From the President's Desk: 2022 State of the University address

Sharing a vision for the University of Alberta for tomorrow.

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Dear colleagues,

On May 3, 2022 I had the opportunity to address the U of A community in my first State of the University address. Thank you to everyone who joined me in-person; it was wonderful to meet so many people, and to have an opportunity to gather together. Thank you as well to the more than 600 people who watched virtually. If you were not able to watch the address, a recording and full text is available below.

When I consider the extraordinary events of these past two years, one thing stands out for me: I am inspired by our resiliency and adaptability - and by what we can achieve by working together as one university. Looking ahead, I see many opportunities for the U of A, from enrolment growth to deconsolidation to advances in research and student experience. We are a university with enormous impact –and our impact will only be greater as we work together, weaving all the remarkable streams of teaching and research excellence at U of A in support of a one university vision. 

Thank you for your dedication to the U of A community. I look forward to working with you in the coming year, as we collaborate deeply in a thoughtful and collegial way to advance our core mission of building one of the world's great universities for the public good.

Bill Flanagan
President and Vice-Chancellor


Lis From the President's Desk: Discours sur l'état de l'université 2022.

Hello - welcome, and thank you for coming. I am delighted that so many of you have joined us here in Convocation Hall and are watching online.

This is the first major opportunity I have had since becoming president to speak to the University of Alberta community in person. So, I am delighted to be here with you, meet you face-to-face and share with you a vision for the U of A of tomorrow.

I also want to extend a special welcome to the alumni, donors and friends who have joined us today. I see several members from the Board of Governors, Senate and Alumni Council in today's audience–thank you all for taking the time to be here and for all you do to support our university.

Gathering together is a fundamental part of being human. Indeed, for thousands of years, this land around the North Saskatchewan River has been a gathering place of Indigenous nations. A place where diverse peoples, thinkers, scientists, and philosophers came to share and exchange knowledge. 

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

We are privileged to reside in this place. Our continued commitment to reconciliation means respecting and being in good relations and good partnerships with all Indigenous peoples who have gathered here for millennia.

As a university, we value diversity and connection and the potential that comes from people and groups gathering together to share knowledge, ask big questions and seek answers. We know that discovery and advancement are rarely achieved in isolation. Taking a good idea to something extraordinary requires exchange, collaboration and connection with others.

COVID taught us how much can be accomplished when local, national and international communities come together to confront a crisis. Before COVID, no one imagined that the world could go from learning of a new virus to the distribution of life-saving vaccines in less than a year - but we did.

COVID has also taught us a lot about our university. In the face of a global pandemic, we demonstrated our extraordinary capacity to focus our energies and work together to protect our community and protect one another.

We had to listen, support each other, learn and change course when necessary. We didn't always get it right. But, together, we successfully completed two full academic years without any serious outbreaks on our campuses. Every single individual in our community showed exceptional dedication and commitment to one another through a long and challenging time.

Although we are all hoping that the days of pandemic emergency are now behind us, we should not forget some of the lessons we learned over the past two years. For me, one thing stands out: I remain inspired by our resiliency and adaptability - and by what we can achieve by working together as one university.

Reflecting Back

Today, I want to take a few moments to reflect on the last two years, and especially on the opportunities ahead for the U of A.

I arrived at the U of A at an extraordinary time. When the Board announced my appointment on March 19, 2020 - just over two years ago - the entire world was reeling from a new and highly threatening global pandemic. Only six days earlier, on March 13, the university had announced it was moving most of its courses online. Overnight, our five campuses of more than 65,000 people were largely emptied. And on that same day, the university announced a projected 1,000 job losses due to dramatic cuts in our provincial funding. 

It was nothing less than a perfect storm.

People have often asked me if I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to take the job. The simple answer is no. When I accepted the offer, the provincial cuts had not yet been announced, and COVID-19 seemed like nothing more than a faraway threat.

