New U of C president shares her views

After a University of Calgary career that saw her go from undergrad to dean of the Schulich School of Engineering, Dr. Elizabeth Cannon officially became the U of C’s 8th president July 1. The Gauntlet talked to Cannon about her new role and her vision of what the U of C is and should be.

G: What is your role as the president of the U of C?

C: As president your main role is to provide leadership to the organization in terms of crafting and leading the strategic direction of the university. Working with students, working with faculty and staff and working with the board of governors to ensure that we really move the university to where it needs to be in the future.

G: What is your plan to interact and communicate with students?

C: I already had some interaction with students before I started.

Meeting with the leadership of the Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Association gave me a good introduction to what students are thinking and what some of the key issues are.

I will be working with students in many different forms, certainly working with the SU and the GSA, regular meetings, going to their executive, being sure to introduce myself, but also just meeting with students in groups. I’m going to certainly make a point of doing that throughout my presidency. It’s a little bit tough in the summer because there’s not a lot of students around, but it is important.

G: How important do you think the SU is to the U of C?

C: Well it’s very, very important because it represents effectively the students that are here. They are here to make this a better university and to ensure that the things we do for students are the right things. We have to work in partnership and I’m very, very pleased. Lauren Webber I’ve met several times, she’s very dynamic . . . and I think we’ll work very well together in our respective roles.

G: How will you transfer the success you had as dean of engineering to president of the university with areas like an arts faculty, a dance program, music? How will you continue that success outside of your element?

C: Well I think that’s one of the interesting things and one of the reasons why I wanted to be president, because you get to learn and represent the broad aspects of the University of Calgary.

As you mentioned I know engineering very well. That’s where I was a student and a researcher and an instructor and dean so I know that well and I have had great experiences in that role. But when you move up to president you are expected to represent the university as a whole, so part of what I’m doing is learning more about the university and ensuring that I understand all of the different elements; the programs, the faculties, the faculty staff and students who really make up the University of Calgary.

G: During your career here, both academic and professional, what have you seen as the biggest change?

C: I came to University of Calgary in 1982 as a student, so I came for the same reasons you did, to get an education.

Probably the biggest change that I’ve seen in the many years is that we have grown, not just in the number of students– we’re over 29,000 now, with over 5,000 faculty and staff. We are seen as a major player on the national stage in terms of what we offer to students and what we offer to the community through our research, so that’s been extremely impressive. There’s challenges always with growth, but I think we are sitting at a position now with a lot potential . . . and a lot of achievement to be proud of.

G: What are your thoughts on instructors or students that might say the focus on research at the school is to the detriment of teaching?

C: The University of Calgary has a clear mission, we are a research intensive organization, but we are here to teach students and we have a very strong mission around the undergraduate program.

To me it’s not an ‘either or,’ it’s an ‘and.’

There’s a value in the sense of the environment we create. You are being taught by faculty that are on the leading edge of their disciplines, they are generating new knowledge.

But we have to value the teaching role. I think we do that. We can always get better, we have to hold ourselves to a high standard and we need to ensure that our students get a quality education.

G: Schools talk about student apathy and the term “commuter campus” is tossed around at the U of C often. Is there an issue here with student involvement or are our students engaged?

C: Well I think there is a lot more that is there than is perhaps recognized or talked about. But maybe just to step back for a second, we are a commuter campus, many of our students do live off campus or they come in for the day.

We are increasing our residence capacity and I think that’s important, whether you’re from Calgary or not, that we have more students living on the campus because that creates a very interesting vibrant community right here.

But I think we do have, and we need to strive for more, opportunities for students to get engaged in university and community life.

One of the things that I think is very exciting about the University of Calgary is our co-curricular record. We have over 5,000 students signed up for that, it’s the biggest number I believe in the country or at least western Canada. To me that shows students are hungry for engagement in the university or the community.

So I think we have a number of opportunities, we will create more, we have a great emerging leaders program for our students. I will be talking a lot about this because to me a university education isn’t just the courses you take, that is important, but it’s about developing people and part of that is going to be in the classroom and part of that is going to be outside the classroom. We need to have those opportunities on both sides.

G: A complaint of post-secondary is its increasingly corporate or business approach to operations. Is this a valid concern or something that has always been a topic of discussion?

C: I think it’s an issue that has certainly been talked about for many, many years.

We are not a business, we are an academic institution, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t adopt business practices in some of the things that we do.

I’ve talked about the fact that we’ve grown very quickly, with that growth means that the systems and processes you use to run the university need to be of the scale and sophistication so that we can operate smoothly.

Bringing in business processes to support the functioning of the university is important. We also engage with the corporate community in many ways and for me those are positive collaborations. They hire our students, so having linkages with future employers adds value directly back to students. In some cases they provide with advice on trends in their organization so we ensure that we’re listening to that when we consider curriculum issues.

G: In my post-secondary career I’ve seen students referred to as “customers.” Is this the mindset that higher education is moving into, where students come to school and pay a certain amount for a piece of paper?

C: We certainly want students when they’re coming here to feel like they’re getting value. It does cost money and in many cases we know that it is a financial challenge for students. They have to feel that at the end of their degree they’re walking out of here with the right knowledge and right skills so they can enter the work force and be successful in the long term.

So certainly there’s an appreciation of that, on the other hand this is a two way street. It’s not that you’re paying your tuition and our

We expect and we see students coming here that they want to engage with us. It’s well beyond the tuition that they pay and it’s about, again, the personal development. It’s about a knowledge of learning, it’s about being involved in your community and it’s about being a better person when you walk out of our doors than you were coming in.

G: Onto the future of the university, what do you see as its biggest growth area?

C: I won’t want to pick one area right now and say we’re going to grow X or Y, but I will say within the coming year we will be looking at the university, looking at strategic planning and ensuring that we carve out a clear direction for this institution.

I also want to very much focus on what we can give to students in terms of programming and what are the attributes we want to be able to see in a University of Calgary graduate.

So I think there’s a lot of growth areas, it may not be in specific programming areas, but it’s in opportunities for the university as a whole.

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