State of the U: UAlberta has 'dared and achieved together'

Looking back on her two terms as president, Samarasekera says U of A has “come together as a community” to build one of the world’s “great universities for the public good.”



President Indira Samarasekera delivers her State of the University address Sept. 18.


(Edmonton) Almost a decade ago, two great women with a lifelong passion for learning met face-to-face for the first time.

One, a former lieutenant governor of Alberta and University of Alberta chancellor, was near the end of her life. The other, an accomplished engineer and scholar, was just about to begin her first term as U of A president.

The meeting, like so many involving the late Lois Hole, began with a hug and a positive outlook for the university’s—and with it, Alberta’s—future prosperity. And a little Shakespeare, too.

“She told me: ‘This is a time of great opportunity for Alberta. We must not miss it,” recalled Indira Samarasekera, who then joined Hole and professor emeritus Pat Clements in quoting a passage from Julius Caesar:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries.”

Samarasekera called it “an extraordinary moment,” one that continues to inspire her as president and vice-chancellor of the U of A.

“It reminded me that you have to leap into challenges with total commitment—to take on risks, to dare greatly, or miss out. So, I leapt—and I invited the rest of the community to join me,” Samarasekera said in her annual state of the university address, delivered Sept. 18 to a full house in Convocation Hall.

Daring to build a ‘great global university’

When she arrived on campus the summer of 2005, that same feeling of anticipation was evident on campus, and that energy led her and the university’s deans to build the framework of Dare to Discover, which dared to build a “great global university by inspiring the human spirit to serve the public good through outstanding learning, discovery and citizenship.”

“We won the support of Albertans in part because our ambitious aspirations affirmed that their flagship university would connect them to the world and the world back to them.”

Since that time, the U of A has built a solid foundation, “stone by stone,” through its four cornerstones of talented people; learning, discovery and citizenship; connecting communities; and transformative organization and support.

The impact of that work—the state of the university today—saw the U of A climb to 84th in the QS rankings of 2,000 universities around the world, or 14th among public research universities in North America. “This is a remarkable recognition of our role as a great public research university.”

Since 2005, the U of A has seen an 11 per cent increase in enrolment, including a 26 per cent jump in graduate students, Samarasekera said. To add to the talent of its students, the U of A has attracted the world’s best and brightest faculty, all of which has produced a sharp rise in Royal Society fellows, Trudeau and Killam fellowships, 3M national teaching awards and, since 2004, five Rhodes Scholars after a nine-year lull.

U of A research discoveries have also made a great impact on the world, from Michael Houghton’s breakthrough toward a hepatitis C vaccine to Robert Burrell’s nano-particle wound dressing, to Catherine Bell’s research in indigenous and Métis law that has reshaped Canada’s justice system.

Closer to home, just months into her first term, the U of A opened a downtown campus in Enterprise Square. The city and university also launched Festival of Ideas and presented a joint bid for Expo, while TEC Edmonton has grown into one of the world’s premier university business incubators. The future could see the U of A become an anchor tenant in the Galleria project.

Endowment reaches $1 billion

Samarasekera announced the U of A’s endowment surpassed $1 billion—“a tremendous endorsement of the work we do from our donors, many of whom are alumni,” she said. Those same alumni are continuing to leaving a lasting mark as entrepreneurs and leaders in Alberta and around the world, with an annual global alumni impact of $350 billion. The U of A’s role in shaping the future of Canada’s most dynamic province is undeniable, she said.

“No other major university in this country has had such a significant impact on the industries that drive wealth creation in their respective provinces,” Samarasekera said, pointing to discoveries in agriculture, oilsands, environmental and health research. The U of A is also a “driver of Alberta’s cultural richness.”

Samarasekera said this is an exciting time for Alberta, which has a new premier in U of A alumnus Jim Prentice and his chief of staff, former business dean Mike Percy.

Over the next year, work will continue on the university’s four-point action plan, including a review and revision of the graduate student experience, the implementation of which will ensure students leave with the U of A academic and professional experience and skills needed to succeed in a global economy.

The university has also established the Presidential Visiting Committees, to examine each faculty’s strategic vision, and founded the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, the latter of which is needed now more than ever to ensure ethical and responsible leadership in corporations and government.

“Can the U of A meet this challenge? Clearly, given what our alumni and student are inspired to do after leaving the U of A, we can and we do,” Samarasekera said. “We have the teaching, expertise and ethic to develop leaders of influence, insight, vision and action.

"The words of Lois Hole still ring in my mind," Samarasekera said of a decade during which the campus community was united by “our bold and empowering vision.”

“We leapt at the opportunity and we transformed our university to the benefit of the public we serve. We’ve had impact on individuals, communities, our country and the world. We’ve defined our story and our place.”

Read President Samarasekera's State of the University address