Feature

Office of the President

For University of Alberta’s Indira Samarasekera, running a university is an exercise in high-stakes risk management

Photograph by Ruth Kaplan

In May on the University of Alberta campus, and a crowd is gathering inside the soaring, glass-walled atrium of the seven-storey Katz Group-Rexall Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research. With most students already gone for the summer, it’s not a flash mob or an outlawed hazing ritual, and anyway these people are too old and too well dressed. And the Tim Hortons kiosk isn’t giving away free coffee, although that would be nice. Looking closer, there are telltale signs: nervous-looking executive assistants with clipboards and Day-Timers; press secretaries giving out folders of PR materials; a line of photographers poised in front of a portable podium; several groups of people in business attire, chatting or fondling their BlackBerrys. Really, it can only be one thing—a rare and special thing for any university in 2010. Some arm of government is giving out an enormous amount of money.

Introductions are made, a federal minister delivers a prepared statement, and someone else says a few words. Then Indira Samarasekera, the president of the University of Alberta, takes the podium, and the whole atrium brightens, if only slightly. She is glowing, and why wouldn’t she be? Today she gets to claim a $40-million jackpot from the federal government’s new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) initiative, a $190-million recruitment drive to lure nineteen of the world’s leading science and technology researchers to Canadian universities for at least the next seven years. It is one of the biggest-ever attempts to launch Canada into the major leagues of science. “This is a fantastic day for Canada,” she says with unrehearsed glee, “and the University of Alberta in particular.” U of A managed to get twice as many research chairs—and twice as much money—as any other university in Canada, doubling the University of Toronto’s haul, and leaving far behind its rival to the south, the University of Calgary, which received nothing.

To those who know Samarasekera, this victory comes as no surprise. While U of T still dominates Canadian universities in fundraising for research, U of A is the fastest growing of the nation’s top five schools. Since becoming the university’s first female president in 2005, she has made it clear that it will not settle for being among the best in Canada; her goal is to make it one of the top twenty public universities in the world by 2020. The CERC results reflect these global ambitions, as do the construction cranes scattered around the campus. In recent years, U of A has raised $1.4 billion for several major projects, which has already helped it improve its international rankings and solicit additional research funding.

All this despite the harsh realities of the global recession. Thanks to investment losses and provincial funding freezes, the university posted a deficit of $8.2 million in 2008 and a record $60.5 million in 2009, and it projects one of $14.8 million for 2011. The Katz centre remains unfinished, as do several other nearby buildings, including the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, either because of the university’s deficit, or because no research funding yet exists to populate them. The university is betting on its ability to fill the space with gainful projects sometime in the future.

In the meantime, Samarasekera’s goal for U of A to become “Top 20 by 2020” remains very much on hold. The university will see across-the-board cutbacks of 5 percent in all departments next year, and even the president and the senior administration have taken “furlough” days (unpaid days off meant to cut costs). Undergraduate class sizes are growing as contract instructors are laid off. Student food bank usage has increased an estimated 20 percent in the past year, thanks to tuition hikes and rising living costs. When the Edmonton Journal reported in June that the university was expected to lose at least 400 staff and faculty to layoffs and early retirements before the year’s end, the university’s administrators objected, suggesting that the figure would be closer to 250.

None of this is unique to Alberta; every university in Canada is under stress. “Every politician in the country is talking about the importance of an educated population and the importance of post-secondary education,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “But the proportion of funding for our institutions [from government] is declining significantly, and it is having to be met from private sources, primarily from students and their families.” The President, as people at the university often call Samarasekera, agrees that there are challenges, but she remains unapologetic about having lofty goals and taking risks. “The establishment of nineteen CERC chairs across the country is a clear signal of where Canada is heading,” she tells the crowd at the Katz centre. “And that is to the forefront of the global research community.”

Later, back in her office, a sweeping half-oval room lined with oak and windows, she explains why Canadians need to look beyond a few unpleasant years of recession. Like it or not, Canada is now part of a twenty-first-century version of the arms race: instead of amassing missiles, countries are now outbidding one another for smart people, lavishing millions on high-tech facilities and granting programs designed to drive innovation. France has already built much of its $5.9-billion (US) super-university, China is mere months away from the world supercomputing record; and the United States, despite its troubles, still claims the highest number of top-rated universities on the planet. In a single generation, she says, South Korea went from having one of the lowest GDPs to one of the highest in the world—“and it was [because of] significant investments in education and entrepreneurship.” By comparison, Canada’s $190-million splurge on a global headhunting mission, in which half of the prize researchers were lured away from the United States, may not be enough to make us competitive with nations that are investing billions more, and that equate future prosperity with advances in education, science, and technology.