But I have never had any second thoughts about my decision. I was and remain deeply honoured to join such a great university, one of such importance to the people of Alberta and beyond. I was and remain inspired by the U of A's mission -  a mission that has not changed since the university was founded in 1908: to build one of the world's great universities for the public good.

Notwithstanding the challenges we all faced, I knew the foundations of the university and the province were solid. By working together – as one university – I knew that we would see our way through to a brighter day.

We had to move quickly. As we all know, in February 2020, the Government of Alberta announced massive cuts to the post-secondary sector. For the U of A, this meant a $222 million cut to our provincial government grant — more than one-third of our base provincial funding — spread over three years. By raising tuition fees from among the lowest in Canada to the Canadian average and growing our number of international students, the U of A increased its tuition revenue by about $103 million a year. With that increase in revenue, we reduced the U of A’s total budget shortfall to about $119 million, an 11-per cent reduction in our annual operating budget of about $1.1 billion.

Typically, before launching any new initiative, a new president would take time to meet people and get to know the university. However, given the urgency facing the university, I did not have the luxury of time. Four weeks before the official start of my term as president, I announced a plan to move us forward, which we called the University of Alberta for Tomorrow. Rather than simply distributing these cuts across the university and hoping for the best, we aimed higher. Rather than reducing or eliminating any valued academic programs, we would meet our budget targets by dramatically reducing our administrative costs with a university-wide program of academic and administrative restructuring.

We have all been working together through this challenging transition over the past two years.

With the Service Excellence Transformation initiative, we have centralized much of our administrative services, from IT to finance, launching new central units such as the Student Service Centre and the Shared Services unit. We have reduced redundancies and invested in specialization and technology. We are focusing on developing a university-wide service culture that is highly responsive to the needs of our students, faculty, staff, donors, alumni and other partners. Our goal is high quality, professional, timely and consistent levels of service.

Reaching this point has not been easy, and I admit that we are not yet where we need to be. Although we have now completed the most challenging phase and completed the job reductions, the new model is still a work in progress. I know that many of our staff continue to face the challenges of a rapidly changing workplace as we implement the new model and new ways of working. No doubt, the greatest hardship has been on those who were directly affected by job loss. However, as we restructured, I’m proud of the fact that 84% of all new positions were filled by U of A employees.

With academic restructuring, we took the bold step of aligning 13 faculties under three colleges. Our goal was not only to drive further administrative savings but also to advance interdisciplinary teaching and research, facilitate collaboration and cooperation amongst deans and other leaders, and create a more effective and nimble leadership structure. This transformation positions the university to lead globally, with purpose. By bringing disciplines together, the colleges will create a rich environment for our world-class researchers and academics to respond to increasingly complex problems and opportunities with speed and innovation. This vision set us on a clear path for continued excellence and will help position the University of Alberta among the top-ranked universities in the world. 

Throughout, we have been guided by the goal of advancing a "one university" vision. We can achieve so much more by working together, collaborating deeply in a thoughtful and collegial way, to advance our core mission of building one of the world's great universities for the public good.

And so, to all the members of the university community, I want to say THANK YOU. 

Thank you for the extraordinary effort, the long hours, and the commitment required to bring us to this point. Thank you to all of the people who have taken on new roles and additional workloads. Thank you, everyone, for your continued dedication to the U of A and our aspirations for the future. I remain confident that these changes, challenging as they have been, will position us to achieve even greater success in the future.

Looking Forward: Growth

And now, let’s turn to the future. To date, much of our focus has been on cost-containment and restructuring. But that’s not where our future lies. Our future lies in the remarkable opportunities ahead for the U of A. 

Enrolment

Since I started in the role, my advocacy efforts with the province have focused on growth. At a time when we were cutting, I know many thought it was unrealistic for me to be talking about growth. But the facts have always been right there in front of us.

The most immediate reality is the remarkably young population in Alberta and the rapidly growing numbers of students who want to come and study at the U of A.

