2017 State of the University Address

On Tuesday, September 26, President Turpin delivered the 2017 State of the University Address in Convocation Hall. Read and/or watch the…

Image for Post

On Tuesday, September 26, President Turpin delivered the 2017 State of the University Address in Convocation Hall. Read and/or watch the address below.

Thank you for joining me today for the 2017 State of the University Address - an occasion for us to reflect back on the past year and set the agenda for the future. It is also an occasion for us to consider our work - the state of work as a university - in light of the big picture.

I want to begin by respectfully acknowledging that the University of Alberta is located on Treaty 6 territory, and that we respect the histories, languages, and cultures of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and all First Peoples of Canada, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant community.

The university - especially a public university like the University of Alberta - does not exist in isolation but - as this treaty acknowledgement reminds us - in community.

We strongly value this community, and in turn, our community strongly values us. In fact, few universities in Canada enjoy the provincial government support that we enjoy. Through the economic downturn of the last three years, the Government of Alberta has consistently prioritized the funding of education, from kindergarten through post-secondary, and we - faculty, staff, and students alike - have benefited from that commitment.

Albertans have entrusted us with more than financial support. They have also entrusted us with the task of educating their young people and with pursuing research that advances knowledge and does the public good in every sector of the province.

In 2014, I worked with Universities Canada on a reputation study of universities in Canada. That research revealed that universities top the list of trusted public institutions - higher than hospitals, churches, and government.

In 2015, Universities Canada and Abacus Data undertook another reputation study and found that Canadian universities maintained that trust and respect over time: in Alberta, that percentage sits at 86%.

A large majority of those surveyed felt that universities do the best job among all types of post-secondary institutions at preparing young people to be leaders, solve big challenges, think clearly and communicate well, gain the skills to adapt, and invent and innovate.

We also know that Canadians are just as supportive of research efforts at universities. New survey data released last week by Universities Canada show that 84% of Canadians agreed that research work in universities is vitally important for Canada's future, and 92% support increasing university research funding to levels comparable to our global competitors.

I open my address today with these survey results in part to say thank you. Thank you for the efforts you make every day to deliver on the University of Alberta's core mission of excellence in teaching, learning, and research. Thank you for your dedication and commitment.

I also begin with these results to emphasize that we, as a university community, occupy an incredible position of privilege and responsibility. We - as a public institution - hold something very important: we hold the public trust. Not many institutions or organizations do.

The past year has been troubling. So many events and the general public discourse have led to an erosion of the public trust - repeatedly, we've seen how fragile it is.

I think of the escalation of "fake news," ongoing attacks against traditional journalism, and the development of "post-truth politics." What does their rise mean for universities - and for other so-called traditional, mainstream institutions devoted to advancing knowledge through evidence-based research and teaching?

I think, too, of the many people who are feeling disenfranchised - left behind by globalization, ignored by their governments, and undervalued by their employers.

Couple that with the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes because of conflicts that seem endless - causing displacement on a scale that has resulted in one of history's greatest refugee crises.

Flowing in part from all of these factors are the isolationist movements that have come to the fore in the last 12 months.

Sadly we have seen that with this has come a growing resurgence of racism and intolerance - not just far away but here, closer to home.

Individuals and groups are having more and more difficulty listening to each other - learning from each other- putting empathy and compassion above difference and anger.

It is within this broader context that we, at the University of Alberta, have the privilege and responsibility of holding the public trust.

I have spent many hours over the last year asking myself a question: Given that we do hold the public trust, what is the role of the university in the midst of this turmoil?

Recent world events, in my view, have not only challenged us to respond, but elevated the unique role that universities play in society.

Today, in 2017, U of A's motto - whatsoever things are true - feels more relevant than ever, because it champions the pursuit of truth over polemical thinking and ideology. It asks of us to keep seeking, to keep questioning, and to open ourselves to a diversity of views.

It is in that spirit that I believe we must endeavor to maintain the public trust during a period in which the very concept is under serious threat.

We must heighten our level of engagement with a range of local, national, and international communities.

We must strive to counter half-truths and fake news with evidence-based, cogently argued research.

And, we must ensure that the debate and clash of ideas so inherent to discovery of new knowledge can take place within a space of intellectual freedom and integrity.