Universities are responding to this new reality in two ways. On the one hand, they are reinventing themselves as agents of change in a world clamouring for solutions. Indeed, we cannot cure cancer, respond to global warming, or even maintain our current standard of living without thinkers, researchers, trained professionals, and educated citizens. On the other hand, universities are increasingly defined by the commercial forces around them, including governments that actively reward growth-friendly research and scholarship. University campuses are therefore becoming communities of academic haves and have-nots, the various disciplines divided by their perceived contributions to GDP and their capacity to attract funding. The result isn’t just classrooms named for corporate benefactors, which is old news, but a narrowing of society’s field of inquiry. A pay-per-view style of sponsored research gives those who have the money the power to determine the questions being asked, and sometimes to profit from the answers as well. So it isn’t surprising that views about Samarasekera diverge. Depending on whom you ask, she is either Canada’s bright future, or a threat to all that is sacred and good about higher education.

An Engineer from Jaffna

Indira Samarasekera has been bridging worlds since she was a child. She was born in 1952 into a Tamil family in Sri Lanka, though her earliest memories are not of Ceylon, as it was then called, but of England. When she was three, her father, a surgeon, took his young family to the United Kingdom for a period of post-graduate work. Consequently, her early impressions were very different from those of her peers back home: ballet, English gardens, very proper schooling, and the full gamut of Western technology, including television. But with this worldliness came challenges. Returning home three years later, she had to become trilingual in order to reintegrate into post-colonial Sri Lanka’s complex and divided society.

At the time, the country was drifting toward a lengthy civil war that would displace nearly 500,000 people and leave an estimated 70,000 dead. After the first countrywide riots broke out in 1958, permanently dividing the nation, Samarasekera’s family fled to the city of Jaffna, in the Tamil-dominated north, nearly losing their lives in the process. “We felt it would be safer for us in the north,” she says. “It was an incredible place to grow up: culture, hard-working people, extreme climate—it reminds me a little bit of Alberta.” However, the influx of Tamils attempting to escape violence meant that her young world was complicated: “There was a growing political tension, although there was a great deal of goodwill at the population level. My best friends are Sinhalese, and I [eventually] married one.”

She was the eldest of four children, and while none of the women in her family had ever been to university, it seemed clear early on that her father, in particular, “was absolutely determined that his daughters for sure—obviously his sons—four of us would receive a university education.” She excelled at math and physics, and became fascinated with the notion of developing technology to improve her world amid the strife of politics and religion. What would the world be without airplanes that never fall out of the sky? she wondered. After prep schooling in Colombo at the Ladies’ College, which featured debating and athletics, she enrolled at the University of Ceylon, and in 1974 became the first woman in her country to become a mechanical engineer. But she had to push her way forward: “I wanted to do mechanical, and they hadn’t allowed any women up to then,” she says. “I went in and said, ‘I want to do mechanical, and you are going to have to let me.’ I think that helped me overcome natural fears of operating at the frontier, of pushing boundaries.”

At about this time, Sri Lanka passed laws making it more difficult for Tamils to enter university and find public employment. That, she says, was when “young Tamils began to mobilize around the notion of having to fight for their rights and for their independence—which to me was writing on the wall.” An early incarnation of the Tamil Tigers had emerged in the early 1970s, and they were already experimenting with bombings and other tactics that would help define modern terrorism. Samarasekera loves her country—she still returns at least once every three years—but she knew she had to leave. After a brief stint as a maintenance engineer at a Shell oil refinery (“It was very boring”), she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. “So I got married at age twenty-three to a fellow mechanical engineer, and we came to the United States.” To the University of California at Davis, to be precise, and then on to the University of British Columbia for her doctorate. Along the way, she had two children, one of whom grew up to study law, and the other, medicine.

