Fifteen questions with Terry White

Gauntlet: Describe a typical day in the life of Terry White.

White: I had a breakfast meeting [today] at 7:30 a.m. at the Petroleum Club. To students that work all night that probably sounds early enough, but by the time you get up and drive down there… I got up at about quarter to six. As I say, I was at the Petroleum Club meeting with a potential donor. You hear the end [result] when someone makes a donation but what people don’t realize is all the nurturing that has to go on–you have to find out what they’re interested in and what the university might be able to offer as an attraction.

Then I come in every day and I have these… see that over there with all those folders? That’s the in-mail (laughs). I get quite a bit of e-mail. I usually do the reading in the off hours. I had several meetings this morning–sometimes on matters of very tricky issues by the time things get here. A university our size has a huge volume [of problems], as you can imagine. We had a couple of interesting ones this morning and I obviously can’t go into too much detail on that.

We also get people here that are distinguished visitors and they may be brought in to talk to the president. After those meetings I was able to get about 10 or 12 letters out, answered about 40 e-mails, and answered a couple of phone calls, because some people still use that ancient technology (laughs). Often I’ll have a luncheon meeting–I don’t eat at lunch, I’ll just have an apple.

Gauntlet: We noticed you’re a light eater.

White: Yeah. That’s at lunch. I eat a regular meal at dinner. If I’m having a lunch I just sort of move the food around the plate and not much moves into the mouth. If I don’t have a lunch then I try and get in some physical activity. Yesterday, I played squash for example. I maybe average two squash games a week. I’ve had about 15 students challenge me–it’s a chance to knock the old man off. Then I’ll prepare for the General Faculties Council Executive Meeting, which is the chief academic policy body… I think you’ve been on it, haven’t you?

Gauntlet: Oh no, we’ve just been to it.

White: You’ve been spared…

Gauntlet: Did you say we’ve been spared?

White: I didn’t say that. No, you must have misunderstood. (laughs) That meeting will be around 3 p.m. and that’ll go for a couple of hours. Then I have another meeting and then a dinner this evening so I should be wrapped up by about 10 p.m. ready to start all over again. I average between 70 and 85 hours a week (dramatic pause) so it’s not really a job–it’s more a commitment. Your partner has to be on side.

Gauntlet: Your wife is very understanding?

White: She’s an important part of it –we do a lot of entertaining at our house. We haven’t had the Gauntlet over yet… we’ll have to do that.

Gauntlet: We haven’t felt slighted or anything.

White: (laughs) We’ll have your people over for a barbecue. We do a lot of entertaining. These would be people from inside the university, often visitors from all over. It consumes quite a bit of time. So that’s a typical day. It doesn’t really change much throughout the year. Once classes are done, it doesn’t really slow down. Because its such a big operation–we’re almost a half a billion dollar operation–it goes full tilt, year round.

Gauntlet: What would be the best part of your job, the hardest part, and the worst?

White: The best part is the people. I’ve often said I feel like a kid in a toy shop because I can walk down any corridor in the university and just knock on somebody’s door, and it might be a lab or a music practice room and you can go in and people tell you what they’re doing. I mean, it’s unbelievable. You talk about life-long learning–it’s incredible. That’s why we like to go to sports events and dramas and concerts and all that sort of stuff because this is really a neat place. You watch people stretching and growing. Sometimes you can have fun. Other times it’s pretty serious.

Gauntlet: So what would you say is the hardest part, then?

White: I think the hardest part really is the pace, and I don’t mean it’s too fast. I believe this an outstanding university with an wonderful future, and you can see a bunch of things that if they would happen; if we could get the support for this, or if we could just get this done, then we could just really barrel ahead. Sometimes, I think the most difficult thing is that things don’t always move quickly; it’s a bit frustrating when it takes longer for good things to happen than you would hope for.

Gauntlet: Is that what you would also describe as the worst part–the lag time it takes to see the results of your work?

White: It’s not so much just my work. I’m thinking throughout the university. One person is just a small part of this puzzle. It sometimes takes longer than one would like–I’m not saying we want to ram everything through, but we had a budget Monday from the federal government. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had the restoration of transfer payments? That’s taken a lot of lobbying, to get that. After several years, it’s finally come through. Wouldn’t it have been nice if it had happened a year ago? I’m glad it happened, but that’s what I mean. Sometimes things happen with people that are disappointing. That’s tough too.

You see some things in my job… you see the very best in people and sometimes you see the dark side. Again, that’s because by the time things get to my level they’re pretty complicated or else they would have been solved lower down. You have to be very optimistic–and I’m rambling here–but one has to have a very optimistic outlook because you have to be highly motivated just to keep going and to provide motivation and incentive for others to keep going.

Gauntlet: A lot of this must work into why you’re applying to be president again.

White: As you know, the appointment for deans and vice-presidents and president is along a five year term. I have a sense, and I’ve talked to a lot of people, that we’ve accomplished a lot in the last four years and they would like us to push forward on that agenda and keep that momentum going. With that kind of feedback, plus the fact that I enjoy the job… some people say how in the world could you ever enjoy it?…

Last year, I was a poster boy and that was no fun for anybody. If there’s an opportunity to accomplish more, that’s the motivation. Certainly this will be it. I won’t be signalling in the ninth year that I want to be considered for another term. At that point it’s time for someone else. Also, I’m in my 12th year as [a] university president. It’s a real unique opportunity and privilege, but then that’ll be it.

Gauntlet: What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?

White: You want to work with your colleagues to get sort of a shared agenda. Universities used to have a monopoly in terms of degree granting status. Now you’ve got colleges giving out applied degrees. You’ve got private universities, either online or outfits like Phoenix, the American private outfit that wants to come into Alberta–and it looks like they’re going to be welcomed with open arms. There was a sense back in 1995-1996 that the university had to position itself for the future and we started on the strategic direction activity. We’ve got the curriculum revision and a whole host of other things related to strategic direction. In Calgary there’s a real challenge because the population is growing–25-30,000 new people in Calgary every year. That’s a huge expansion, and it’s a smart community.

There’s a lot of pressure on the university. We’re going to have to respond, so there’s a real challenge in terms of space. We’re bursting at the seams–the province clearly says we’re beyond capacity. We have to build new buildings. We’ll be breaking ground this Thursday for the Computer Science and Electrical Computing Engineering building. We’re going to need additional buildings in a whole range of areas.

I hope we will be able to find alternative sources of income so we can get rid of this divisiveness that we face every year with tuition. I think it’s very negative. It’s a distraction for the students, for the university and for the board. We need to be developing a relationship where people can do their work without having this annual event… as we reach the ceiling of course, that’ll be the end of it. When I came here, there’d been seven years in a row of tuition increases and so I’m the guy who’s been carrying the can. I’ve only been here for four years and we had an increase last year of 80 per cent, this year 65 per cent. The university, in terms of our fundraising, when I came here had less than $3 million for student assistance [and] we’re over five now and I think eventually the provincial government will do a matching campaign.

Gauntlet: You’ve touched on the events of the Feb. 4 bog meeting. How do you feel about that?

White: I understand completely where students are coming from. Many of them are having to fund their education on their own. As a consumer, nobody likes to see prices go up, so I can understand their situation. The board is faced with empathizing with the students, but at the same time trying to find enough money to run the place.

In my position as president, I feel for the student and I also feel for the board because when they make what they think the best decision is for both the students and the university, it’s sometimes tough. When [Lyle Oberg] was here speaking to the senate, with the board, the vast majority of the students expressed their opinions in very mature ways. There was an edge, and some people took it a little bit further–well, that always happens.

