Former Queen’s dean of law to become 14th president of the University of Alberta

Bill Flanagan will start his new duties July 1, 2020, taking over from outgoing president David H. Turpin.


Bill Flanagan, former dean of law at Queen's University, will begin a five-year term as the University of Alberta's 14th president and vice-chancellor on July 1, 2020. (Photo: Supplied)

An Edmonton-born former dean of law will become the University of Alberta's 14th president.

Bill Flanagan will begin his new duties on July 1, 2020, taking over from outgoing president David H. Turpin.

"I grew up in Alberta. I know the significance of the university and its importance not only to Alberta but the country, and really the world. The University of Alberta is one of Canada's top universities and has had such an important historic role in the development of the province," he said.

"This is a very exciting opportunity, and I'm absolutely delighted to have this chance to serve as president and vice-chancellor."

Alberta roots

Flanagan was born in Edmonton and grew up in Stony Plain and Lacombe.

His parents were both teachers, and graduates of the U of A's Faculty of Education.

"They would have been thrilled to share this day with me," he said. "Sadly, they've passed on but I carry with me their legacy of a lifetime of commitment to education as a means of opening doors, opening minds and expanding opportunity."

Flanagan earned a BA in English and philosophy from Carleton University in Ottawa and then attended law school at the University of Toronto, obtaining a JD in 1985, and then a DEA in international economic law in 1986 from the Université de Paris, commonly known as the Sorbonne.

The following year, he was a law clerk for the Hon. Justice Willard Estey of the Supreme Court of Canada and then went to Columbia University to earn a master's in law in 1989.

In 1991, he joined the Faculty of Law at Queen's and became dean in 2005, serving in that capacity for three terms.

Academic leadership

During his time as law dean at Queen's, Flanagan increased his faculty complement by 25 per cent, creatively finding new sources of revenue to grow the school.

"I think in terms of being an academic leader, in a time of diminishing provincial support for post-secondary institutions across the country, I was able to be innovative and entrepreneurial, really thinking differently about what a legal education can be," he said.

He said he's fully aware of the financial challenges currently facing the university.

"The foundation of the university remains very strong," he said.

"When I think about the major challenges facing the globe, including the need to defend our open society, ongoing health-care challenges-we see this now with COVID-19-the remarkable potential of AI to transform how we live our lives, the growing need to ensure global food security and the importance of developing sustainable energy systems that will help address the challenges of climate change, the U of A is a global leader in all of these areas.

"All of these areas are of such profound importance to our well-being as a society."

Building on U of A strengths

Given the current financial challenges the U of A is facing, Flanagan said his priority will be to preserve and sustain the excellence that is already here at the university.

"We need to create a path forward that will be sustainable and enable the university to continue to build on its record of teaching and research excellence."

He noted the activity-based budget model the university adopted offers great potential for it to unleash innovation, with the thoughtful creation of new programs and opportunities to expand existing programs.

"My own experience as a dean working with that budget model for seven years at Queen's tells me it provides a great incentive to think creatively and in a more entrepreneurial fashion," he said.

"All of the deans worked together and it really had a remarkable impact on what we did and how we thought about the university and its opportunities."

In his faculty, Flanagan developed programs unique in the common law world, namely the online delivery of an undergraduate program in law and two new graduate diploma programs, one to train immigration consultants and the other to provide key business skills to lawyers.

"That kind of creativity is something I want to bring to my role as president, and encouraging and empowering deans to go forward and think outside the box about where the opportunities might lie in their discipline. It's really the deans who will know those opportunities. The activity-based budget model really says to deans, you're empowered to go forward and think creatively and in an entrepreneurial way, about what your faculty can be.

"New or expanded programs build operating revenues, which is the lifeblood of an institution."

The search

The university struck a search committee to evaluate the candidates, chaired by Kate Chisholm, who also chairs the university's board of governors.

She said the committee was looking for "that rare individual who could be very effective and inspirational from an internal perspective and from an entrepreneurial and management perspective, and also have the ability to coalesce our external stakeholders to help us with the university's mission."

She said Flanagan has all those qualities in addition to having substantial experience with performance-based funding models from Ontario, which the U of A is moving to beginning April 1.

She added that, in his time as dean at Queen's, he was able to raise funds and increase the efficiency of his service delivery without affecting the excellence of its quality.

Chisholm also noted that current U of A president David H. Turpin has provided insightful and compassionate leadership through some very tumultuous challenges recently.

"He has laid a very strong foundation from which Bill Flanagan can lead us into our next, more entrepreneurial and self-sufficient chapter."

Chisholm added that as a community, the U of A needs to pull together now more than at any other time in its history.

"We need to support each other and to support the purposes of the university to make sure that throughout all of these many crises we're facing at the moment, whether budgetary or health-related, we preserve everything that is excellent about the university.

"I'm confident Bill brings creativity, the right skill set and the right mindset to bring us all together and see us through these unprecedented times."

Carrie Smith, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, who served as co-chair of the selection committee, said Flanagan was very authentic.

"He's an exceptional communicator who has a strong sense of integrity and is a goals-driven decision-maker. Those qualities are essential as we move forward and work with the provincial government, our students, our academic community, our donors and other stakeholders as we find the best future for the university," she said.

U of A president Turpin agrees. He was vice-president (academic) at Queen's when he first met Flanagan 25 years ago.

"Bill is the right person for these times," he said. "Everyone at Queen's knew Bill as a great leader, right from the moment he was hired. I've watched his career for the last 25 years with admiration and respect."

Akanksha Bhatnagar, president of the U of A Students' Union, who also served on the selection committee, said she found Flanagan's positive composure and demeanour inspiring and hopeful.

She said that during the selection process, Flanagan clearly embodied the characteristics of moving forward, not just by what he said but also by how he acted and engaged with all the members and stakeholders.

"He clearly sees students as an important stakeholder and he really wants us to feel connected and welcomed here. That's something that I'm really looking forward to, especially when people might not be feeling that way right now," she said.