She became a Canadian citizen in 1980, amid a challenging period of balancing her young family and a demanding career. At one point, she was on the brink of quitting her doctorate studies, until her thesis adviser pulled her aside. “You have no right to do that,” he said. “You have been given all these talents. Don’t waste that.” Upon graduation, she could only find a temporary teaching contract at UBC, but in time it led to a tenure track position, and she became only the second woman appointed to the university’s engineering faculty. Her marriage eventually failed, but her career thrived: she went on to have a major influence on the international steel industry, using mathematical models to predict and correct subtle defects, which facilitated major advances in quality and efficiency. After twenty years, the list of consultancies, grants, and publications on her CV is eleven single-spaced pages long. She guesses that she has visited more than 100 steel plants around the world, including one in Alberta with no women’s washroom.

Some observers saw Samarasekera’s appointment in 2000 as UBC’s vice-president of research as unusual and perhaps risky. Most university leaders work their way up to the executive office, putting in time as department chairs, deans, and provosts, whereas in one big step she was elevated to one of the university’s most critical jobs, responsible for a significant amount of its annual revenue, all of its research, and much of its reputation. “I knew that the university could do a much better job in supporting researchers to succeed at getting grants, at transferring their knowledge to industry, and at promoting their knowledge to the public,” she says. “That was my motivation. I had zero desire or intention to be a university president.” Within four years, UBC’s research funding from government, private donors, and industry more than doubled, bumping from $149 million in to $377 million. That’s when other universities started calling.

In the company of federal ministers and the media, Samarasekera speaks of the “transformative, life-changing research” that is possible when the right mix of money, people, and institutions come together. Yet reflecting on her own life, she acknowledges two transformative forces: public universities, and the social mobility that accessible, quality learning confers. “My kids went to the best universities in this country, and the costs were affordable,” she says. “We have a society where people have been able to succeed in spite of their beginnings. People underestimate the power of education in transforming the lives of an individual and, just as important, transforming society.”

The President at Work

The road to the future is littered with agendas and events and details. Samarasekera is meeting today with Phyllis Clark, U of A’s vice-president of finance and administration, and for half an hour they discuss everything from the university’s tattered investment portfolio (now recovering and, they hope, recouping last year’s losses) to trimming the costs of international business trips. An accidental fire burned out a research lab in the chemistry department a few months ago. It was fierce enough to restart itself; firefighters couldn’t fight it because of the hazards of unknown chemicals. “That looked bad,” she says, so they’re studying measures like fume hoods, safety training for students, and the impact on insurance. “Much of what I do is risk management,” she explains, “and travelling, and talking. It is a complex job. If you don’t have the skills, which I didn’t, you have to develop a lot of different areas very quickly: financial, risk management, understanding where the world is going. More important, have a sense of a vision of where education is going to go twenty years from now.”

In the course of a day, Samarasekera might ponder lab safety design, meet with a federal minister, grapple with the possibility of a double-dip recession, and study up on the future of nanotechnology. She must manage several different levels of government, as well as myriad granting agencies, professional organizations, and corporate partnerships, plus donors large and small. And she stays in constant contact with her executive team: six people, including herself, who earned a total of $3.6 million in salary and benefits in 2009. (Maclean’s has called Samarasekera, whose 2009 compensation including non-cash benefits was $830,000, one of Canada’s highest-paid university administrators.) Her provost, Carl Amrhein, with whom she discusses hiring, firing, research, and academic performance, actually runs most of the day-to-day aspects of university life.

Lately, Samarasekera has been spending time on the university’s international strategy. Like many private sector corporations, U of A believes part of its future lies in emerging markets, especially China, Mexico, India, and Africa. Canadian universities depend primarily on provincial funding for undergraduate programs, but money for research and capital projects must be accessed elsewhere—which explains, in part, why Samarasekera spends about 110 days a year on the road, apparently to good effect. In April, the university announced an $80.5-million gift for virology research, sponsored by the Hong Kong billionaire and philanthropist Li Ka-shing and the government of Alberta. (It was one of the largest such gifts in Canadian history.) “She has an incredible profile in Canada,” says Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, one of the country’s largest agencies for research grants. “But she also has a really good profile internationally. I’m often meeting people outside of Canada, and there’s one name that comes up often, and it’s Indira.” In 2009, Samarasekera was invited to the annual Bilderberg conference, joining David Rockefeller, Queen Sofia of Spain, and 120 or so others representing the likes of the World Trade Organization, Goldman Sachs, and Royal Dutch Shell—confirmation, if any were needed, that she had made the global A-list.

