President focused on advancing UAlberta's change agenda

Indira Samarasekera will spend final 15 months as president carrying out four-point action plan.


Watch the campus forum held by President Indira Samarasekera March 19.

(Edmonton) Indira Samarasekera will spend her final 15 months as University of Alberta president focused on advancing the board of governors’ change agenda, which includes her own four-point action plan.

Samarasekera expects to be extremely busy during these remaining months, checking off priorities requiring her attention. At the top of her list is implementing the board’s change agenda through the four pillars of her plan: academic transformation; sustainable and flexible financial models; effective, efficient administration; and culture change.

“The board of governors has no intention of letting me off the hook and neither do I. The next 15 months are going to be very, very busy,” Samarasekera told a roomful of faculty, students and staff at a March 19 campus forum.

Last week, Samarasekera announced she will step down as president when her term ends on June 30, 2015, a decision that initiated an international search for her successor. Board chair Doug Goss will lead that process, overseeing an advisory committee of 15 members of the campus community.

With the search now underway, Samarasekera said she can devote her full attention to key priorities for the university, including the four-point plan.

Academic transformation

On the subject of academic transformation, the U of A’s administration, in consultation with the Students’ Union and an academic committee, has developed the main elements of the 3. The initiative received operational funding in the recent provincial budget, and Samarasekera said it will provide learning opportunities across disciplines, focusing on a range of leadership styles.

On the subject of the Renaissance Committee’s final report, Samarasekera said administration and the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta are working through the details of what was a “mammoth effort,” and are now gathering feedback and assessing immediate and longer-term priorities.

“We’re not going to let that effort go for naught. We really want to take advantage of it and I think we are really working through it,” she said.

Sustainable funding, streamlined operations

Generating new sources of revenue remains a top priority, Samarasekera said, noting $6 million has been allocated to provost Carl Amrhein to support innovative funding models put forward by faculty deans.

Amrhein said he spent his recent sabbatical learning about how universities in countries such as China, Australia and Germany—which are less reliant on government for operating dollars—find ways to generate revenue. Some have created very successful non-professional master’s programs, available to anyone anywhere in the world, with the proceeds helping to fund other areas of the institution.

“We may wish that we didn’t have to change the basic structure of the university; however, if you look at the success of some of these other institutions, like the University of Melbourne, the University of Toronto, the University of Sydney or the University of Munich, these are institutions that with a very, very complex business model have at the same time been very successful academically.”

Samarasekera said the U of A is also making steady progress at improving administrative efficiencies, reducing operating spending increases below the government’s five per cent benchmark. In fact, the U of A has steadily reduced that number from 4.8 per cent in 2009-10 to 4.1 per cent in 2010-11 and 3.6 per cent in 2011-12.

U of A ‘essential’ to Alberta’s success

In addition to the four-point plan, Samarasekera said the university will soon submit to government this year’s Comprehensive Institutional Plan, which outlines a balanced budget and reinforces that the U of A is an essential part of Alberta’s success and ongoing social, cultural and economic prosperity. This year’s plan also emphasizes the importance of graduate education, the need for basic research, the value of motivated and skilled undergraduate students, and the university’s work to train highly skilled individuals.

Samarasekera said advocating the U of A’s benefit and importance to Alberta remains among her top priorities, through constant dialogue with Innovation and Advanced Education Minister Dave Hancock, MLAs and Albertans across the province.

“I know the last 12 months have been very difficult. I know the pain is not over, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to move toward what will be a better period.”