Roderick Fraser plans to do a great deal of listening as he enters office as president of his alma mater.
Roderick Fraser is clear about his first priority now that he's about to become the president of the University of Alberta. "I plan to do a lot of listening," says Fraser, who takes office as the University's eleventh president on 1 January 1995, the third Alberta graduate to hold that appointment.
Fraser, a professor of economics, has been a faculty member at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario since 1965. Since 1988 he has served as that university's vice-principal (resources). His selection to the U of A's top administrative post was announced on 28 June 1994 by John Ferguson, '64 BA, the chair of the University's Board of Governors.
"After a national and international search, we have found the right person to become our president," said the Board chair. Referring to the president-elect as "an outstanding visionary leader," Ferguson went on to state his conviction that "Dr Fraser brings the right mix of academic leadership, understanding of external relations, and depth of administrative experience to lead the University of Alberta into the 21st century."
Also expressing confidence in Fraser was Lou Hyndman,'56 BA,'59 LLB, who anticipated the priority the new president would set himself. "He will be a listener," remarked the University's chancellor. "He will bring about thoughtful change and will lead the U of A further along the path of excellence."
A native Albertan, Fraser is the first second-generation U of A graduate to become president of this university. His father, Roy Fraser,'42 BA,'48 BEd, holds two degrees from the University, and his wife, Judith Fraser (Lewis), '63 BA, and several other close relatives are also U of A alumni.
In the weeks since his selection, the president-elect has been making regular visits to Edmonton to reacquaint himself with his alma mater, to meet some of the people with whom he soon will be working, and to do as much listening as possible. During a visit in mid-July, he took time to speak with New Trail about his life and career, to share his thoughts about the challenges facing higher education as the 21st century approaches - and to explain why anyone would want to be a university president at this time.
"I have a very strong sense that universities, especially those that are researchintensive universities, have an absolutely vital role to play in providing the economic foundations for the high-technology industries that will provide the employment for young Canadians, young Albertans, in the next century," said the president-elect, as explanation for his willingness to accept the challenge that brings him back to the province of his birth.
Roderick Douglas Fraser was born in Vegreville, Alberta on 23 July 1940, but the location of his birth was almost accidental. He spent his earliest years in Edmonton; later lived four years in Provost, Alberta, where his father was the high school principal; and completed most of his schooling in Calgary, where his family moved in 1950, his father accepting a position with the public school board in that city.
There is, however, another locale that figures prominently in Fraser's childhood memories. A 20-minute drive to the east of Vegreville, near the village of Ranfurly, Alberta, is located the farm which belonged to Fraser's maternal grandparents — MacNaughton was their name. Here he spent his childhood summers, enjoying the rural routines adventures such as a walk to town along the railroad tracks, or a swim in the slough which lay behind the old farmstead.
"There seemed to evolve a family practice of my mother going back to her family farm in the summertime," recalls Fraser, whose father spent this time either at summer school or earning extra money marking departmental examinations.
In the summer of 1940, Fraser's father was in Edmonton enrolled in a summer school course at the U of A. His mother and sister were at the MacNaughton farm, and when his own arrival was imminent his mother was taken to the hospital in Vegreville, where his birth took place.
Eighteen years later Fraser himself entered university. He enrolled in an arts program at the University of Alberta at Calgary with the intention of pursuing a career in law. (He had also seriously considered becoming an engineer.) At the end of his second year, however, something happened that Fraser now sees as having been pivotal in his life.
"I was just lucky enough to be asked to be the UAC [University of Alberta at Calgary] representative to the World University Services of Canada Summer Seminar Program," says Fraser. The program had been established after the Second World War and the annual seminars had at first been held in a variety of European countries to help universities re-establish in that part of the world.
"By the time 1960 came along, the country of choice was Israel," recalls Fraser, who found the entire experience to be stimulating. "It was a superb program," he remembers.
Not only did the seminar experience expand his interests and outlook, it indirectly changed his career course. "There was a kind of obligation to return to the campus that had sent you," says Fraser, who might otherwise have left Calgary for law school or other studies elsewhere.
In his second year at UAC, Fraser had particularly enjoyed a second-year economics course in price theory taught by Dr Frank Anton. When he remained in Calgary to complete his third year, the seed of interest planted by that course grew, and following his graduation in 1961 he headed north to the U of A main campus to do a master's in economics.
Although he graduated in 1963 with marks that earned him admission to the London School of Economics and a Canada Council fellowship to support his studies there, Fraser didn't give his entire attention to academic pursuits during the two years he spent working on his master's degree. Shortly after he arrived on the Edmonton campus he met Judith Lewis, a second-year history student from Grande Prairie, Alberta. They were wed in the summer following their graduation and are the parents of two children, Margo, a supply teacher in Whistler B.C., and Rob, a student at Laval University.
Fraser was encouraged to apply for admission to the London School of Economics by one of his U of A professors, Dr David Winch, himself an LSE's graduate. It's a decision about which the president-elect has no regrets. Fraser found the two years he spent in London to be a "superb experience." He embraced the cultural life of the "enormously vibrant" city, and at the School of Economics was stimulated by the clash of differing schools of thought. "The left-of-centre groups were still well represented at the School at that time. At the same time there were clearly people who represented a very conservative, 'treasury board' point of view," Fraser recalls.
