Campus community exchanges ideas over lunch

(Edmonton) One of the University of Alberta’s greatest strengths is the academy’s commitment to excellence in providing comprehensive learning and research opportunities across all disciplines.

That was a top conversation thread during a lunchtime brown bag forum on April 5 that was set up to help inform the U of A’s response to draft letters of expectation from the provincial government. The letters, released shortly after the budget and a 6.8 per cent cut to post-secondary grant funding, call on institutions to identify their top three strengths and the role they could play in the future direction of Campus Alberta.

Martin Ferguson-Pell, acting provost and vice-president academic, said senior administration has found it challenging to limit the university to only three strengths—a point on which several in the audience agreed.

Ryan Dunch, chair of the Department of East Asian Studies, said that asking all 26 post-secondary institutions to put forward their top three strengths “puts things on par that are really not on par” given size and program disparities.

“The strength of the University of Alberta is precisely our scope and the role we play as the flagship in an integrated system,” Dunch said. “It would be a mistake to focus on a particular discipline or research areas in designating three strengths. We should look at the three strengths in the context of the role of the U of A as a provincial institution in Campus Alberta.”

Jenny Welchman, chair of the Department of Philosophy, said the value of Campus Alberta is a direct function of the value of its individual institutions, particularly a flagship like the U of A, Calgary and others.

“You don’t even sell people on going to a mall unless you’ve got your flagship stores,” she said. “It’s the same with university systems in the U.S. You have to have a big flagship—that’s what we have to get across.”

Ferguson-Pell said one of the frustrating challenges with the letters of expectation is the perception that Alberta’s post-secondary institutions are working in silos, which he added isn’t true. Alberta is a leader in the country in terms of transfer agreements, he noted, and the U of A has played a large role in that and other collaborations such as the recent push to improve student mental health services.

“We certainly are committed to improving transferability but we have to be careful not to beat ourselves up too badly,” he said.

Arts professor Ian MacLaren, who co-chaired the Renaissance Committee, said one key point the university needs to get across is the U of A’s role in sustaining the post-secondary sector that contributes to Alberta’s society.

“We provide the ongoing education that’s needed to sustain the post-secondary sector, of which no one is ashamed,” he said.

MacLaren also cautioned against simply telling the province the  U of A’s strength is its ability to do everything well, which is what the University of Toronto did during a similar exercise in Ontario last year and was asked to start over, he said.

David Zakus, director of global health in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, said one area of strength to highlight is the U of A’s commitment to global citizenship and giving students cross-cultural competencies and understanding.

Next steps: April 19 campus forum

Ferguson-Pell said he was grateful for the ideas shared, which add to a thoughtful and valuable discussion also occurring online through Change@UAlberta and Colloquy. Those ideas will help shape the U of A’s response to the letters during an April 11 meeting with Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and the presidents of Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions, including U of A President Indira Samarasekera.

The campus community will have an opportunity to learn more about that meeting and ongoing budget challenges at a campus forum April 19. Details will be announced soon.