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Alberta Bound


The chorus of Gordon Lightfoot's classic song Alberta Bound holds real meaning for me and provides a theme for my remarks today. Indeed, it's good to be "Alberta Bound."

Eminent Chancellor, Your Honor, Ladies and Gentlemen. Mes chers amis, mes chers collègues. Je suis très heureux d'etre ici devant vous. C'est un très grand plaisir pour moi et pour ma famille.

Ninety years ago, my mother's father, my Grandfather MacNaughton, was "Alberta Bound." He Studied accounting at Mt. Morency Business College in Quebec, but he dreamed of becoming a farmer.

It was this dream that drew my grandfather to Alberta. Arriving in Edmonton in 1905, he collected a pair of oxen and moved eastward to establish himself as a homesteader in Ranfurly, about 40 kilometres east of Vegreville. There he met and married my grandmother, raised four children and lived his dream of "farming the land."

Because I spent so many of my childhood summers on that family farm in Ranfurly, I think I have a pretty clear idea what attracted my grandfather to Alberta nearly a century ago:

  •       the beauty of the prairies,
  •       the vastness of the sky,
  •       the richness of the land,
  •       the integrity of the people,
  •       the enormity of the potential.

These factors have remained steadfast over the past 90 years. They continue to distinguish Alberta from other places and keep so many "Alberta Bound."

For me, the irony of life has brought me full circle: after more than 30 years away, I am delighted to be "Alberta Bound!" And, moreover, it has me facing a set of challenging opportunities of a different kind — yet, in some ways analogous — to those faced by my grandparents some 90 years ago.

Life has certain privileges and responsibilities. As I reflect on my own life, and my return to Alberta, I am struck by how extremely privileged I am to have been selected to serve as the eleventh president of the University of Alberta.

The University of Alberta is truly a distinguished institution — one that is renowned for its scholarly achievements, its commitment to excellence in teaching, research and service to the community, and its depth, scope and diversity of academic programs.

I am honored and humbled by the privilege of assuming the presidency of this outstanding institution. It is the greatest privilege that I have ever been given.

And yet, with this privilege comes responsibilities. Today's universities are being challenged to seize the opportunities presented by several monumental changes in our society, while, at the same time, honoring the age-old traditions of teaching and scholarship.

Universities have successfully evolved over more than 1,000 years. But, how do we now prepare for the 21st century? What are the challenges we face? What are the opportunities that await us? Can we rely on our past to guide us into the future?

The University of Alberta is a proud part of my family's history. My mother attended Normal School in Corbett Hall, and my father holds two degrees from the U of A. More personally, it was on the diagonal path leading northwest from the Rutherford Library to the old cafeteria that I first met my wife Judith on a cold, windy fall day some 32 and one-half years ago.

Whilst my connection to the University is rooted in the past, my focus as president is clearly directed to the future. In my vision, I see the University of Alberta, now one of Canada's largest full-service, research-intensive universities, entering the next century as indisputably one of Canada's very best universities, and this in three mutually reinforcing ways:

  •       FIRST, in preparing students for life after graduation;
  •       SECOND, in having professors who are national and international leaders in their       disciplines;
  •       THIRD, in ensuring that service to our communities is a priority for all of us.

First, our graduates will be prepared to work effectively and live fulfilling lives in the 21st century. They will be able to compete successfully with graduates from the best publicly-funded universities — not only in Canada, not only in North America, but in the world.

I want our students to feel confident and proud about the merit of their degrees — degrees that will be acknowledged and respected, across the country, the continent, and throughout the world for both their quality and their value.

In order to accomplish this, we must work together to create what I call an "optimal learning environment" — an environment that fosters critical thinking, independent judgment, written and oral communication skills, and knowledge in a specific area of human or scientific endeavour. It must also be an environment that facilitates and celebrates the development of the whole person. Moreover, this learning environment must be constructed in the context of a complex world that has diverse value systems and increasing interdependence, one in which students face a career of several job changes.

I believe that an old Chinese proverb provides us with insight to creating such an environment. It states: Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, let me do, I understand.

Whether it is through Socratic debate, industrial internships, student study teams, or the harnessing of new information and telecommunications technology, every student at the University of Alberta should be challenged to "be involved," to "do" so that they will "understand" forever.

Through this approach and others, we must discover ways of better unleashing the creative and entrepreneurial talents of our students. They will live and work in a world in which large institutions become less important as employers. And, conversely, self-employment and employment in smalland medium-sized firms will continue to grow sharply.

To assist us in these tasks, we must couple the best components of the traditional methods of learning with the most innovative uses of information technology, whose rapid development seems likely to have an impact on universities and on learning as great as that of the introduction of the Gutenberg Press in the mid-1400s!

We must aggressively explore these new technologies in order to exploit them to better achieve the learning outcomes we desire.

A final characteristic of this optima learning environment is that it must" better encompass an understanding of the global world in which we live. Graduates of the University of Alberta must be able to cope with the economic, cultural, social and political realities of an international society.

Teaching and learning programs and the campus community must become global in perspective so that each student gains a significant international experience.

