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Just Three Jobs to Do — A conversation with President Rod Fraser

Congratulations on being offered another term as president of the University of Alberta and the strong endorsement your presidency received during the presidential review process. Looking back at your tenure as president of this University what are some of the things that you find most satisfying?

It is hard to select individual things. Every year you stand up at convocation and you run through the highlights of the year — the same happens at the Annual General Meeting in the fall — and those are always very powerful periods because you pull together the outstanding successes we have had as a University.

For whatever reason it appears that the power of our staff has just been exploding. With our faculty renewal program, the University is in the throes of a fundamental rejuvenation, but those who continue to be members of our staff some of whom have been here for a fairly large number of years — are also part of that explosion. I've said before that being president it's as if one had a team of Olympic athletes.

It seems that no week goes by but that I have reported to me some major success from our students or from our staff — whether it's gold medals for New Trail or alumni events that are being run, or recognition for our faculty and all their major accomplishments. It's just a powerful, powerful momentum that's been building.

And it seems to extend well beyond the University's more narrowly defined walls to the broader community of Edmonton and Alberta — to our alumni, no matter where in the world they are; to research partners within and beyond the province; and to our other partners. There are just many powerful forces that seem to be coming together to push us forward more successfully. One indication of that would be the fund-raising campaign going forward so very, very strongly, with something like $170 million. Another would be all of the NSERC [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council] industrial chairs established in the Faculty of Engineering within the last three-and-one-half years or so. The list goes on; so many powerful partnerships are being developed.

Are there particular accomplishments that stand out for you?

In the area of funding from the major federal bodies funding research in Canada, we've come from sixth place to third place in NSERC funding, we've come from eighth place to third place in SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities] funding, and while we're still in fifth place in MRC [Medical Research Council] funding, in the last full year for which data is available we've reduced the almost twofold advantage UBC had over us to 15 per cent. Those things are not a single moment, its incremental change; yet it is so powerful. In a similar sort of way, I can recall the very first summer when I was told about the fact that we had won yet another 3M Fellowship [a national recognition for outstanding undergraduate teachers], and then the next summer we won three of them, which catapulted us past the University of Western Ontario to first spot for 3M fellowships. After that it was almost as if one was addicted to the results from the 3M competition. Each year that I have been here, we have won at least one of them. Again, that's not a single moment.

It's the same with some of the student achievement, whether it's the Madrigal Singers bringing back top prizes from Europe to add to an already full trophy case of international awards, or the students from computing science scoring so highly on the computing science international competition that is held each year. And the debating team just continues to do well year in and year but whether it's national or international debating contests. In 10 of the past 11 years our Pharmacy students have ranked first in the nation on the standardized tests written by graduating students. On the athletics side, our Pandas and Bears seem to have gone from one success to another success. When Laurie Eisler and her volleyball team won the game that gave them their fifth consecutive CIAU national championship earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be there. That was a powerful moment, but it is within a context of just success after success.

The two words "indisputably recognized" have become a sort of verbal shorthand for the vision the University has relentlessly pursued under your leadership — to emerge from this century and enter the next indisputably recognized, nationally and internationally, as one of Canada's finest universities, and among a handful of the world's best. How important is that vision statement?

I guess I just have a sense that that I very simple portrayal of what we are about has been a successful communication vehicle to our alumni and to our broader community of supporters, and partners. When I have people who jokingly refer to "indisputably recognized galacticly and intergalacticly," you have a sense that there's a pretty clear understanding that we really are aggressively pursuing some objectives. And there's a fair bit of commonality in that collective drive to achieve some of these aggressive targets we have set for ourselves.

I can go back to the time five years ago when the presidential selection committee was set and think about how I used to consider that being one of the top five or six universities in Canada would be a legitimate target. But the more I found out about the U of A, and the more I learned about the underlying strengths of the place and what was beginning to happen, the goal got moved up to not just the top five or six but to the top three — and became increasingly more explicit about being in a handful of the world's best.

