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Leadership Former U of A president Indira Samarasekera free to speak her mind

Indira Samarasekera, former president, University of Alberta

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Nothing about Indira Samarasekera gives any hint that she is a university president who does that most rare thing for the top executives of public institutions: give offence. Wearing a sober beige blouse and green jacket, she is, at the time of our lunch in May, only weeks away from the end of her term as president of the University of Alberta and feeling a bit melancholy.

"One part of me says I am going to enjoy not being so incredibly busy and so incredibly rushed and I will have time for introspection, for solitude.… And then all of a sudden it hits you, all the things you will miss every day. You start to savour each and every event," she says.

It's late May, a month before Dr. Samarasekera hands the baton to her successor, David Turpin, who officially took over as U of A president on July 1. We are sitting at a table at Canoe, a restaurant on the 54th floor of Toronto's TD Bank Tower that has been teasing the country's establishment with its culinary perfectionism for 20 years.

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We order mineral water and Dr. Samarasekera has the classic Canadian tourtière. "This seems like the right thing to get here," she says.

There's a sweeping view of Toronto from the floor-to-ceiling windows, even from the back of the room, where we are sitting. Tourists come here, as do Bay Street dates and those celebrating family events – but at a weekday lunch, the clientele is mostly men who own things, run them, are comfortable with power.

Dr. Samarasekera says the next part of her life will keep a foot in this world: She will continue sitting on private and public boards, including Magna International, and will be a fellow at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues.

Would she enter politics?

"Oh my gosh no, I would make a terrible politician," she says.

That's surprising. Behind a demeanour that's serious enough to conceal a dry sense of humour, Dr. Samarasekera, who has a PhD in metallurgical engineering from UBC, has tangled with the Alberta government over university funding, taken public stands on other universities' internal disputes, on the state of gender relations and the oil-driven development of her adopted province. Her views have alienated some – faculty among them – and provoked others.

"Maybe I've had a taste of it and I really don't like it. I don't like the public scrutiny, the public spotlight part of my job," Dr. Samarasekera said of her decade at the university's helm.

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The spotlight first turned her way when she rose to the defence of young white men, toward the end of her first term. If men's postsecondary enrolment continues to lag women's, she said, Canada could find itself without enough male leaders.

"There were calls for my resignation by women's groups," she says now, her voice rising only ever so slightly. "If the roles were reversed, and I was a guy in the job, I would have been done."

Then, last year, after the University of Saskatchewan fired president Ilene Busch-Vishniac following a firestorm over the removal of a dean who had gone public with misgivings over the university's governance, Dr. Samarasekera wrote a commentary for this paper criticizing the decision. (Dr. Busch-Vishniac is now suing the university.)

Faculty members said Dr. Samarasekera was attacking academic freedom.

"I couldn't believe what happened with that."

There have also been copious successes, record years of fundraising – including a doubling of government research grants over the past decade – and an increase of 10,000 student enrolments.

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Dr. Samarasekera's salary has recognized those successes.

One of only a handful of female university presidents in Canada, she is nevertheless one of the highest paid at $544,000. (The University of Toronto's president makes $399,000; at the University of Calgary, Elizabeth Cannon is paid $480,000). At one point, Alison Redford's former government was set to review executive compensation at the province's universities, but the plan was never enacted.

Some MLAs have continued to ask her why her salary is so high, she says.

"I said 'I'm leaving, so that's a moot point.'"

I tell her she is a good negotiator. That's not how it's done, she responds.

"We presidents don't get to set our salary. When I became university president, [the board of governors] said this is what we are offering you. I did not say it's too high, or too low, or not enough. Nothing but thank you." The current amount is the result of inflation and faculty salary settlements, she says. As a member of the faculty, she receives all the same increments professors do.

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Still, the question of salaries for the leaders of institutions struggling with tight provincial budgets and rising tuition fees is gaining national attention. When applications opened for Dr. Samarasekera's job, 56 academics across the country applied for the job in groups of four, making the point that her salary was high enough to pay for four professors. And this spring, at University of Western Ontario in London, under public pressure, president Amit Chakma gave up the year of pay he had received in lieu of an administrative leave.

University boards of governors need to address the questions head on, Dr. Samarasekera says.

"You have to find a way to demonstrate what value presidents add … In Canada, I am one of the highest paid – in North America, among four-year public universities, I am dead average. So you need to decide what the University of Alberta should be paying. Is it not one of North America's finest institutions?"

It is also, somewhat strangely, a job that everyone learns by doing. There are no MBA courses on how to be a university president. Protecting the university's reputation is No. 1: Enrolment, funding, donations, faculty recruitment – all are threatened when a university hits the news media for the wrong reasons.