What makes her so popular with politicians and CEOs is her belief in the knowledge economy—the idea that the strength of a society and its economy are largely informed by the quality of its education systems. It doesn’t matter that it’s already a bit of a cliché. Politicians have come to associate economic growth—or at least gains in health, productivity, efficiency, and sustainability—with education, and creating what Fortier calls knowledge “assets.” The private sector, too, views the talent and research created by top-level universities as critical. Canada’s steadily declining productivity, now well below that of the United States, suggests that we can no longer create significant prosperity, as we did in decades past, through debt-fuelled consumer spending and natural resource exports. Everyone now agrees: the answer is education.

This is precisely the reason Samarasekera helped invent the CERC. After declining in the 1990s, research funding in Canada still hadn’t regained enough traction, so she and the other “big five” presidents—from U of T, UBC, U of A, the Université de Montréal, and McGill University—began talking about how to fund clusters of excellence. Then Samarasekera floated the idea at a Meech Lake round table on finance with the finance minister, Jim Flaherty. Later, at a meeting in her office with Jim Prentice, then minister of industry, she told him, “‘You know, Minister, we’re already attracting some of the best people from other parts of the world, using Canada Research Chairs, but this is our chance to go to the best of the best.’ He just loved the idea, and of course it turned up in the next budget.”

Into the Knowledge Economy

The federal government believes in economic payoffs. It’s no accident that two of U of A’s four CERC chairs are focused on non-renewable resources—tar sands oil and Arctic diamonds. The government’s press kit described the projects in bottom line terms: “Uncovering Canada’s Riches” and “Developing Sustainable Techniques for Oil Sands Recovery.” And while the chairs were chosen by international peer review, they were guided by the “four priority research areas” outlined in the government’s 2007 science and technology strategy: environmental science and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at the time, “[Canada] is charting a new direction, one that links the competitive energy of Canada’s entrepreneurs to the creative genius of our scientists. Our new strategy will strengthen Canada’s economy by tapping our deep well of entrepreneurial energy to fuel our technological progress.”

What worries some observers is this: how do we know where the politics ends and the research begins? With the modest increases in federal research funding in 2010–11, we are no longer killing innovation by neglect, but we are entering into a more complex and potentially difficult period where research and higher education are subject to worldly demands. The problem isn’t that universities are entering into partnerships and funding relationships with industry and government; it’s that increasingly universities are being rewarded for finding answers to utilitarian questions, such as how to separate sand from oil more efficiently, or how to locate Arctic diamonds more easily. “Universities have, for a very long time, played an important role in relation to industry and markets,” says James Turk of the CAUT. “For the past fifty years in the United States, a significant portion of the military research was done at American universities like Caltech and MIT. Professors of medicine have done research for decades related to the pharmaceutical industry. So that is not what is new. What is new is this whole reframing of the importance of post-secondary education in terms of its economic benefits. [And] the Harper government in the past four years has been the most extreme in trying to target academic research in ways that meet short-term industrial needs.”

When there is a major “innovation gap”—to borrow a phrase favoured by education and research professionals—governments often step in and contribute tax relief or grants. Canada’s industrial history is full of these interventions. The concern is that university-based research funding is capable of creating economic winners and favoured industries. For example: only two of the nineteen CERC chairs had an association with renewable energy (quantum non-linear optics and hybrid power trains). Instead, CERC emphasized quantum signal processing for information technology, the oil sands, diamonds, and fish farming. And several chairs in medicine and environmental studies were funded (U of A’s other two were in diabetes and hepatitis research), but none dealt with environmental impacts on human health, or with preventive medicine. (On the flip side, the University of Manitoba is increasing the staff of its Centre for Earth Observation Science from seventeen to 100 people so its CERC chair can study Arctic microbial activity and chemical transformations within sea ice and ocean sediments, which might help further an understanding of climate change.)

Moreover, the very act of setting goals for research can sabotage the process of discovery itself. Historically, most crucial innovations have come about through the serendipitous pursuit of “discovery” science (a fancy term for curiosity-driven inquiry) as opposed to “innovation” partnerships with government and industry. “What has changed,” says Turk, “is the focus on commercializable research at the expense of basic research. I can understand why politicians might do that, but I am surprised that university administrators would, because almost everything that has turned out to be of importance in a commercial sense—whether it is lasers or computers or MRIs or global positioning systems or most advances in medicine—has come out of basic research. University presidents are not defending that broader vision of the university’s role in a society. They are falling into the trap of saying, ‘Well, if we say what government wants to hear, we will more likely get funded.’ I think we are undermining our public purpose.”