This vision we have set for ourselves is absolutely aggressive, but I think we are within a hair's breadth of achieving the first part of it: to be recognized as one of Canada's two or three top universities. We are just right at the margin of having hit that level. We've got our research funding levels in number three spots in two of the major councils and, while its fifth in the other, you can see there is powerful change. On the teaching side, we are now the only university that has had two faculty members recognized with the CASE Canadian Professor of the Year award, Jim Vargo and Andy Liu. Plus we are the University that continues to lead in the area of 3M Teaching Fellowships. I think we are in a position to argue that indeed on the teaching front we are in the number one position. As for community service, we don't have as much data as I would like to have. However, what we do have suggests we are in the top two or three in Canada in serving our community, whether it's technology transfer, information, or the kinds of programs we have for the community, such as those that come out of our health sciences area or the programs that Andy Liu puts on for 10, 11, or 12-year old math students. And we now have Dr. Bob Steadward and Chancellor Lois Hole as two of the latest Order of Canada recipients for their tireless dedication to building a better country — that is community service recognition at its finest.

What about the world then? I believe with a passion that that's an achievable objective, to be indisputably recognized as amongst a handful of the world's best — and when I say handful I mean in the top 24 to 36, somewhere in that set. But it doesn't happen just by wishing it. It takes this enormous collective commitment, this sense that we can do it, this is not just some pipe dream. There were people who when we set our fund-raising target at $144 million said to me "you're out of your mind, but we'll go along with it," and when we reached that total last November, people who hadn't said it to my face came up and said that when we had set that target they thought we were "out of our flipping minds." And yet, I think there's a demonstration that this University can combine with its community, and when we combine with our community in partnerships it's an unbeatable force.

You just have to think about people 90 years ago standing on this 250-acre patch of scrubby wilderness and declaring that they were going to build a university that would be world renowned. If they could set in motion moving to where we are today, we can sure set in motion what is, I believe, one of Canada's finest universities in the direction of being seen to be absolutely one of the world's best.

We've talked about the successes, looking back at your first term, have their been any disappointments?

In the general area of core budget, I think we have really had enormous success in developing some of the non-traditional sources of funding for the University of Alberta — as in the licensing fees and revenues that we get from technology transfer, as in the enormous increase in the research funding for the University, as in the very successful fund-raising campaign in which we are currently involved. And we are moving strongly with this continuing education and professional development centre — the TELUS Centre — that will be set up as a profit centre, and of course the basic faculty renewal program, which will see a 35-per-cent turnover of positions, has meant that there has been an amount of money — which we refer to as salary savings — that has been available for lab renewal, start-up equipment purchases, and those kinds of things. But although we are moving positively — we are not moving with the speed one would hope in convincing the taxpayer of Alberta that it is indeed time to reinvest in the universities. However, having said that, we have had some real success in some areas, such as the information communications technology area, where we have had a substantial infusion of money to help us add additional places. And the monies have come not just for the operating costs; we have received money for capital construction and for the operation and maintenance of the capital construction.

When it comes to recruiting outstanding students — an area in which we have been focusing for some time — we have been quite successful in Alberta, and we are increasingly successful outside the province of Alberta but still within Canada. When it comes to recruiting outstanding students outside of Canada, we now have statistics that show we have been able to increase dramatically the number of applications, however we are only now getting to the point where we can get our admissions procedures aligned to the fact that we are dealing with applicants who are applying to the world's best universities in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It has seemed to take a little longer than I would have wished for to develop admission procedures that are competitive in the international marketplace.

What do you foresee as some of the special challenges of the next few years?

We face a massive challenge in bringing the resources to bear on these activities we are trying to do at a world class level. There's not a single answer. We have to go forward strongly on fundraising, on technology transfer, on developing our new professional development centre. And we have to work together at being successful at convincing the taxpayer of Alberta that the funding of the province's universities should be seen as one of the absolute top priorities. Indeed, if you're going to be amongst a handful of the world's very best you have to have a resource base that allows you to do that. It will take just an enormous collective effort in communicating to the taxpayer why universities are legitimate objects for substantial taxpayer funding.

We have to build here in the greater Edmonton area, in Alberta — even for those who have never attended this University — the sense that "Yes, the University of Alberta is my university. Without it I wouldn't be able to have the quality of life that I have today. It's my university."

We set out on our faculty renewal program with a very strategic goal in mind: to be out in advance of our competitor universities in Canada in hiring for the retirement bulge, and we've been successful. I think the closest university to us is Waterloo — in comparison to our 35-per-cent turnover in the five-year period ending in 2000, Waterloo will have a 10-per-cent turnover in that same period. We have gotten out in front of our competitors, but what has come on far faster and with greater power than I thought it would is the purchasing power of the United States and its universities — the big private schools and the many big schools funded through state appropriations. The really strong performance of the U.S. economy has resulted in fairly substantial flows back into the universities for the last five or six years. That, in turn, has given them an enormous amount of purchasing power in Canada. Earlier than I had expected, we now have a real challenge to retain some of the outstanding people we've had for many years, as well as some of the outstanding new faculty we have hired in the last four years. And, of course, a real challenge in having the wherewithal to continue to attract the very best.

What role do you see alumni playing in all of this?

I think that many are fiercely proud members of the University of Alberta family with potential to play very strong roles in developing our alumni body into one of the strongest of any university. But, we must continue to reach out to them and really treat them as part of our University of Alberta family.

When one thinks about the 91-year legacy we have of educating the leaders of tomorrow, there is no question in my mind but that we have been outstandingly successful. We have alumni in disparate parts of the world who are leaders in their country, in their sphere of life waiting and wanting to be part of an internationally vibrant University of Alberta family.

Universities that aspire to be in that handful of the world's best have to harness the power of their alumni to achieve that vision. And, of course, it's a two-way street. We, as a University, have to be in a position where there's flesh on that idea of the University of Alberta at your side throughout your life — and I think of the TELUS Centre as one of the prime vehicles for us to actually put flesh on the idea that you are able to tie back into the University of Alberta wherever you are, to tie back into one of our programs in continuing education professional development that should be enormously facilitated by the TELUS Centre.

When it comes to the involvement of alumni, I look to places like Harvard as a model. Now people will say, "Oh gee! Harvard," but as I understand Harvard's history, it was only about 55 years ago that Harvard made the decision that it had to make alumni integral members of the Harvard team. So where the Harvard Clubs exist around the world — analogous to our alumni association branches around the world — they are charged with a multiple responsibility. Their members are key ambassadors of the university: people who help in the recruitment of outstanding students; people who help in the placement of undergraduates, and graduates, in practicums, internships, and co-ops, while they are in their education program; people who come back to the university and give of their experience and wisdom; people who actually help in the finding of jobs for new graduates; people who work hard at trying to ensure that people in their region, in their community wherever it is, are part of the alumni association group.

And, of course, ultimately we look to alumni to help out through annual alumni fund campaigns and in the periodic major fund campaigns the university has. The role of alumni has always been there; it is a question of trying to develop and have each individual alumnus or alumna see themselves as part of the University of Alberta team, part of the family. So, what's needed is not so much a changed role as a changed ability of the University to put flesh on the idea of the University of Alberta at your side throughout your life, on the one hand, and the corollary of that: each individual alumnus or alumna thinking, "Yes! I want to be a part of the University of Alberta team," and, "Yes! I will carry information about it; I will help recruit students," and so on.

It sounds like you will continue to be busy in your next five years, and your relentless external focus will continue.

There really isn't any choice. When you look at it, there are four pillars to our external focus. One is government relations — which is one of our key strategic initiatives. A second is building partnerships in the community — another one of our key strategic initiatives. A third one is internationalization, another of our key strategic initiatives. And the fourth one is fund-raising — again a key strategic initiative.

Take government relations as an example. Our total non-capital budget is about $620 million a year, and the provincial government's base operating grant is about 38 per cent of that — so it is less than half, but it still is by far the largest component. And if there is one abso-lutely major challenge that supersedes all others it is to try to build that core budget — trying to work with government, the elected and civil service side, to put the best case forward to get universities at the top position in the priority list.

There are equally compelling cases in the other areas, the other three pillars. So it's one of those challenging issues, because there is nothing more enjoyable than being able to take part in debate and discussion on campus and interacting with colleagues on the academic and non-academic staff and talking and interacting with our students. But we are aggressively pursuing a vision. Having gone through a massive restructuring of our University, having launched this very successful faculty renewal program, having gone forward so strongly on the research side, our biggest challenge now is to ensure that even more resources flow to support the University. It goes back to that three-part activity set that our first president, Henry Marshall Tory, talked about. Paraphrasing him, I sometimes say that I really just have three jobs to do — attract and retain outstanding staff, attract outstanding students, and then find the resources such that each student and each staff member can develop and produce to her or his full capability.

Published Autumn 1999.

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