University looking for ideas

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta is in an enviable position to weather current economic realities compared to other Canadian universities, but the entire community must embrace new ideas to maintain our vibrancy, said President Indira Samarasekera in her annual state of the university address.

Samarasekera told about 300 students, faculty and staff that in a time of budgetary restraints, and with growing global concerns over rising tuition, the U of A has “significant resources” to draw on. However, moving forward, the entire university community has to work harder to find new ways of doing business.

“In the past you may have heard me ask you to unleash your inner radical. Do it now. There are no crazy ideas,” Samarasekera said to the standing-room audience at the March 22 event held in the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy.

“We need suggestions and ideas that will push this university firmly into the 21st century, making the best use of the methods, administrative practices, media and tools available to us.”

Samarasekera said the appeal for new ideas goes beyond finding efficiencies. The provost’s office will lead the dialogue in the coming weeks, with a special website dedicated to receiving suggestions for evaluation and implementation.

“I want to assure you that, as your president, I am committed to seeing this process result in change and will be working closely with you to make it happen.”

Samarasekera said that “tough financial realities,” which include two per cent annual increases to operating funding over the next three years—well below the four per cent needed to maintain the status quo—have led to budget struggles within every department and unit. She specifically applauded the work of Faculty of Arts dean Lesley Cormack for the open and transparent budget review.

“These things are never easy, often (they’re) painful. But the conversation had to happen—indeed needs to happen across the academy.”

But despite these realities, Samarasekera said the U of A is in a better place than many other top Canadian universities thanks to its higher per-student operating funding. She also pointed to the university’s efforts to recruit high-level teaching and support-staff talent and the U of A’s successful track record in attracting external research funding and donations.

Samarasekera says the university also boasts world-class teaching and research resources, including the recently opened Edmonton Clinic Health Academy and the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science. She says students are benefiting from their time at the university, citing strong educational performances and experiences.

“The fact that our students are doing so well, and are engaging so powerfully within disciplines and the community, indicates to me that we are, by and large, successfully creating an environment for learning and discovery that is challenging and inspiring.”

Samarasekera also assured the audience she will continue to advocate to government that investment at the U of A is good for Alberta.

“Investment in the U of A will bring critical, long-term benefits to the social, cultural and economic well-being of the province,” she said. “We are not giving up on the two per cent.”

In the meantime, she encouraged all students, faculty and staff to help find solutions for a stronger tomorrow.

“No matter how we change, the pursuit of knowledge—occurring at the collision of multiple ideas and truths—will remain at the heart of the university. That is why we endure over time.”