Samarasekera concedes there are imbalances, possibly serious ones. There is an opportunity, she believes, “for universities to do research that currently doesn’t look even remotely commercially viable,” she says. “I’m going to ask the prime minister to invest in knowledge that may or may not have a commercial breakthrough tomorrow, even in ten years or ever, because you just don’t know where it could lead.” The irony, of course, is that the Harper government, which often reminds us that politicians are bad at engineering social and economic change, should need to be persuaded that they are no better at predicting what knowledge will ultimately prove useful. As an engineer, Samarasekera knows there are problems to be fixed and that universities should play a role, but as a researcher she also knows that Canada’s history in choosing economic favourites—from coal mining to shipbuilding—is rife with failure.

This is the double bind in which all Canadian university presidents now find themselves. Everyone agrees that higher education could and should help us solve problems. But when resources are scarce and funders designate “priority areas,” whose problems get solved first?

“Who do we trust? ”

The dark side of the knowledge economy is the sellout,” says a U of A scientist who requested anonymity because he feared repercussions for his department’s programs and funding. “Who do we trust? The people doing the [science] work, or the people who are connected to industry? The Centre for Oil Sands Innovation [at the University of Alberta]—can we really trust that? ” An industry-sponsored newspaper ad recently reassured Canadians that thanks to U of A research, “the forest can re-establish itself in a few years, rather than a few decades,” even though the Pembina Institute calculates that only 0.2 percent of oil sands territory had been certified as reclaimed in 2008. “Industry could say, ‘That wasn’t the answer we wanted,’” the scientist adds. “But science is all about truth. I have yet to see a large-scale company come in and try to influence things—nobody is that blatant. But if we don’t have proper safeguards in place, if we don’t have rules established to maintain the integrity of the university and the research, then it’s too late.”

U of A is Canada’s leading oil sands research and teaching centre. The method for the first commercially viable extraction process was invented here in the 1920s by Karl Clark, whose basic technology and engineering principles are still in use. The industry’s presence on campus today is most visible at the nine-storey Markin/CNRL Natural Resources Engineering Facility, with its state-of-the-art smart classrooms and specialized instructional and research labs; and at two institutes, the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation and the Oil Sands Tailing Research Facility, which house research chairs dedicated to bitumen and heavy oil development. Even the university’s interdisciplinary School of Energy and the Environment lists oil sands development as a primary field of research, followed by improved recovery, which is also about oil sands (alternative energy and energy and environment are listed as sixth and seventh, respectively). “As a publicly funded institution, we have a responsibility to enhance the public stewardship of important resources,” says Samarasekera. “Whether we like it or not, the world is still dependent on oil and gas, and until we get weaned off them we need them extracted with a much, much higher degree of environmental responsibility. I’m proud of our association with the environmental elements of oil sands work. That for us is a huge reputation booster.”

At the administrative level, Eric Newell, former chairman and CEO of Syncrude, served as the university’s chancellor and as chair of its board of governors. Tim Hearn, former chairman and CEO of Imperial Oil (also part owner of Syncrude), was a co-chair of U of A’s 2008 fundraising campaign, working with Samarasekera to exceed its goals. Prominent among funders has been the industry itself: the oil patch accounted for an estimated $50 million in donations between 2002 and 2008.

The university is also involved in provincial and federal efforts to green the oil sands. The $15-million Canada School of Energy and Environment, jointly administered by U of A, the University of Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge, was funded by the Harper government in 2008. Bruce Carson, Harper’s former senior policy adviser, became its full-time executive director following the 2008 federal election. He was said to have been instrumental in developing the Conservative government’s climate change policy, including its controversial strategy for global climate change negotiations. (“When our product is called ‘dirty oil,’ that really puts me off,” he said in 2008.) According to one energy consultant in Alberta, the CSEE is “using taxpayer dollars to create a think tank under the auspices of a university with a political mandate,” part of more than $2 billion in public funding and subsidies intended to “rapidly ‘decarbonize’ fossil fuel production” in Canada. Carson has described CSEE as a vehicle to consult with industry and government in setting the research agenda for science. “We can inform the decisions,” he told Alberta Oil. “We can do that by telling both sides—industry and government—about the science. There’s an opportunity here to make science relevant to government…We’re not just going to be an oil sands apologist.”