Our admission applications are up 25% over the past six years. The number of Alberta high school graduates will grow by another 20% over the next six years. This is an enormous advantage for the U of A and for Alberta. A young and well-educated population will be vital to renewing and diversifying Alberta's economy and building tomorrow's workforce. 

To meet the demand for our programs, we have the potential to grow from over 40,000 students today to well over 50,000 students in the next five years. To serve these new students, our faculty complement could grow by as much as 25%, a net gain of as many as 500 new professors. As we grow, we can reinvest in staffing resources to support increased enrolment and ensure a consistent, high-quality student experience. We can develop select online programs, reaching a whole new range of learners. Our growth plans include up to an additional 5,000 students studying online in the next five years.

To be frank, and notwithstanding my generally optimistic nature, I thought it would take several years - and a great deal of advocacy - before the province might respond positively to our case for enrolment growth. Happily, I was wrong. So, I was delighted when in February, the Government of Alberta announced $171 million in new dollars over the next three years  in support of post-secondary enrolment growth across the province  – the largest expansion in decades.

The U of A responded immediately to the call for submissions. We have proposed a plan to increase our enrolment by nearly 2,400 students in high-demand programs. If successful, that would mean a base funding increase of $28M per year, funding that will be directed to hiring over 135 new faculty members and additional administrative staff as needed to support that growth. With these new hires, we can ensure that these additional students will have an exceptional learning experience at U of A. We expect to hear shortly from the province on our expansion proposals which will set us well on the path to our goal of over 50,000 students in five years.

Deconsolidation

The second primary focus of my advocacy work with the province has been on deconsolidating our financial statements from the province's accounts. You may have heard me speak of this topic before, and although perhaps not the most exciting topic, I can’t overstate how important this is to the university.

Currently, the U of A is required to prepare its financial statements in accordance with Canadian Public Sector Accounting Standards because the Auditor General of Alberta has determined that the Government of Alberta effectively "controls" the university under the Canadian Public Sector Accounting Standards definition of control. 

For example, because the province appoints more than 50% of the university's board of governors, the Canadian Public Sector Accounting Standards deem that the province, for accounting purposes, effectively controls the university.

The result of consolidation means that any dollar spent by the U of A is considered to be a dollar spent by the Government of Alberta, even though the Campus Alberta Grant now represents only 25% of the U of A's total revenue. And because the Government of Alberta has committed to reducing its expenditures and balancing the provincial budget, consolidation means that the province has required us to reduce our expenditures, even if we pay for those expenditures with revenue from our own resources and not from government grants. 

Consolidation effectively limits our ability to innovate and generate and spend new non-governmental sources of revenue. It places a significant drag on our capacity to grow and advance growth in the province. It also puts us at a major competitive disadvantage compared to Canada's other top universities, most of which are not consolidated with provincial accounts.

This is directly at odds with the U of A's ambition to grow our independent revenues and grow our expenditures to support our core mission of teaching and research. 

To make deconsolidation a reality, the province will need to enact legislation to amend the Post-Secondary Learning Act, including reducing to less than 50% the number of board of governors members directly appointed by the province. To be frank, when I started my advocacy efforts on deconsolidation, I thought our chances of success were slim. But we pressed on, with the key support of our board and board chair. And our efforts paid off. As part of the Alberta 2030 review of post-secondary education, the Minister of Advanced Education announced last year that the government would be proceeding with legislative reform to deconsolidate the U of A from the provincial accounts.

The Minister has committed to bringing forward the necessary legislative changes this fall with the view to achieving deconsolidation for the U of A in the next fiscal year. We will continue to work closely with the province to help move this forward. 

The Future

Looking to the future, I see great opportunities for the U of A and for Alberta. As a university, we are uniquely situated to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Here at home and around the world, our role in building and defending a just, inclusive, diverse and democratic society with prosperity and opportunity for all is more important than ever.  