The second aspect of my vision is a professorate made up of people known—nationally and internationally — as leaders in their areas of research, scholarship, and creativity: leaders who are creating, integrating, transmitting and applying new knowledge.

Through our research and scholarship, we will help produce the new ideas, products, processes and services that will both provide the foundations of a productive Canadian society, and also enhance the social and cultural environment in which we will live.

We have done superbly well in Alberta with our resource-based economy. But we now need to enhance that advantage by increasing the efforts directed towards the new economy, the economy that is increasingly centred on knowledge and the exchange of information. Our University researchers will play a key role in this effort.

Starting as one of Canada's largest universities, with a number of research areas that are already amongst Canada's finest, we are extraordinarily well positioned to be a full and active partner in the economic growth and in the health and human development of Alberta and Canada today. At the same time, this very strength gives us the capacity to generate the new knowledge that will serve our grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they strive to solve the problems of their day.

And, finally, the third aspect of my vision depicts a university whose faculty, staff and, especially, students are active citizens of the society of which we are a part. We must expand our individual roles so that each of us contibutes directly through service to one or more of our communities, from local to international.

The importance of community service is something my Grandmother MacNaughton understood and believed in intensely. She gave selflessly of her time and energy to the United Farm Women of Alberta, and eventually served as one of its 14 directors.

One of my most valued possessions is the briefcase she used as a director. Perhaps it was because she risked to serve at a time when it was unusual for women to lead, that I cherish this symbol of her service. I used it every day until just a few years ago. It is still a symbol to me of the importance of service to one's community.

And so, as we proceed through this decade and prepare to move into the 21st century, times that will most certainly be characterized by turbulence and enormous change, I believe there will be a major sorting out of universities. Only a handful will emerge from the fray as strong, full-service, research-intensive universities.

It is my vision that the University of Alberta will be one of these. It will be viewed universally and indisputably as one of Canada's best universities.

What then must we do to get from here to there? What will our strategies be?

First and foremost, we must have a relentless focus on quality — creating a stimulating, productive, and supportive environment for all of our teaching, learning and research initiatives. This quality environment will not only help us attract and retain the verv best minds, but will allow these minds to focus successfully on the unsolved mysteries and problems of our world.

Clearly, our most valuable resource is the individuals who make up our community —our students, our support staff, our faculty, and our alumni and friends. The quality of these individuals is absolutely and fundamentally tied to everything we do.

Secondly, we must monitor and assess our performance to know how well we are performing compared to our peers, compared to those national and international universities we wish to emulate and, most importantly, compared to the goals to which we aspire.

Thirdly, we must work atbetter aligning our activities to the nature of the intellectual and practical problems we are facing as a society.

Solving many of the most pressing problems of today's world, such as environmental management, the alleviation of poverty and the prevention of violence, or global climate change, requires knowledge from a wide spectrum of disciplines. We must better engage those disciplines in collaboration, so that the critical thinking needed to understand these issues is successfully brought to bear.

For our fourth strategy, we must build a more responsive, less hierarchial management system to better and more quickly adapt to our changing circumstances. Our fifth strategy is selectivity. Even with the intellectual and economic wealth of Alberta and Albertans, we cannot be all things to all people. Keeping our relentless focus on quality, we must be more selective on how we allot our relatively scarce resources.

That leads us to our sixth strategy. We must become better at building new partnerships and enhancing existing ones. We must seek partners in Edmonton, throughout Alberta, across Canada, and around the world — partnerships amongst teaching scholars, amongst researchers, and amongst other educational institutions — partnerships with the private sector, with government, with alumni and with close friends.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that enjoyed music. My mother and my three sisters all play the piano, and I love to sing. In my childhood, my family would gather Sunday evenings for a traditional singsong. Each member of the family would participate, each brought unique strengths, each contributed to the overall harmony.

It is this harmony that we wish to achieve here at the U of A. We must value the contributions of each individual member of the University community, clearly recognizing that each has a critical role to play in meeting our vision.

So that's it — six strategies as we move to fulfil our vision: a relentless focus on quality, the monitoring of performance, creative alignments, a responsive management system, selectivity, and partnerships. As we now move to implement our overall strategy, we do so on the sure premise, with the sure understanding that we are servants of our broader society: of our students, of Albertans, of Canadians, of culture, of citizenship, of knowledge. But, fundamentally, we are servants of truth: Quaecumque vern.

My grandfather knew what he was doing in 1905, when he was "Alberta Bound." I am grateful for his courage, wisdom and fortitude to follow his convictions — to abandon accounting for farming, for being "Alberta Bound." While he might have disagreed with some of my choices, he would not have any quarrel with my decision to return to Alberta. He, more than anyone, understood the draw of the prairies and the big sky.

Now, 90 years later, I am as convinced as he was that this is the place to be ... that this is the place where it is going to happen ... that, with the commitment of all of us who are "Alberta Bound," we will be successful in ensuring the University of Alberta will enter the next century as one of Canada's very finest universities.

Join me in meeting this challenge. Encourage others to join us in this effort. Together we can make it happen. Together we will make it happen.

Published Spring 1995.

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