Samarasekera is a member of Carson’s board at CSEE, and she and Carson attended the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen as advisers to the Canadian government—he discreetly, she as a “prominent Canadian.” In a June address to the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce in Toronto, Samarasekera promoted oil sands crude to Indian markets and beyond: “With the world’s second-largest supply of non-renewable energy after Saudi Arabia, Canada is a safe, secure, and reliable energy supplier,” she said, echoing the talking points favoured by industry and the federal government. “And we take seriously the responsibility to develop energy technologies in environmentally sustainable ways. This effort to develop our energy resources responsibly has been under way for decades.”

Asked about the implications of such linkages, she replied, “There is a danger for us to be seen as partnering with industry. But it’s no different [than] accusations that may have been levelled at various universities about the pharmaceutical industry, or any other industry that the public can from time to time have concerns about. The real issue is for the university to maintain some very, very strict principles about the terms and conditions under which you partner with industry. And that this should not be about fee for service.” Still, she makes it clear that she doesn’t oppose commercialization of research. As an engineer, “the fact of the matter is, by working with that industry we actually brought improvement. So yes, a risk, but that’s what universities need to do, to not be afraid of stepping out and working on challenging issues, even at the risk of being labelled in certain ways by certain groups.”

David Schindler, Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology, does see cause for concern. “I worry a little bit about a university in a petrol state becoming a petrol university,” he says. Schindler has been working at U of A for twenty years, accumulating a large body of research on water, boreal ecosystems, public policy, and global carbon and nitrogen budgets, and he has become one of the province’s most outspoken voices on the environmental impacts of oil sands development. “Indira has a very tough job keeping the balance. We certainly do not want a university that just reflects the position of the largest industry in the province, no matter what it would be, and I think she has done a very even-handed job of that.” Although his work sometimes challenges the oil sands industry, Schindler says he hasn’t experienced direct interference. “We’ve got really good research going on in this department that is not directly connected with oil sands,” he says, “and where it is, a lot of it indicates the oil sands are not such a great idea. But I have seen absolutely no restriction on people being able to speak out and say that, if that is what their findings show.”

Schindler turned seventy this year, and he will be retiring soon. Because of erratic provincial budgets and hiring freezes, some of his well-established classes will probably disappear. “It isn’t deliberate,” he says, “but we have had no ability to recruit.” Research on the wetlands, the most vulnerable feature of Alberta’s boreal forest, will likely stop when another wetlands scientist retires, as well. Wetlands cannot be terraformed, and the parkland-style forests that industry replaces them with through “reclamation” are significantly less rich in biodiversity. Neglecting this area of research would be a prime example of how an unbalanced approach to funding research can both narrow the field of scientific inquiry, and subsidize industries unable or unwilling to solve their own problems. “I don’t think scientists should make the political decisions,” he says, “but science should be [on the table], especially environmental science. In [industry’s] view, the only thing they want on the table is dollars and jobs.”

The Unhappy Campus

Samarasekera knew the honeymoon was over when the posters started going up. Last October, a group named the Samarasekera Response Team covered the U of A campus with slogans such as “WOMEN: STOP! DROP! MEN: ENROLL!” and “STOP THE FEMIMENACE” and “WOMEN ARE ATTACKING CAMPUS!” Several days earlier, in an interview with the Edmonton Journal, she had mentioned declining male enrolment, glibly stating, “I’m going to be an advocate for young white men, because I can be. No one is going to question me when I say we have a problem.” The Samarasekera Response Team took issue with her apparent lack of concern for the under-representation of women and minorities in many faculties, particularly at higher pay grades. The posters made national news, and not only because Samarasekera had opinions about the boy crisis in education (a big deal in a province that has the lowest levels of university and college participation in Canada). It was news because campus security rounded up the Samarasekera Response Team, and, as team member Derek Warwick tells it, threatened them with disciplinary action under the university’s student behaviour code, which meant possible suspension or expulsion. They were told “we weren’t ever to post posters on campus again,” he says.

The original idea was to do something “fun and political,” says Warwick, although for some of the others it was more than an attention-getting ploy. Student expenses had been rising for years, including annual, incremental increases in tuition fees and the introduction of a new non-instructional fee of $290 for such amenities as common student space, sustainability and services. Many saw the new fees as a cash grab at time when the university appeared to have money to build new buildings, pay its president $830,000 a year, and take out expensive ads in the New York Times to raise its profile.