A year ago, we came together to launch our institutional strategic plan: For the Public GoodFor the Public Good. I can tell you that, as I have spoken to audiences about our plan over the past year, it is our commitment to the public good that resonates most powerfully. It resonated within our own internal community as we shaped the plan together. And now it resonates with alumni, provincial and federal government officials, international partners, community organizations, industry, and more.

I have been proud to tell these audiences that the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Alberta embrace our role and responsibilities as a public university. I assure them that we will continue to do our utmost to earn and maintain their trust.


First, by working to deliver on the goals and objectives of For the Public Good.

Second, by ensuring that we have the governance and operational processes and tools we need to continue to be the best stewards possible of the public funding we receive.

And, third, by using the privilege of our position in society to do the public good to the benefit of Alberta, Canada, and the world.

So today, let me begin with our work on delivering on our goals and objectives. It has been gratifying to see faculties and support units working to align their plans with For the Public Good. Together, we have made important progress under our five goals: Build, Experience, Excel, Engage, and Sustain.

I will begin with Build.

To broaden the diversity of students on campus, the Registrar's Office launched the first phase of a three-year national recruitment strategy.

Well ahead of schedule and against stiff national competition, the first year of that plan has yielded very positive results: a 26% increase in applicants from outside of Alberta and a 31% increase in registrations.

International student interest in the U of A has also increased significantly this year in response to a range of external factors and internal initiatives. We are increasingly seen as a global destination of choice.

Complementing these efforts, the Registrar's Office led a complete revamp of the online experience of all prospective students - domestic and international. Francophone students can also now apply in French, helping to build Campus Saint-Jean and the University of Alberta as an institution of choice for francophone and bilingual students.

We also heightened the U of A's response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action by opening an Indigenous Advisory Office to coordinate our many activities and supports in our shared efforts towards Reconciliation.

We signaled our commitment to the Calls to Action on a national level by hosting the 2nd national Building Reconciliation Conference and signing a memorandum of understanding with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to ensure that the legacy and history of residential school survivors is preserved, studied, understood, and valued.

In addition we launched a new Massive Open Online Course or MOOC called Indigenous Canada. It has attracted national interest, and through an agreement with the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, it will be promoted in libraries across the country.

Faculty renewal is another one of our immediate priorities. The long term well-being of faculties and departments depends on this renewal which is why we are being strategic in our submission to the Canada 150 chairs program - we have decided to put the focus on attracting junior and mid-career positions with a strong emphasis on recruiting early and mid-career women.

See more: 2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Build"2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Build"

Under our Experience objectives, we focused on enhancing the quality of student experience - putting in place a new quality assurance suite that integrates undergraduate and graduate program reviews and the President's Visiting Committees.

We also began to survey and assess the range of experiential learning options available to students to identify strengths and gaps in our offerings.

This semester, Augustana introduced a new academic calendar in which students take a three-week intensive block course followed by a more traditional eleven-week term. The block course involves in-depth exploration of a specific topic with time for a related experiential learning opportunity, often outside of the classroom. I'd like to congratulate Dean Allen Berger and his faculty for introducing this innovative new approach - and I look forward to seeing how this might be applied elsewhere.

In the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, professional development programs for grad students have taken off.

Two hundred grad students are either participating in or have completed internships and more than 2600 students have been engaged in professional development workshops.

At the same time, we will begin a review of professional development activities for staff and faculty.

See more: 2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Experience"2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Experience"

Objective 11 under Excel speaks to the importance of sustaining and supporting a broad and diverse suite of fundamental and applied research disciplines. Since the release of the federal government's Naylor Report, we have been working with colleagues at Universities Canada, the U15, and our team in University Relations on a national advocacy campaign to raise awareness around the benefits of basic research.

Our goals are to create a sense of urgency in the wake of the Naylor Report. An infusion of basic research funding is essential to the long-term health of the universities' research environment and to facilitate global excellence across the disciplines. From this, we can begin to develop the bigger collaborations needed to tackle complex problems.

Objective 12 - the development of signature research and teaching areas - is one way we aim to do this at the U of A.

Under the leadership of the Provost and the Vice-President (Research), a Signature Areas Development Panel has worked over the last nine months to explore and develop areas where the U of A can both claim and aspire to global leadership.

At this point in the process, I am pleased to report that two proposals will soon be brought to Deans' Council for their endorsement.

The signature areas development process will be continuing as there are other areas under serious development. They too may be brought forward either as other signature areas or as emerging areas.

