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University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera is an advocate for boys education. (Jason Franson

For someone about to be interviewed for a job, the scene was daunting: 19 people around a boardroom table with an empty chair at the end - squarely in the line of fire.

On the short list to become the University of Alberta's 12th president, Indira Samarasekera was not deterred; she saw great potential in the place. Nevertheless, she was nervous - which was a good thing, recalls Brian Heidecker, president of the university's board of governors.

"I said, 'Indira, had you not been nervous - you're applying to be the top person in a $1.5-billion organization ... - then I'm really nervous.' "

Nerves notwithstanding, she blew the committee away, addressing each member - students as well as administrators and faculty - personally. "What set her apart from all of the other candidates," Mr. Heidecker says, "was her phenomenal ability to communicate to people in all forms."

So began the Samarasekera (pronounced SAM-uruh-SAY-kuruh) era at the U of A, which almost a century after its founding in 1908, made her its first female president. Since 2005, she has guided the university along an ascension to the apex of Canadian academe.

With 28,000 full-time undergraduates (and 5,700 grad students), the university now ranks third in the nation in total research funding, up from fifth when Ms. Samarasekera, 58 and an engineer by training, took over. This year, it scored twice as many prestigious Canada research chairs as any other university. She has pledged to raise the U of A to among the top 20 comparable universities in the world by 2020.

"She's an invigorating figure," says Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock. "She's understood that one of the goals has to be to enhance the reputation of the university as a research and knowledge-creation institution."

John McDougall, president of the National Research Council, says the emphasis on research has helped to build the profile of the university, but the charismatic Ms. Samarasekera also has opened it to investment and partnership.

"I think she has created a more rounded profile for the institution," says Mr. McDougall, an Edmonton native. "She's connected it to the community more strongly."

But Ms. Samarasekera sees her top achievements in the classroom, not just the lab.

"I think I'm most proud of the increased quality, I believe, of the undergraduate education," she says, adding that it is balanced with research. "In this university, you will not be promoted to the next level and receive merit increments unless you are committed to both undergraduate teaching and research."

Being a researcher who champions undergraduate teaching isn't all that's counterintuitive about her. She's also a trail-blazing woman in a male-dominated field who has taken up the cause of boys.

With male enrolment in university now dropping "we need to ask the question: Is our method of pedagogy really working for everyone, especially young men?" she says. "I think our society isn't balanced if you don't have the contribution of both genders, in addition to people of different ethnic origins and different racial backgrounds.

"We all know that diversity is a strength. That's what you see in nature. So why would you rob ourselves of ensuring that we have it?"

She has picked up on a project of her predecessor and cemented the school's relationship with China (it now has more top Chinese scholars than any other Canadian university) and she is increasing ties with institutions in India, all in an effort to drive research and build the U of A's international profile.

"Canada's brand is not well known; we don't like to brag," she says. "Our image is associated with being nice and not necessarily competitive, and yet Canadians are intensely competitive - just watch a hockey game."

She hopes that soon Edmonton will outmuscle Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in the competition for young researchers. "It's trying to position this city, this province, as much of a destination for new talent [and]young people as the rest of the country. It's really enhancing Canada's ability to compete for talent." The number of international undergrads has already risen about 30 per cent.

It's success the U of A has paid for: last year, Ms. Samarasekera collected $936,000 in total compensation, well above what many university presidents earn (and she made waves when the school paid another $930,000 to turn her home into an official residence).

She has overseen layoffs and spending cuts during her first term, but escaped relatively unscathed. Recently given a second term (a two-step process, both unanimous votes), she plans to leave academe when it expires in 2015.

"I think 10 years is a long time to be president of an institution. And people need renewal, change, ideas," she says.

But what a difference a few years can make.

Academic excellence

The Nation Builder

Indira Samarasekera, 58, came to the United States from her native Sri Lanka to study engineering. Before taking over as president of the University of Alberta, she spent five years as vice-president of research at the University of British Columbia. Her two children are grown and live in Vancouver.

The nation building

Under Ms. Samarasekera's leadership, the U of A has become a research powerhouse and built an enormous international profile. She hopes to make it a destination for top international students, who typically wouldn't consider coming to Alberta.

The next step

She has committed to pushing the U of A into the top 20 of comparable universities around the world by 2020. When her second term is over in 2015, she plans to end her academic career. She then hopes to volunteer to help build higher education internationally, particularly in South Asia.