In the following months, other, less playful posters turned up. One declared, “President Indira makes more than President Obama!” and provided a comparative salary breakdown for the university’s executive team—half of whom, incidentally, are women. The poster claimed that their salaries had increased by a collective 88 percent since 2004. While these new posters were anonymous, speculation pointed to staff, possibly tenured faculty. The Samarasekera backlash had begun. Some people had quietly ridiculed her plan to make the university a world-beater from the outset, but the economic hardships brought on by the recession had multiplied the number of critics. “This year, it’s been a setback for us, there’s no question,” she admits. “We had so much momentum, and like overnight, we had to take $60 million out of our budget. That’s a pretty big number, even for a $1.45-billion budget.”

Class sizes at U of A have increased, while course selection and lab space have decreased, yet students are paying higher fees and incurring more debt. Even the prestigious medical school is offering fewer spots in the fall of 2010 (167, down from 188 in 2009). Carl Amrhein, U of A’s provost, admits that the university has about 500 fewer professors than it should. “The current economic climate has cost us some capacity, so we do the best we can,” he says. He monitors the price of natural gas daily, having learned that when it hits $9 or $10 a unit the university enjoys funding increases from the province. Lately, prices have been stuck at less than half that, which doesn’t bode well for the immediate future. “We’re stalled,” he says. “But if you scan North America, we’re still doing pretty well. It’s nothing like what California and Washington are facing.”

Morale within the professorate is declining, especially in the humanities. When Samarasekera took office in 2005, Canada was already allocating most of its money to the sciences and engineering, even though 58 percent of students were actually studying arts and the humanities. She said at the time that she would lobby the federal government to increase funding for the main arts granting agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, but in 2008–09 it disbursed $323 million, compared with the roughly $1 billion disbursed by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. While it is true that it costs more to teach science than social science and the humanities, owing to equipment and infrastructure costs, the problem is systemic and highly visible. At the University of Alberta, new buildings tend to go to engineering, medicine, and the sciences. When the arts and humanities get new space, it is usually second-hand, albeit decently refurbished. There was talk of a provincial endowment fund specifically for the arts, but this has not come to pass.

Gurston Dacks, professor emeritus of political science, sees the divide between arts and sciences as ultimately self-defeating, as many of our biggest challenges, from obesity to energy consumption, pertain not to science, per se, but to human behaviour, culture, and society. “You can get cleaner tar sands, but that’s not really going to address our energy demand problem,” he says. “All of these solutions lie on the humanities and the arts side of the campus.” Gordon Laxer, director of the university’s Parkland Institute, complains that Alberta’s focus on its energy sector has meant that its economy hasn’t significantly diversified. “What knowledge-based industries in Alberta have to be here? ” he asks. “Alberta is less diverse than ever: we’re about oil and gas, forestry, farming, and tourism.” Public funding of energy research is increasing, he notes, even though private research spending as a percentage of revenue is five times lower in that sector than the Canadian industry average.

Roughly half of the social sciences and humanities professors contacted for this story declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to requests for information. “It’s not at all about self-protection, but program protection,” explains an English and film studies professor who agreed to be quoted without attribution. “There’s a rising terror, a culture of fear emerging within the university, a general sense of threat hanging over us that small things will need to be pushed aside to free up money for all the big things like the CERCs.” Across the five years prior to 2009, the university’s annual revenues increased by 58.8 percent, but the incremental cost of operating this bigger university is considerable. Deferred maintenance on existing buildings already exceeds an estimated $1 billion, and the size of this infrastructure deficit, according to the university’s financial statements “places programs and initiatives at some risk.”

“Academic reorganization is very much in the air,” says the unnamed professor. “Administrators have been told that the university is thinking about invoking [emergency budget] articles 32 and 33, which entail program closures and academic staff layoffs.” In a few weeks, he will be losing his phone line, and his office has gone paperless, both measures in an attempt to avoid further support staff layoffs. “We are in a boom economy for solutions-driven research,” he says. “We are in a famine economy for arts and humanities and social sciences.” Samarasekera, he says, is “very much admired, and it is impossible to disagree with her vision. But she has lost the enabling vision she came here with. So much hope and promise.”

