’s importance to Alberta’s prosperity.

U of A key to Alberta’s prosperity

The government’s own data show 89 per cent of U of A graduates live and work in the province, Samarasekera said. The U of A also has an essential role in educating the next generation with Alberta’s labour shortfall expected to reach 114,000 workers over the next decade—62,000 of whom will require post-secondary education.

Despite these conversations, Samarasekera said, the university needs to move forward with the realization that Alberta is curtailing spending on post-secondary education along with most governments in North America. The university community, she said, must be “open to change," and to considering courses of actions we once hoped to avoid—including the voluntary severance program.

“We have had to make some difficult decisions,” she said, recounting the $28 million in spending cuts this year. With a further $56 million to cut in 2014-15, the entire university community must work together to mitigate further losses and preserve and enhance the U of A’s core mission of excellence in teaching, research and service.

Four-point action plan

To help meet these challenges, Samarasekera outlined a four-point plan for the next three years: academic transformation, sustainable financial models, efficient administration and culture change.

On the first point, academic transformation, Samarasekera stressed a need for a more vibrant graduate research culture and differentiated funding model. Faculties must also work more collaboratively to reduce duplication and leverage strengths in both academic programming and administration, she said.

The university must achieve a balanced, sustainable, flexible financial model, she said, stressing the need for changes to compensation, revenue generation and sharing, tuition, philanthropy and budgeting.

Efficient administration is not new but central to our transformation, she said, noting how central units have already cut three per cent of expenses this year compared with 1.5 per cent in faculties. In the future, all portfolios and faculties will need to simplify, consolidate and find new ways of doing business to eliminate duplication.

Lastly, the university must embrace a culture change, with transparency and clarity in decision-making at the core, she said, pointing to new weekly Friday bulletins on Colloquy. The goal is to help the entire community “feel empowered to act and lead change in whatever role you can fulfil,” and work in a culture of collegiality, respect and trust.

“This new commitment to communication and transparency is not only my responsibility or that of the deans—it is, again, the shared responsibility of every member of our community.”

Don’t sell Alberta or Canada short: Goss

Following a question-and-answer session that touched on graduate student enrolment, international student tuition and senior leadership’s conversations with government, Samarasekera gave the final word to Goss, whom she credited as the U of A’s great champion in his numerous meetings with government ministers, MLAs and the public.

Goss reinforced how the entire university community must work together—steadfast—in the U of A’s “noble” and “right” pursuit of being among the world’s great public universities.

“That isn’t a nice-to-have, that’s a must. This is a province with $30 billion in endowments in the bank, it has no debt, it has zero unemployment, highest disposable income in North America,” he said. “For us to aspire to have a university that achieves at a level any less than that sells this university short, it sells this province short, it sells its people short and indeed it sells the country short.”