The link between support for fundamental research and the development of signature areas is clear. We need think no further than the U of A's artificial intelligence and machine learning teams for a recent example.

Thanks to decades of careful investment in basic research, the U of A, along with Montreal and Toronto/Waterloo, were selected as nodes in a $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy. This was soon followed by the announcement that Google's Deep Mind will set up a research lab here in Edmonton in affiliation with the U of A.

Part of the Pan-Canadian AI strategy is to significantly invest resources in the social sciences and humanities to help us understand the social, economic, philosophical, and ethical implications of AI. The U of A is in position to play a leadership role in these areas as well.

See more: 2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Excel"2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Excel"

I spoke earlier about the hazards of growing isolationism and intolerance. It is critical that we respond by building bridges and connections to the benefit of communities here in Edmonton and around the world - goals we've captured under Engage.

Earlier this month, I had the honour of speaking at the 2017 Laurel Awards - an annual event in the city that celebrates excellence in Edmonton's non-profit sector.

So many of this year's nominees were organizations or projects that have close connections to the U of A, and I used the occasion to speak about our aspiration to grow more reciprocal, mutually beneficial community partnerships.

With numerous U of A colleagues, I also spent a considerable amount of time this past year travelling to meet key international partners.

In China, the vice-minister of education gave the U of A special recognition because of our high level of engagement with them over many years, and that engagement continues to increase.

We extended our two-decades-long relationship with Tsinghua University with the establishment of a Joint Energy Systems Research Centre. We also played a leadership role in the creation of the Canadian Learning Initiative in China (CLIC) which enables Canadian students to study in China.

In India, we forged an agreement with the Indian Science and Engineering Research Board that will bring Indian graduate students to the U of A . Ours was the first international agreement they've signed.

Throughout my travels, I was impressed by the breadth and quality of the U of A's international partnerships and the high regard that our partners have for our work. Over the coming months, the Provost and I will be working with UAI to refresh our international strategy to position us for many opportunities that lie ahead.

See more: 2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Engage"2016-2017 Progress Overview for "Engage"

This brings me to the final goal in For the Public Good - Sustain.

During the year, teams across the university completed and released several significant reviews, reports, and new policies, dealing with a range of important support issues such as sexual violence, residence life, and scholarly writing.

A major review of the U of A's academic governance was done for the first time in more than 40 years. A dedicated team, led by Mark Loewen and Steve Patton, reviewed the principles, terms of reference and delegated authorities of multiple sub-committees. They made a series of recommendations and a plan for implementing them. This was a major effort - and I thank them sincerely for their hard work.

Ensuring that we have effective governance and administrative systems and policies is essential to maintaining the public trust. Work remains to be done, and we will be focusing significant energies in this area in the coming months.

Before I go on, I want to review a few details about the broader Alberta context.

At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned that we enjoy strong financial support from the Alberta government and Albertans.

Since the election of the current government, we have received three years of 2% increases to the Campus Alberta grant, while tuition has been frozen since 2015. For two years, government provided tuition backfill to cover the loss of the expected CPI increase, but this was not the case in the 2017.

Alberta's economy is starting to show signs of recovery, but we know that the government still faces significant financial challenges. There is a $10.3 billion deficit and oil prices continue to remain stubbornly low.

Provincial debt is now at $45 billion and growing rapidly. Our Advancement team under Heather McCaw raised a record $175 million last year - much of it targeted to specific projects and activities. This is essential support, but we know that alternative revenue streams, such as philanthropy, will not fill the gap in the years ahead.

This year, the government is also engaged in two reviews of significant importance to the funding regime for post-secondary institutions.

The first is a funding review of the entire adult learning system. They have made it clear that the review is not about injecting more money into the system but about developing a new model for allocating existing funds.

The second review is focused on tuition fee regulation. Both of these reviews add a level of uncertainty for us as the Campus Alberta grant and tuition are the two most important sources of operating revenue. We expect the results of both reviews to be announced this fall.

In addition to these reviews, the government has signaled the need for fiscal and salary restraint in the public sector. All of this is happening within a completely new labour relations environment, brought in by Bill 7, which gives faculty and staff in post-secondary institutions the right to strike as part of the negotiation toolkit.

Overall there is little doubt that a top priority of the provincial government will be fiscal restraint. As they strive to address their challenges, we must ensure that the University of Alberta has the financial processes in place to be excellent stewards of public resources.

Our goals for this are outlined in Objective 22 of For the Public Good.