The Case for Samarasekera

In a few days, Samarasekera leaves for Ottawa to join eleven other university presidents in a meeting with Stephen Harper. Her chief of staff, executive officer, speechwriter, and a few other insiders converge around the large oval table in her office to go over the arrangements. It plays out like an episode of The West Wing, except the people here are more polite, and the foreign land they are visiting is Ottawa, its king a fellow Albertan.

When the federal budget was unveiled in March, Samarasekera praised the government for modest increases to research funding. “When I look at the extent of restraint that the government has had to apply to manage a deficit, we are one of the only areas that has come out on top,” she told Nature magazine. “I declare these increases as absolutely a victory.” Student and faculty associations accused her of pandering, but she was partly right: while politicians might not appreciate the dangers of GDP-driven research, they get the basic point—that higher education and research matters more now than ever before. This didn’t happen by accident. “Obviously, the life of a university president is not an easy thing,” says Gurston Dacks, who served on the university’s board of governors when Samarasekera was selected as president. “And one of the reasons it’s not easy is that your biggest successes are invisible. How many of my colleagues know that she’s going to talk to the prime minister tomorrow? My sense is that she has increased the profile of the University of Alberta in Ottawa quite considerably, which can be invisible to rank-and-file faculty members.”

In a report on higher education in May, TD Economics predicted that “estimated additional public financial resources required [are] expected to rise from approximately $400 million in 2010 to $2.7 billion by 2016.” This sevenfold increase will be borne for the most part by the provinces, which are already in the early days of a once-in-a-generation health care crunch. “The biggest challenge for the universities is the inexorable rise of health care costs in this country, which is squeezing out investments in education,” says Samarasekera, who estimates that health care costs in most provinces will rise from 40 percent to 50 percent and beyond. “How do you get the right public policy, [and create] a consensus around the right public policy? How do you manage those very difficult, almost irreconcilable tensions? ” Canadians, she says, need to be “passionate about post-secondary education in the way they get passionate about health when they can’t get into a hospital during an emergency. That is our biggest challenge right now.”

Samarasekera believes the future of education will be about having a university that people can’t imagine themselves without. “We’re losing this notion of uplifting the whole people as a kind of grand idea for education,” she says. The future is experiential learning outside of the classrooms in the community; it’s deepening the process of lifelong learning; it’s interdisciplinary work that breaks open silos that limit innovation and access to knowledge. “We need to not just restructure and tinker at the edges, but massively transform how we are educating people,” she says. But to get this done, “it is actually going to cost us more per student, not less, and that is the paradox. At the very time when you want to invest more per student, governments are trying to educate more students for less money.”

In a way, universities sell themselves. You could wander around the University of Alberta and stay amazed and entertained for days. At the Centre for Mathematical Biology, for example, professors are using mathematical modelling to show that polar bear populations are at risk if ice-free periods in the Arctic continue to increase. Another team of biologists is studying orphan adoption in squirrels. And in business, a minor psychological discovery: people who are touched briefly on the shoulder by a woman are more inclined to take financial risks. Farther away, at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, doctors control heart catheter procedures with enormous magnets and a joystick, and use ultrasound imaging to remove blockages in arteries. And then there’s the National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre, which can examine the atomic structure of nearly any substance by creating a magnetic field 190,000 times greater than the earth’s, thus enabling research into the creation of personalized medicine based on metabolic signatures, early detection of cancer, quantum mechanics, “plus a lot of other stuff we can’t talk about.”

Think what universities might be capable of, given stable resources. In the meantime, Samarasekera and her peers at universities across the country face a massive set of challenges. With continued neglect, she predicts “a loss of the gains we have made in the past five years and, most important, a significant erosion in the undergraduate and graduate student experience; large classes; not enough teaching assistance; not enough courses.” She also worries about what she calls the worst-case scenario: “Our young people will emigrate to other countries in search of jobs that would be rewarding for them, at a time when we can barely afford to lose one person.” She pauses and makes her final pitch. “Demonstrate the value of education to the individual, therefore to the public, therefore to the government,” she says. “This is the university’s role, in our case, of uplifting the whole people, which is what we’ve done for the last 100 years. [This] is a promise we will realize in the future, and one we are still not doing as vividly and as vibrantly as we can.”

This appeared in the September 2010 issue.

Gordon Laird is the author of three books, including The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization (2009).

Ruth Kaplan is a Toronto-based photographer. Her work can be found in numerous collections, including the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. She is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery.