New Trail sits down to talk with Brian Heidecker,
outgoing Chairman of the U of A Board of Governors
As you might be detecting,” says Brian Heidecker, as he rubs his hands together and cracks a mischievous grin, “I’m a tad competitive.”
The two-term outgoing Chair of the Board of Governors’ competitive nature was satisfied in 2010 when four Canada Excellence Research Chairs were awarded to the University of Alberta, more than any other university in the country. The Chairs were created by the federal government in 2008 to allow Canadian universities to attract the world’s most accomplished academics to their respective institutions.
For a non-alumnus, Heidecker’s devotion to the U of A runs deep. And, as he points out, as a former Alberta school board trustee and school board chairman, he’s shown his passion for education over “many, many years.” As for the Board of Governors, he spent six years as a board member and five-and-a-half as chair. “But we’re not just talking about the last 11-and-a-half years,” he says. “I started volunteering at the University in 1983, so I’m now in my 28th year—and I haven’t got tenure yet,” he grins.
The post that Heidecker is leaving is, like the president’s and the chancellor’s, time limited. The president is hired for a five-year term and can only renew once. The chancellor, board members and board chair are appointed for three years and can also only renew once. The chair and the chancellor are unpaid, voluntary postings.
U of A President Indira Samarasekera with Heidecker.
The chair is the senior spokesperson for the Board and one of three senior spokespeople for the University—the president and the chancellor being the other two. About 90 percent of the activities of the University are delegated to the Board who, in turn, are the ones that hire the president, evaluate her performance and set the budgets. “So as the chair,” says Heidecker, “it’s my responsibility to make sure that all of those processes are carried out in a very efficient manner and that the administration is putting a great plan forward. We monitor, we check, we balance. Anybody who knows me knows that I always ask: What’s the game plan? Where are we going and why are we going there? Who’s doing what when? What’s it going to cost?”
There’s understandably a lot of checking and balancing when you’re dealing with a consolidated budget of $1.6 billion, 14,000 employees, 40,000 students, in excess of $536 million in research last year and $2.5 billion worth of capital construction and major renovations during Heidecker’s time on the Board. “There’s an enormous business operation there that’s very important to keep the academic and research programs going,” he says. “It’s that operation the Board spends most of its time at.”
In Heidecker’s case, that time involved working upwards of 20-hours per week. “My back-story is this,” he says, “I spend a third of my time at the University, a third of my time travelling, and a third of my time gardening—and that’s not likely to change. I’m looking forward to the next step in my very failed retirement plans.”
Heidecker in his award-winning garden.
Heidecker “retired” after a successful career as a rancher in Coronation, AB. “My late wife and I set up an operation there in 1966 and I sold the first 8,000 acres in 2000 and the other 8,500 acres in 2006. We had about 6,500 head of cattle.” By any standards, that’s a very impressive spread covering an area of over 66 square kilometres (25.7 square miles)—bigger than Manhattan.
It takes a lot of business savvy to successfully run an operation of that size and that knowledge is something Heidecker brought to the table as Board Chair. “Individuals such as myself,” says Heidecker, “bring the best management practices out of the private sector and adapt them for the University culture.”
As for what he feels are the major accomplishments of the Board of Governors during his tenure as member and chair, Heidecker lists four:
One: “We received a perfectly clean audit from the Auditor General of Alberta this year. It’s most unusual for any large organization to get a clean audit, but for a university to get one is quite remarkable—that’s the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Two: “The cranes. Construction has added an enormous amount of capacity to the University. It represents an unprecedented investment in post-secondary education and in society.”
Three: “The whole senior administrative team that we’ve been able to assemble. High quality, high-performing senior administrators come from an extremely limited talent pool and we have what I consider to be the dream team in Canada, if not North America.”
Four: “Telling the University’s story. I’ll use the centenary as an example. I think we did an outstanding job of telling that story in 2008. We moved the University up a notch.”
A "competitive" Heidecker during last year's record-breaking Campus Cup Dodge Ball game.
Moving the University up is something Heidecker’s been passionate about for nearly three decades, and he’s not about to just ride off into the sunset as might befit a former rancher. Edmonton is his home and he’s staying put, pointing out that he lived in the country for most of his early life and now it’s time for city life. As for what his role might be in relation to the University, he says he’s open to suggestions but doesn’t have anything lined up at the moment. “I know an awful lot of people at the University and they know my skill sets, so if there’s something I can do or help with they can ask and I’ll consider.”
The biggest thing he’ll miss about the job is “the fabulous people you meet and work with on a daily basis. That’s why there doesn’t need to be any cash compensation, the psychic pay is astronomical.”
He’ll also miss his advocacy work with the various levels of government from civic to provincial to federal. “I really enjoyed selling the University’s business cases to the various ministers of advanced education and getting the funding,” he says. “That’s the part I’ll probably miss most.
“It’s been a great run and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s an opportunity very few people get and hopefully I’ve added some value. But,” he adds, “the best before date applies to more than milk. When you’re at the top of your game it’s a good time to move on to other things.”