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If you want to know how different things are in Alberta from the rest of the country, stop by the University of Calgary.

While many universities are facing crippling cash crunches and implementing staff freezes, the University of Calgary has embarked on a $6-million hiring spree. Over the next year or so, the university will welcome 60 postdoctoral scholars and another 54 assistant professors to campus.

And those are in addition to professors regularly being hired to replace retiring staff. Other schools can only look on with envy and curse the ground beneath them for not containing oil.

It's all part of an ambitious plan by the U of C to become a major player on the North American university scene. The immediate goal is to be recognized as one of the top five research-intensive universities in Canada by 2016 – the school's 50th anniversary. It's now regarded as seventh or eighth best by most rankings.

This is what happens when you put an engineer in charge.

Elizabeth Cannon became the school's eighth president in July of 2010. She immediately began a program to lead the school to greater heights. It involved a lot of consultation and conversations with words such as metrics and benchmarks thrown around – terms that really turn an engineer's crank. Ultimately, it led to the design of a bold strategic plan called Eyes High.

A world-recognized expert in geomatics, Dr. Cannon was the university's dean of engineering before being promoted to the top job. Now the two leading universities in the province are being led by female engineers. The University of Alberta is headed by Indira Samarasekera, a brilliant mind in her own right.

Calgary has long been regarded as the poor cousin to the University of Alberta. It's doubtful that will be the case for much longer.

"This is an exciting time in the evolution of the city of Calgary, and our goal is to become a global intellectual hub in what is Canada's most enterprising centre," Dr. Cannon said during an interview in her office.

The university has decided to focus its energy and resources in six research areas: brain and mental health; smarter and more secure cities; earth-space technology; engineering solutions for health; energy innovation; and infectious and chronic diseases. Most, if not all, of the new professors and postdoc scholars being hired will have backgrounds that fit with these broad research themes.

Dr. Cannon says the hope is that the university can use its massive brain capacity and expertise to tackle some of today's great challenges. For example, it could put together a cross-disciplinary team of researchers to grapple with some of the tougher issues facing Alberta's energy sector. "The goal is to get beyond the model of the individual researcher with their grant and scaling up to address the bigger problems. That's how we're going to have a greater impact and, frankly, reach our goals."

The university is also establishing a new Institute for Teaching and Learning. The idea of the centre is twofold: to explore innovative teaching methods for the university level, and to enhance the campus and classroom experience for undergrads. The hope is that the institute will lead to cutting-edge reforms around curriculum, teaching methods and ways to stretch students beyond formal classroom teaching. The university has a small team currently travelling across North America looking at some of the teaching and classroom innovation going on at other institutions.

"This is another statement that we're serious about making the University of Calgary one of the top schools anywhere," said Dr. Cannon.

When she looks out at the broader university landscape in Canada, she sees a brand that's still lagging behind other countries. It's a fact reflected in a recent report that shows we're doing a poor job in attracting top students from around the world.

"We need to discuss how we can better position our universities on the international stage to attract the students that everyone wants," she said. "We really need to develop a strategy around this area as a country."

Sounds like a job for an engineer.