One of the most difficult moments of her career came in 2011, when former medicine dean Philip Baker was found to have plagiarized parts of a commencement speech from doctor and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande.

"The students were saying, 'If I had done this, I would be suspended immediately.' … But at the same time, this is someone who was a colleague, who had been recruited because of his capability, who was doing many things well … How do you manage treating him fairly as a professional while making sure that the values of the institution are respected?"

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Her parents built the confidence she needed to make those decisions. Except for a few years when they lived in England, her childhood and early adulthood were spent in Sri Lanka.

"My father said to me he had always wanted to be a physicist, because he must have been good at physics and mathematics. But in Asian cultures, there was this sort of thing, eldest son must be a doctor, the second son must be a civil servant, and the third child must be a teacher. I don't know if it's still today – he went into medicine reluctantly...

"From the moment I showed any aptitude [in those areas] he was right there, 'You should go and do that, you should go and do that.' So I had that encouragement … I think in Grade 8, I said 'I'm going to be an engineer.'"

She attended all-girl schools. When she was accepted at the University of Ceylon in mechanical engineering, she was the only woman to take that stream.

"Just before I was about to go, I got cold feet, and said to my mother and father, 'Maybe I'll go back and do physics,' and my father said 'No, no, no, let's go back and find out how many women there are in engineering.'"

It turned out there were 12 and Dr. Samarasekera enrolled.

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She became friends with many of the male students. The experience left her with a life-long skepticism about claims that women are not well represented in engineering because the profession is sexist.

"Maybe I'm tone deaf or something because I know these things exist but … I have never experienced any issue ever in my career in Canada where I felt I was put down because I was female or made to feel unwelcome," she said.

She allows there were moments. Working as a consultant for the steel industry, she says she felt uncomfortable at times. On an oil rig, she used the men's washrooms, there were none for women. And larger challenges, too. She was divorced when her children were young. They grew up to be independent: Her daughter is a lawyer and her son studied medicine before deciding to go into engineering.

"The whole business of helicopter parenting … I was not there … I'm more of a helicopter grandparent now, because I can text my children."

After graduating, she won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of California, Davis, which eventually led her to UBC. Her three siblings have also found careers around the world. (Her 84-year-old mother still lives in Sri Lanka and the plan is to visit her often.)

Leaving home and coming to North America on a scholarship changed everything.

"My parents could not have afforded for me to study abroad; there's no chance I would have left," she said.

More Canadian students should study abroad, she says, and not in Britain or Australia or the United States, but in more difficult countries, like Turkey, Brazil and India. She thinks money is the only thing stopping them from studying abroad. She has created a $250,000 fellowship to help qualifying U of A students go study outside Canada for several months.

"Students are becoming less risk averse … In the 10 years since I was president, we've gone from a world where there was no Twitter, there was no LinkedIn, there was nothing," she said.

Yes, at 63, she understands the younger generation. She's stayed close to them her entire life. That's partly what makes her valuable as a board member for private companies – unlike corporate leaders, she says, her job has kept her in constant contact with the entry-level employees.

Still, she is wary of the influence of social media and glad to no longer have to watch her remarks.

"I'm an academic because I can say what I think, by and large. Until I became a university president."

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Indira Samarasekera, former president, University of Alberta

Age: 63

Place of birth: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Education: In 1974, she graduated with a BSc in mechanical engineering with first-class honours from the University of Ceylon. Attended the University of California, Davis, where she earned an MSc in the same field and then headed to the University of British Columbia where she earned a PhD in metallurgical engineering in 1980.

Family: Divorced, with two grown children, Anji and Dinesh; grandmother to Anila

What she's reading: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. "I am reading the book because it made it on The Globe and Mail list of top fiction books. I was very close to my maternal grandmother who enriched my life immeasurably, which is why I was drawn to this book. ... It speaks to how Molly Ayer, a troubled adolescent learns from and is influenced by 91-year-old Vivian Daly, who is also enriched by the relationship. In an age where children no longer have grandparents around, the kind of encounter this book describes are much more rare and it reminds one of the benefits of such relationships."

Vacation spot: Maui: "The climate and the foliage is exactly like Sri Lanka and so are the people: laid back, and seemingly happy in this idyllic setting. For me it is an escape from reality and it takes me back to my childhood."

On Rachel Notley's election: "On one hand, it was a wonderful expression of democracy … I can't fully understand the reaction on the other hand. This should not be a province that has not been well served under the Conservative government and Jim Prentice was an extraordinary leader. Notley is exceptional, too: She has charisma, she connects well, she presented ideas of open change, and that's a powerful elixir."

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