When you have a couple of people running at you like that, calling you a… well, you remember. On the other hand, I didn’t rise to my feet and get ready for combat. I had faith that they would know where the line was, and they did. I think what we saw again this year was an acknowledgment that we need to take into account the real problems that students have, and I think that’s why the board didn’t go for the 100 per cent. On the other hand, we all know how difficult it is to recruit and retain faculty–our salaries have dropped. When I look at that meeting, I think that people for the most part handled themselves very well under tough circumstances on both sides.

Gauntlet: What’s the biggest misconception students have about you?

White: I think that there’s a tendency for people to confuse the office with the individual. If there’s something you don’t like about the university, then the president becomes the lightning rod, and it doesn’t matter who the president is. I understand that. Most students I meet understand that you’re a human being and that you’re not the devil incarnate, but there are a few people who don’t stop and think about whether this person is an individual or not. Who in their right mind would think that you would go through the tuition situation if there were alternatives? Who would want to go through that stress and strain or whatever? I think it’s the usual thing that if you know a person you’re better able to judge that person. There are so many people in our community, I can’t know everybody. I think that the misperception that some people might have is that I don’t like students and that we’re really not doing anything to try to help students. The reality is that I do like students and that’s the whole point of our job. We’re trying to create a learning environment to help students achieve their goals. That’s what it’s all about.

Gauntlet: How would you describe the U of C’s relationship with the Klein government and do you think CORE will be effective in targeting the government for base level funding?

White: I think the Klein government had a big challenge when it came in. Like most of the governments in Canada, [Alberta had] been spending way more money than they had. I guess the thought was at some point the tooth fairy was going to come and we’ll all be bailed out. They had some difficult decisions to make and they made the cuts that were necessary.

We’ve made great efficiencies trying to look for alternative sources of income. I think the university has, in very difficult circumstances, responded quite remarkably. That’s meant that everybody, students, faculty, staff, administration, has had to stretch just that much more. From the Klein government perspective, they were elected by the public [who] don’t want huge debts and deficits. I think they’ve been doing an excellent job in that regard. The last budget, [unveiled] in Edmonton on Thursday, [saw] major reinvestment in K-12.

The universities have two mandates, one is the research side the other is the learning side. The government has been very, very supportive of the research mandate.

Most recently, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science and Engineering Research endowment is an outstanding move. On the learning side, they have responded in terms of the access funding. In terms of our base operating, we haven’t had the reinvestment yet. It’s not as though the government has been neglecting universities. It’s just that our base operating hasn’t moved ahead. The decision was made by the government, not by the university, that students would pay 30 per cent of the cost of their education. We’ve been grappling with that. I think this government is sympathetic to the needs of post-secondary in the base-operating side and over the next couple of years we’ll start to see reinvestment just as we’ve seen in K-12.

So, on the research side, this government’s record is outstanding. In terms of access I think they’ve done a great job and in terms of some of the other aspects they’re starting to realize the need is there. It’s like anybody that’s running a budget–you’ve got so much, where do you put it? In terms of CORE I think that any time all participants in the university can communicate the good things that are happening here and the opportunities that exist for us to do even better things, that makes more of an impact when we’re speaking as a common voice.

Gauntlet: Do you think the Dinos hockey team has a chance against the Bears this weekend?

White: I do. I’ll tell you why–I think the Bears are pretty cocky. They have a good record against us. Compare [the Dinos] when they started this year versus where they are now–they’ve really matured. They’re playing excellent hockey. They lost [forward Eric Schneider] at Christmas but they bounced right back, other people stepped in, so I think it’s going to be a dandy of a series.

Gauntlet: What’s in your stereo right now?

White: I like new age, but I also like organ music. I like Gordon Lightfoot too. In the ’60s, it was tough being a Canadian because the question people asked was, “What’s different about Canada and what’s it mean to be Canadian?” and everyone’s looking at their navel. Lightfoot gave Canada identity.

Gauntlet: Have you ever smoked pot?

White: No, because I don’t smoke. You know, you see in movies, guys taking in that big [sucking sound, knowing wink], but I can’t even envision doing that. I’m an athlete.


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