We have three immediate tasks: addressing a structural deficit in the operating budget, developing a more transparent budget model, and creating a new sustainable multi-year planning framework.

Let me begin with the structural deficit in the operating budget. We have been spending at a rate that is unsustainable and relying heavily on unpredictable investment income to cover part of our expenses. We will be working across the university to solve this problem, especially in anticipation of further funding constraints.

While we work to address the structural deficit, we are also developing better tools for managing our resources, planning budgets, and ensuring accountability. We need tools that will help us clearly align our resources with our strategic academic priorities.

We need a new budget model.

Historically, the University of Alberta has used an incremental budget model. This model served us well for decades, but over time, it has also developed some weaknesses that we need to address. What are those weaknesses?

First, because an incremental model is based on history and habit rather than actual data and current priorities, identifying the relationship between the allocation of funds and the actual cost of the activities and programs can be a challenge. We need much greater transparency.

Second, our incremental budget model, together with a number of unique tuition sharing arrangements, has become overly complicated, creating inequities that have become entrenched over time.

Finally, the current incremental model has limited accountability for decision-making and outcomes. As a result, we struggle to integrate strategic planning with multi-year budget planning. And this, in turn, limits our power to act on institutional strategic priorities.

A new budget model and multi-year planning process will help us to identify where things are currently out of alignment and respond.

Will the budget and planning tools we develop lead to or prevent future budget cuts? No.

What they will do is give us the transparency and information we need to make better decisions in the future.

A Budget Model Working Group was struck late last spring. They worked through the summer and presented the main elements of the proposed model at the Senior Administrators Retreat held at the end of August. Revisions are now being completed and deans will continue to be frequently engaged in the process of development.

While we do this work, it is vital that we keep the end goal in sight.

We must demonstrate that we are excellent stewards of public resources and deliver on our priorities to the benefit of the public. This is an important means of maintaining the public trust.

I began my remarks today with a question: What is the role and responsibility of the university in an era when so much of what we value seems to be under attack?

And an observation: Universities today have the confidence and trust of the public we serve.

I am troubled by the events and changes that have motivated the question, but retain my optimism and hope - and my sense of responsibility - because of the trust and confidence we hold.

Universities absolutely have a role to play in answering our local and global community's challenges. We are fortunate to be in a position of public trust - a position which gives us tremendous influence as a force for positive change.

Let me return to the data released last week by Universities Canada.

Not only do Canadians value the research done in universities and feel that it should receive increased levels of funding, 85% of us believe that Canada has a chance to lead the world in higher education, research and innovation.

A full 86% agree that society must invest what it takes to have excellent universities. And, about 90% of Canadians think that research can lead to all kinds of benefits from new medical breakthroughs to combatting climate change to building understanding among diverse groups to making cities more live-able.

What these data tell me is that those of us working in Canada's research universities have a tremendous opportunity.

Canadians value and support our work and believe that it will be the foundation of our country's future success. Trust and confidence go hand in hand.

With Canadians' trust and support, we must continue to champion the pursuit of knowledge and truth both as an end in itself and as the foundation for innovation and problem-solving. Evidence-based, careful analysis must be offered in place of "fake news" and uncritical thinking.

We must continue to fulfill the hope that Canadians have in the talents of the next generation.

We must continue to help develop new industries and professions and to foster social, cultural and economic diversification.

We must continue to provide research-enriched learning experiences that will lead to the development of thoughtful, engaged citizens.

We must continue to help smooth the transition towards new forms of prosperity, and in doing so, re-enfranchise people and renew their connection to the broad social contract that underpins healthy democracies.

Finally, we must continue to model and promote the values and benefits of diversity and inclusion - in the demographics of our communities, the diversity of our methods and approaches, and our openness to new ideas and different perspectives.

We must do this on and off our campuses by expanding our role as conveners and thought-leaders within society - creating opportunities for people to engage - to come together, listen to, and learn from each other.

Having the public trust is a privilege and a responsibility. I am proud to be the president of a university community that has clearly stated our responsibility to serve and do the public good.

Thank you for all that you do every day to inspire our students, to stretch their imaginations and discover their potential.

Thank you for the work you do to ensure that our university operates at the highest possible standard.

And thank you for being partners in the work of the University of Alberta - in building a better community, a better province, and a better Canada.

Thank you.

- David Turpin, President and Vice-Chancellor

September 26, 2017