By Jan Creaser
While Woody and Buzz duked it out over who would be Andy’s favourite toy, Univeristy of Calgary President Dr. Terry White spends 80-85 hours a week trying to make the U of C everybody’s favourite post-secondary institution.
"I don’t see myself as a toll collector," he says, referring to last year’s tuition fight with the Students’ Union. "I see myself as an educator, and the reason I’m here is because I like students. I want the U of C to be recognized as one of the best universities in the country–in terms of what its doing in its courses, what it provides for its students and for our research."
In essence, the U of C is White’s baby and he takes it seriously when it suffers budget cuts and criticism. Despite his hectic, time-consuming schedule, White isn’t an android with a rechargeable battery and he does not have the six-million dollar man’s bionic parts to help him jump in and out of political and corporate circles, race across the squash court and dash from meeting to meeting. Reading from a pocket-sized card, White quickly runs through his schedule for Fri., Sept. 10, starting with his 5:30 a.m. wake-up and finishing flippantly with, "then tomorrow morning, da-da, da-da, the same on Sunday and what do you know? It’s Monday again."
" But," he explains, "if you didn’t like it, there’s no way you could do it."
His reasoning parallels many students who work hard to be in university. You may be surprised to learn that White’s vision of a quality university education matches the one students struggle to maintain through years of financial distress and government ignorance of the deeper meaning of learning.
"Education is not just to get a degree which is geared towards a job," White says. "It’d be a scary prospect if we thought that a person’s development as an individual stopped at high school. This [the university] is a real treasure chest and people should take full advantage of it."
However, White believes others don’t seem to be in the loop regarding the definition of quality–namely the provincial government. White reveals that his vision of education, like that of students, is tainted by the inadequate, narrow funding provided to Alberta universities. The man portrayed as the villain in last year’s tuition campaign actually puts forth the idea that our government may not fully appreciate the role the university plays in preparing citizens for the world. Instead, the government appears to define education in terms of financial gain rather than the whole picture.
"There’s a failure to realize that investing in universities is really an investment in all aspects of the future of the province," he explains. "As a society, we need to attach as much importance to the arts and the humanities as we do to science and engineering. If you look at our symphony orchestras and drama, these people are educated and prepared in large part by universities."
Commenting on the widely held view of Calgary as a dynamic, vibrant community full of highly-educated citizens, he speaks of the city as an arena where theatre, music and art are sought and appreciated, but where study in certain fields is shunned in favour of certain economically viable programs. Using this view, White turns his criticism on those very citizens who recognize and crave Calgary’s dynamic environment.
"Parents are wonderful lobbyists for kids when they’re in kindergarten through high school," says White. "But something happens when their kids go to university. They don’t lobby in the same way. They don’t say to their politicians, ‘We want the same quality of experience for our young people in universities as we’ve insisted they have from K-12.’ You don’t have the rallying around that you get from K-12."
With these types of comments, White starts to shed his evil status. Extremely disappointed over what he calls a smear campaign, he admits the rift created last year between students and administration needs work. White’s solution? Combine forces to create a supercampaign effective enough to lobby the superministry–where it seems K-12 always wins and the university limps away unheard.
"I think the cooperation we’re looking at in terms of the joint lobbying of the government is the proper way for us to go and has the best chance of succeeding," White says of the proposal to fight side-by-side.
"I mean, people don’t come here to get embroiled in battles over tuition. They come here to do all the things we talked about earlier. Does anybody think that the university likes to go through what we went through last year?" he asks incredulously, as though I should know they don’t. "We’re here to teach, we’re here to research, we’re here to create an environment in which people can realize their goals and dreams, and to have that kind of friction [between students and admin]–nobody likes that."
Where this idea will take students and the administration this year remains to be seen, but my faith has been temporarily restored. Granted, it won’t take much this year for him to slip from "with us" to "against us" in some people’s eyes. Reassuringly though, White leaves me with no doubt that he understands how the education game is played. In a clear observation of reality, White says:
"One of the important roles in my job is fundraising. But in order to fundraise, you have to friendraise."