Having done the two-year MA program at Alberta, Fraser went directly into LSE's PhD program, which had a thesis as its focus. For his treatise, Fraser chose to look at health-care systems in 15 welldeveloped countries to learn whether the existence of a national health service was important in improving the health status of the individual. (No clear trend emerged, but there was some evidence to show that well-funded public health services emphasizing preventative health measures related positively to the health status of individual citizens.)
Fraser's interest in health care economics was awakened during his MA days at Alberta. At the same time that he was entering graduate school, the Province of Saskatchewan was introducing its controversial medicare program. The move generated fierce levels of debate and Saskatchewan doctors went on strike in protest. "The papers were filled with the pros and cons of a government medical-care program," recalls Fraser. "It seemed to me," he continues, "that there was a framework of analysis that economics provided that might be helpful in sorting through what kind of health insurance program might be good —how you best set up incentives and disincentives and so on."
That theme and variations upon it have been central to Fraser's academic career. Despite his extensive involvement in university administration in recent years, he has contributed his expertise to a variety of committees, task forces and commissions related to questions of public policy in health care. In 1984 and 1985 he was director of research for the national Commission of Inquiry on the Pharmaceutical Industry. Two years later, he agreed to chair the economics and epidemiology subcommittee for the Royal Society of Canada Study on AIDS. He later served four years as a member of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS.
The U of A president-elect began his career in university administration by serving as acting head of the Department of Economics at Queen's in 1977-78. In 1979, having returned to Queen's following a year's research leave at Princeton University, he began a five-year term as associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 1983 he took over as dean of that faculty.
As dean of Arts and Sciences, Fraser gave leadership to an extremely diverse faculty encompassing more than two dozen different disciplines. These ranged from the natural and social sciences to the humanities and fine arts; there was even a school of physical and health education situatedwithin the faculty.
When asked what lessons he learned as a dean dealing with such a diverse faculty — an experience that could well serve as a model for the challenge he will face as president of the University of Alberta — Fraser hesitates only briefly to gather his thoughts.
"There are two that flood the mind," he replies and talks first of the need to delegate responsibility and give freedom. "It is so critical," he says, "that individual faculty and staff members have the ability to do a lot of things to improve the quality of the academic environment in which our students do their learning, as well as things to improve the quality of our various administrative processes and to advance our research and scholarship.
"To fully exploit the opportunities available, there has to be a major delegation of responsibility and the freedom for departments to get on with doing the right thing. It's just too easy to stifle things by having everything orchestrated through the process of hierarchical control."
Secondly, says Fraser, listening is of paramount importance. "It is absolutely critical that you are prepared to listen to what are the challenges, prospects and constraints that the different discipline units face."
From the dean's office, Fraser moved to Queen's central administration in 1988 as vice-principal (resources). In that position he was the university's chief financial architect, and he is credited by many at Queen's as being the individual most responsible for maintaining that university's solid financial health during turbulent economic times.
As vice-principal (resources) Fraser has a diverse portfolio that encompasses not only the actual fiscal management of the university but responsibility for working with the principal and deans to establish basic budget and staffing strategies for the individual faculties. He has also had responsibility for fund-raising strategy and government relations. In recent years he has coordinated successful efforts to acquire for Queen's the provincial capital funding for a $42-million library project and a $50-million biotechnology complex with a fully-integrated technology transfer centre. He also played a key role in mounting a highly-successful fund-raising campaign.
With the coming of the new year, Fraser will close the book on three decades spent at Queen's and return to Alberta to provide leadership at his alma mater. When asked about the priorities he has set for himself when he assumes office, the president-elect identifies only the one. "Before anything else, I really want to go through a period focused almost wholly on listening," he says.
He is, however, willing to share some of his own thoughts about the important issues facing the University.
"I start out with a feeling that we are an institution of learning, so the learning environment for students should receive a significant amount of our attention. A substantive portion of our creative energy should be devoted to improving the learning environment. We must be continually rededicating ourselves to improving the way we facilitate learning by our students."
Fraser also states his belief that universities must break down the "vertical silos" created by rigid disciplinary boundaries. "So many of the problems that we confront in the world," he says, "whether they are practical or more theoretical in nature, are problems that really are better solved if they have the intellectual vigor that comes from a variety of disciplines."
Very few problems can be mapped absolutely within one discipline."
A third "absolutely critical challenge" Fraser identifies is the building of "much better, closer, more productive partnerships." Says the president-elect: "We are not a body unto ourself. We are part of a province, we're part of a city community, and part of a system of post-secondary education. I am finding that there are already lots of partnerships between people at this university [U of A] and people at other universities. And there are, as well, partnerships with the private sector in Alberta, and with the business community in Edmonton. I am listening closely for the potential we have for further building of partnerships.My sense is that in the future we will want to have many more of these."
Based on his experience at Queen's, Fraser well knows the struggles facing institutes of learning in the economy of the mid-1990s, and he has no delusions that the economic difficulties will soon disappear. "My sense is that while times may seem tough now, they could well get tougher," he says, adding that "it just behooves all of us in universities to cut the cloth to meet the size of the purse."
At the same time, he is optimistic that the challenges can be met. "You have a lot of talent in universities — the academic and non-academic staff. Alberta has tremendous amounts of talent. In order to exploit that, you have to give people responsibility and the freedom to carry it out and to focus relentlessly on the quality of all the activities we pursue in teaching and research."
The president-elect also makes it known that he will be looking for help from his fellow U of A graduates. "It is absolutely clear to me," he says, "that in order for the University to meet the kind of aspirationthat I and others with whom I have been talking have for it, the alumni must be a critical part of the U of A team."
Published Autumn 1994.