Coming Home

Where most people see challenge, Bill Flanagan sees opportunity. He returns to Alberta to face his biggest challenge yet, as the U of A’s new president

By Stephanie Bailey, '10 BA(Hons)

Photo by John Ulan

Where most people see challenge, Bill Flanagan sees opportunity. He returns to Alberta to face his biggest challenge yet, as the U of A’s new president

By Stephanie Bailey, '10 BA(Hons)

August 28, 2020 •

When Bill Flanagan was 16 he got a summer job at the experimental farm on the outskirts of his hometown, Lacombe, in central Alberta. He and a few classmates from the local high school were hired to sort seeds. Within hours of their first shift, they all came to the same horrible realization. This was going to be one very long, very boring summer.

But before the first workweek was through, Flanagan concocted a plan.

Take turns reading short stories aloud, he proposed, to distract them from the mindless task at hand. It was an unusual suggestion and his co-workers were vaguely skeptical but they agreed. Flanagan went first, reading “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, a deeply moving — albeit out-of-season — tale about country life and friendship. By the time he finished, the workday was done and no one had noticed the long hours.

On a warm summer’s day some 40 years later, I meet Flanagan, now the newly appointed president of the University of Alberta. And though much has changed since he left the province years ago, one thing quickly becomes apparent: where most people see a challenge, he sees opportunity. Just as he was that summer he spent sorting seeds, he is still a man who thinks differently about a problem. This will be vital to the task before him as incoming president: a massive restructuring following cuts to provincial funding. Faced with a substantial budget reduction amid an economic downturn, he has his work cut out for him.

Flanagan is a tall man with a smile that puts me at ease and a knack for telling stories. We meet on a windy Quad, where we have our choice of picnic benches. With summer students learning from home due to the pandemic, it seems as though there are more magpies on campus than people. The Sweetgrass Bear sculpture by Indigenous artist Stewart Steinhauer stands as a backdrop to our conversation, with the words “We are all related” engraved on its side. The only sound my recorder picks up, between gusts of wind, is Flanagan’s voice as he reflects on his rural Alberta upbringing and his life since.

His return to Alberta is a homecoming in more ways than one. He grew up in the Alberta towns of Stony Plain and Lacombe with his parents and four siblings, and his connection to this province runs deep. Both parents were proud U of A education grads, he says. In fact, one of his first memories of the university is of a summer job painting dorm rooms with his brother at St. Joseph’s College, where his dad had studied years before. Both parents were raised on the Prairies; his mother grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and his father went through the Great Depression in Medicine Hat, Alta., as one of 12 kids. Hard work and resilience were prized in the Flanagan household.

This attitude is baked into the very DNA of the family, says Flanagan’s husband, Saffron Sri, a registered dietitian who works in the health-care sector. “It’s a humble resilience,” he says, not a “drum your chest” approach to challenges. “It’s more like, ‘We did it. And, what’s next?’ That’s their humble approach.”

When U of A President Bill Flanagan, right, isn’t playing piano or listening to The History of English Podcast, he can often be found riding his bike in the river valley or trying out new places to eat with his husband, Saffron Sri. Photo by John Ulan

As you might expect, growing up with two teachers meant being under a certain level of scrutiny as a kid, says Flanagan — not only from his parents but also from his peers, just waiting for the teacher’s kid to make a mistake. Still, there were perks.

“I was fortunate and spoiled, in a way, because my mother was a librarian in the junior high school. And every week she’d just hand me a new stack of books that I had to read. I’d never had to pick anything. It was just, ‘Mom, what am I reading this week?’ ”

With not much space in the family bungalow, he would often pedal his bike around Lacombe looking for reading nooks. One day he ventured a bit out of town, down by the experimental farm — the same place where years later he would land that summer job. There he found a grassy spot overlooking a small lake that soon became his favourite hiding place. He’d spend hours in the prairie landscape, losing himself in the literature of the region.

Western Canadian literature was his mom’s favourite genre. Their family bookshelf boasted the entire McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library collection, including works by W.O. Mitchell, Robert Stead and Martha Ostenso. As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross is one of Flanagan’s all-time favourites. Set against the backdrop of rural life, the stories of hardship, perseverance and coming-of‑age deepened his understanding of his home — and of himself. “The novels gave me a sense of place, a sense of history, a sense of what it means to be from the Prairies.”

