For a decade Indira Samarasekera says she has dealt with on-again off-again funding from the provincial government and little interest in setting a mission for Alberta's top school. With a steep fall in oil prices and Alberta's government eyeing deep cuts, Dr. Samarasekera says she's worried about what her successor will face as president of the University of Alberta.
When she took over in 2005, she pledged to make the UofA one of the world's top research universities. Since then, she has overseen a building boom at the university. As she prepares to step down and take a position at the University of British Columbia, she spoke with The Globe's Justin Giovannetti about how well she has fared.
You set out to make the UofA a top research school. A decade later, how did you do?
The University of Alberta is a great university but it is not in the pantheon of the greatest universities in the world. That's an issue.
Where are the best young graduate students in the world going? The best universities, the best 50 and the best 20. We aren't attracting the kinds of brainpower that would help us with the best ideas and the drive to commercialize them.
One problem is that there's no consistency in the investment from government for basic university operations. The university needs the province to have a long-term vision and predictable investments so that it can compete with the best public research universities in the world. We need many more top professors. We need to take some bets. Some professors need to be hired in our areas of strength, but we need to hire some people who are just brilliant.
Is it hard attracting that top talent to Edmonton?
Great minds go to the University of Michigan. It's cold there. Edmonton needs to be less hard on itself and invest in the long term. People will come if they think that their ideas can become reality here.
Edmonton is much better than it was 10 years ago, but it's not where it needs to be.
As an example, we have hundreds of people working on environment and energy research. The risk there isn't investing too much. Why do we still have tailings ponds? We knew a long time ago those weren't great things. We have researchers here working on getting rid of those.
You've spoken about inconsistent funding from the Alberta government and the need for a mission. What should that mission be?
Alberta needs to set a grand goal, a big vision, and go for it. We do that, but then oil prices crash and we lose our vision and start cutting everywhere.
We don't have a reputation for going big. 'Go big or go home.' We have none of that here.
We just don't have a very high tolerance for failure in Canada. We have a short-term outcome attitude that doesn't allow for risks or patience.
You have a phenomenal pool of alumni. Have they been helping cover areas where the government isn't investing enough?
There isn't a culture of philanthropy of the kind we need. Canadians, whether they live in the West or East, think that the government should pay for everything. That's a mindset we need to change. Our biggest gift came from an Asian billionaire who is building wealth in Alberta and thought he should give back.
There have been a number of cuts in the government's spending on universities over the past decade. Do you have a sense of what your successor will face?
We haven't seen a new budget or new revenue model yet.
We need a sales tax! Absolutely we need a sales tax. Oil and gas revenues are capital and they need to be invested for the long term. This is not rocket science. We just need to do it.
I can say all kinds of things now that I'm leaving.
Alberta can still be the lowest-tax jurisdiction; there is no question. There is plenty of evidence that suggests high taxation does not encourage innovation; no argument there. But honestly, the race to the bottom is not where we'll be successful. Underinvestment, year after year, in education and research is costing us.
People talk about no debt. We have a huge debt in terms of things we haven't done that are holding us back.