For example, I am so proud of U of A's Institute of Prairie Archaeology's work with Indigenous communities, helping to recover unmarked gravesites on the grounds of former residential schools - work that is so critical to advancing truth and reconciliation. 

Likewise, I am so proud of how we as a community have stood together in support of Ukraine as it bravely battles to preserve its free and democratic society.

I am also so proud of the leading work being done at U of A to advance equity, diversity and inclusion, particularly in the areas of gender and intersectionality.

Think about other global challenges and how our university is uniquely positioned to address them.

The global challenge of climate change is increasingly urgent. And our university is a worldwide leader, developing the sustainable energy systems of tomorrow through our research in Future Energy Systems.

Food and water security is a critical issue for a growing world population, and the solutions are being developed right here by our scientists and researchers. 

The potential for unlocking ground-breaking advances in health and wellness - in diagnostics, treatment, preventive care, and, yes, even cures - is right at our fingertips. And once again, the U of A is at the forefront. Our remarkable strength in the health sciences is no better demonstrated than in the Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to our colleague Dr. Michael Houghton.

We’re just beginning to understand the remarkable power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to advance the public good, an area where the U of A ranks third in the world in research strength and is home to AMII, one of only three centres of AI excellence in Canada.

I know of no other university in Canada, and only a handful in the world, that has the research and teaching strength to find solutions to these challenges and advance solutions of global significance in every one of these critical areas and more. 

We are a university with enormous impact – the U of A nursing and petroleum engineering programs are #1 in Canada and top-10 globally. The U of A was just ranked 11th in a global list of top universities making an impact on sustainability, a ranking based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The U of A placed among the very top universities in the world on subjects such as the sustainable use of land, ending hunger, and sustainable cities and communities.

This is the impact that the University of Alberta is having on the world.

One University - Colleges

And our impact will only be greater as we work together, weaving all the remarkable streams of teaching and research excellence at U of A in support of a one university vision. As one university, we will be united by a shared vision and brand. 

This is where our three new colleges will play such a critical role. With their leadership, in collaboration with deans and others across the university, we will foster and achieve a new level of interdisciplinary teaching and research programs and consistent delivery of high-quality student services. 

As we advance our commitment to Indigenous initiatives and equity, diversity and inclusion, the colleges will play a key leadership role.

As we grow our enrolment, the colleges will play a critical role in developing and implementing an enrolment management strategy, including optimizing teaching schedules and resources and delivering outstanding student experiences.

The U of A is home to exceptional students—keen to engage with the big questions and gain the necessary skills to succeed in an increasingly complex global community. As we continue to deepen and enrich the student experience, the colleges will help to increase the flexibility of student learning choices, advance work-integrated learning opportunities and improve teaching and learning outcomes. 

As we advance our space utilization strategy, the colleges will play a significant role in making more effective and efficient use of the over 480 buildings on our various campuses.

As we continue to build on our record of research excellence, aiming to attract over $600 million annually in research revenues, the colleges will play an essential role. They will support research performance and grant application success, capitalizing on major provincial and federal funding opportunities and advancing interdisciplinary approaches.

And while I’ve focused on the role of the colleges, our vision of one university also embraces the vital contributions of our three stand-alone faculties - Augustana, Campus St-Jean and the Faculty of Native Studies - all serving the needs of distinct communities. They bring those communities and their perspectives into connection and collaboration with our whole university, expanding options for students, opening access to underserved populations, and deepening community-engaged research and teaching. Along with the colleges, they are essential to building a one university vision.

Conclusion

I could say so much more, but I’ll close now with these thoughts. 

This is a unique time for our university. Every generation is called upon to build a university poised to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow. This is our time.

This world - and our university - has been challenged like never before. But when we stand together, we ask the questions and generate the solutions that make us healthier, safer, stronger and more just.

Moving forward, we make this simple but vital promise: We, the University of Alberta, will never be satisfied with the “now.” We will always be seeking, always be challenging, and, most of all, always be leading with purpose.

Thank you.