“Learning was everything in my childhood,” he adds. “In my family, the world began and ended with a good book. As long as I was diligently involved in reading a good book, my mother and father were happy. They thought education was the route to all that mattered in the world.”

It’s abundantly clear the message got through. Flanagan is one of three lawyers in the family. His other siblings are a physician and a journalist. You’d run out of nails before you hung all their degrees. Flanagan, a legal academic and passionate educator for most of his career, holds four degrees, including a JD from the University of Toronto and an LLM from Columbia University in New York City. Most recently, he was dean of law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., from 2005 to 2019.

At home, the couple meal preps as dinner cooks in the oven. It’s roast chicken with tarragon, the first dish Flanagan ever cooked for the man who would become his husband. “Cooking is very much part of our daily routine,” says Sri, who trained as a chef. Recently, they’ve been experimenting with local products, such as rhubarb, a Prairie summer staple. Photo by John Ulan

One of his proudest achievements is finishing his master’s degree in international economic law from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in France. It was a demanding program, far from home and in a foreign language, no less. And so, at age 25, he momentarily entertained the idea of quitting. After all, he didn’t need the degree to further his career — he already had a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada lined up for when he got home. But one thing stopped him short.

“There was just no way on planet Earth I was going to explain dropping out to my mother,” says Flanagan, with a laugh.

“My mother’s favourite expressions were, ‘Get over it’ and ‘Get on with it.’ She was also very kind and thoughtful, but she was a Prairie girl through and through.” In the end, Flanagan pushed beyond what he thought was possible to finish what he’d started at the Sorbonne. “That’s why I always say to my students, ‘When you’re miles outside your comfort zone, don’t shy from that. That’s where you need to push through because that’s where you learn.”

Flanagan regularly steps outside his comfort zone, says his husband. Sri recalls a vacation the pair took in Sri Lanka during which Flanagan arranged a bumpy, 16-hour overnight bus ride to visit Sri’s hometown. Or when he created a study abroad program from scratch as a faculty member at Queen’s University, giving law students the opportunity to study in the United Kingdom. “Take any problem and he’ll be able to reimagine it,” says Sri. “One fundamental characteristic of Bill is that he’s not afraid of challenges.”

Photo by John Ulan

And while Flanagan’s upbringing was idyllic in many ways, there were definitely challenges. He was, after all, a young gay man growing up in rural Alberta in the 1970s. In hindsight, he says, that’s probably one thing that motivated him to explore the world, which wasn’t a bad thing.

There’s nothing quite like leaving home to help you appreciate it. It’s obvious Flanagan is relishing his Alberta homecoming. He’s rediscovering many of the things he took for granted as a kid: the natural beauty, the scale of the sky and the Prairie sensibility.

“There is a sense of place, resilience and community that’s wedded in the land around us,” he says, adding it has been around long before Europeans settled here. “I see a tradition of community that’s deeply rooted in the land reflected in the Indigenous histories and cultures of this territory, which continue to enrich our lives today.”

People in Alberta band together during trying times, he says, whether it’s weathering the Great Depression, a wildfire or flood — or a global pandemic. It’s this Prairie sensibility that he will tap into as he guides the university community through the challenges of the coming years.

And he has a plan.

He has put forward an ambitious academic and administrative restructuring proposal to find tens of millions of dollars in savings over the next five years. “I know it’s a challenging time, and I don’t want to understate that,” he says. “But I’m a perennial optimist, and I think there are great reasons for optimism. This restructuring will be of historic benefit to the university, to the province. It will bring the community together and position us in a very strong place to grow and thrive.”

Reflecting on the challenges ahead, Flanagan recalls a story his father told from his childhood, when a barn outside of town burned down. The next day neighbours from the surrounding community and a nearby Hutterite colony got to work clearing the fields and doing whatever was needed to help the family through.

“You can see this sense of community throughout the Prairies,” he says. “There is something striking about that pulling together and helping one another. It’s a generosity of spirit, a sense of shared interest and common ground.”

Watch Bill Flanagan’s formal installation as U of A president on Sept. 16 at uab.ca/installation.

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