Editorial: Time to pay up or shut up

Late last month the University of Calgary announced that the planned faculty of veterinary medicine will be delaying its opening until fall 2008–a full year later than the proposed September 2007 start date. For observers of the project, this second delay should come as no surprise, considering the start date was originally scheduled for fall 2006, but was bumped to 2007 due to a shortage of faculty, funding delays and a lack of accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association–problems which, despite the extra year, still exist.

The delays themselves don’t denote a black eye for the university. To the contrary, pushing back the start date–albeit twice–was the right thing to do. As veterinary dean Alastair Cribb noted in a recent update on the project, “concern for the quality of the program offered and the student experience over-rides any particular aspect of the program.”

Clearly, Cribb is right. There is no point founding a vet school that doesn’t meet a high standard for all involved. However, these delays are more pragmatic than they are voluntary. The province has not yet ponied up the dough, and although $16 million has been pledged so far to pay for start-up construction, $64 million remains to be seen.

For a university seemingly committed to more capital projects than there are layers of paint on the rock, the vet school example bears a number of potentially scary lessons for other high-profile new buildings like the urban campus and planned digital library.

First, what the province says and what the province does are two different things. In the throes of a Tory leadership race, government priorities are bound to be shuffled with the people in the cabinet posts. Even the relatively stable last two years of King Ralph’s rule saw little more on the post-secondary scene than a so-called tuition freeze and a long-winded report. The impending cabinet shake-up offers no guarantees that past pledges will be honoured at all, never mind on existing timetables.

The original announcement for the vet school came in 2004, during a high-publicity press conference at the Calgary Zoo from then-learning minister Lyle Oberg. The announcement, like so many since, was accompanied by a pledge that funding would be committed so the faculty could open on time. Obviously, it didn’t and it won’t.

Meanwhile, the U of C is forging ahead with a new experiential learning centre, downtown campus, digital library and ISEEE building–at least on paper. The only real funding secured for these projects is $113 million for construction of the digital library. With Calgary’s construction market spiraling out of control, costs will have gone up since the 2005 estimate. Oh, and the planned start date? U of C president Dr. Harvey Weingarten initially pledged that construction will begin by April 2006, but instead all the U of C community got was a fireworks display and free cake. The promise now is sometime later this fall.

Not to be unfair, the U of C is caught between realistic demands to increase student space and replace decaying infrastructure while patiently waiting for the province to pay up. Staging publicity stunts to attract media attention can certainly help shame the government into making good on its promises, but when new programs are being constantly pushed back the illusion of commitment starts to wear thin.

The phony fanfare and over-the-top photo ops for U of C projects still in preliminary planning stages has to stop, and the provincial government has to drop the hollow platitudes about making Alberta’s post-secondary system the best in the country and begin fronting the millions of dollars necessary to make it a reality. Neither U of C administration nor the government are necessarily bad-intentioned, but the game being played with public perception is transparent and may ultimately lead to more egg on the U of C’s face as each new project misses deadlines and gets scaled-down to accommodate rising costs.

-Chris Beauchamp,

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