Professor James Ellis glances up from The Faerie Queene, tilting his head back slightly to bring the class into view. (While he lectured, Ellis’s glasses would slip partway down the bridge of his nose.) We are at the point in the story where the knight Sir Guyon, deep in the forest, impulsively reaches for his sword to cleave Furor. His guide, the Palmer, intercedes: Furor can’t be killed directly. Sir Guyon must first bind Furor’s accomplice, the wretched hag Occasion, whose rancour inspires the villain’s power. The Palmer, professor Ellis explains, is the embodiment of Sir Guyon’s reason. Sir Guyon can’t fight rage directly, but must instead seek out its cause. “When you think about allegory,” he says, “remember that everything is meaningful.”
This was the fall of 2008, and I was six weeks into English 507 at the University of Calgary, a course on the work of 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser. Professor Ellis’s quizzical expressions filled the classroom with an atmosphere of intellectual uncertainty. Everything was up for grabs. We questioned our interpretations of books, and then questioned interpretations of those interpretations of books. On days of particular intellectual daring, we questioned the dynamic of the classroom itself, its effect on the questioning of those interpretations of interpretations of books. It was a heady class. The dozen or so of us rarely missed a lecture.
I graduated in spring of 2009 with a BA in English from the U of C. The following year I added a postgraduate certificate in journalism from Mount Royal University. When I’d first set out on my post-secondary journey, Calgary had one university. By the time I’d graduated, it had two: MRC became MRU just as I settled in there.
The creation of a new university is only one of several major changes to the post-secondary picture in Calgary of late. Professor Ellis, Sir Guyon and English 507 are no longer part of Humanities at the U of C, but have been absorbed—along with modern dance, economics and Slavic studies—into the new “superfaculty” of Arts, part of the university’s larger “refocusing” campaign. Changes are being overseen by a new president; the first female and only the eighth president in the U of C’s history. Mount Royal was a college when I started my studies, and a university by the time I graduated. In the meantime, it gained new programs, new faculty—and new expectations from government and students alike.
So many changes in such short order would be enough to make even a veteran knight’s head spin. If universities help shape the faculty that guides our lives—if they’re places to meet our own personal Palmers—how, then, are the institutions themselves reshaped? I decided to revisit my old stomping grounds, and my notion of a university itself, to find out.
Since confederation, university education in Canada—from undergraduate to post-doctorate—has been the responsibility of the provinces and territories. Only provincial governments can legislate the creation of universities, and, until recently, only universities could grant degrees. Despite being overseen by disparate authorities, Canadian university degrees have long been considered reliable credentials. The provinces have been vigilant with the word “university,” and a consensus on what constitutes a degree existed across the country.
The Association of Universities & Colleges of Canada (AUCC), established in 1911 and comprised of the presidents of each of its 95 member institutions, advocates for higher education issues across the country. In the absence of a national accreditation body, its standards have become the measure of a Canadian university both domestically and abroad. The AUCC’s Statement on Academic Freedom outlines its vision of the institution’s unique spirit: “It is the essence of a university freely to pursue knowledge and understanding and to search for the reason of things.”
If universities help shape the faculty that guides our lives, how, then, are the institutions themselves reshaped?
To do as Mount Royal did—to join the university “club,” as it were—a school has to make it through the AUCC’s “intellectual tryouts,” a set of criteria that ensure member institutions have the facilities, faculty expertise and vision to create a university-level environment, one where the intricate process of knowledge creation and transmission can flourish.
Over the past 30 years, the demand for undergraduate education in Canada—and therefore the demand for more university spaces—rapidly increased. A 2007 AUCC report stated that full-time university enrolment increased by over 190,000 students, or 31 per cent, between 2000 and 2006. The report showed that in 1990, 1.9 million Canadian jobs were filled by degree holders. By 2006, that number had doubled, to 3.8 million.
Canada’s consensus on what constitutes a degree started to crack under the pressure of increasing demand. Every province reacted differently, creating a fissure in the erstwhile trinity of university, AUCC membership and degree. Five out of the 10 provinces (including Alberta) decided to extend university degree-granting authority to colleges, technical institutes and other schools beyond the ivory tower walls. The question soon arose as to whether these degrees should be treated as equivalent.
In 2005 the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) decided to address the confusion. Provincial government representatives and academics from across the country worked together to create the Ministerial Statement on Quality Assurance of Degree Education in Canada. Filed in 2007, the statement is now the Canadian degree lodestar. The theory: if the provinces measure new degrees with the same stick, then graduates, regardless of the school they attended, should have roughly equal opportunities at jobs and graduate programs. The statement includes the Canadian Degree Qualifications Framework, six expectations of the outcomes for graduates of bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees, including depth and breadth of knowledge, knowledge of methodologies, application of knowledge, communication skills, awareness of limits of knowledge and professional capacity/autonomy.
Glen Jones, a University of Toronto professor and expert on higher education in Canada, says Alberta is breaking ground when it comes to clarifying the post-secondary system. He points to Bill 7, an amendment to the province’s Post-secondary Learning Act in 2008, which introduced a new organizational framework for publicly funded post-secondary institutions. The system now consists of six distinct sectors, enabling the province to better differentiate existing schools—and clearly identify what new ones might offer. The U of C, for example, is now defined as a Comprehensive Academic and Research Institution, while Mount Royal is a Baccalaureate and Applied Studies Institution.
“I think [Bill 7] is pretty creative legislation,” Jones says. “It’s really about trying to create a differentiated system that makes sense in the context of Alberta. Other provinces have moved in that direction, but without that kind of clarity.”
It’s been barely a month since I submitted my last assignment at Mount Royal, and already I’m back on campus, making my way toward the West Gate entrance. The campus doesn’t inspire the same reverence as Canada’s more historic universities; its ivory towers don’t so much “tower” as spill out over one wide, squat building. However, what Mount Royal lacks in august academic tradition it makes up in its informal and intimate environment.
The entire eight months of my journalism certificate program at Mount Royal played out in an area smaller than a skating rink. The communications centre consists of four classrooms, three editing suites and a common reading area. The postgraduate journalism stream had all of 12 students. We took classes together and were taught by the same handful of faculty. It didn’t take long to feel a sense of connection in such an intense environment. For one class, we worked with the students in the four-year journalism program to co-produce The Calgary Journal, a monthly community newspaper. I was a little envious of the regular-stream students, who had all that time to grow into the idea of being journalists. Even more than a particular knowledge base or skill set, they were developing an identity.
Today I’m about to use the skills I learned in the journalism program to interview the president of the school in which I learned them. (The way I see it, if things go south, it’ll be both of our faults.) I’m curious about what’s in a name: why did Mount Royal become a university and what needed to change before it could earn the distinction?
I ask Dr. David Marshall how he became president of what is now a 100-year-old institution. “When I was four years old I said to my grandfather, ‘I want to lead universities and colleges…’” Marshall laughs. “No, actually, it was just by chance. No career gets designed like that.”
“To deliver degrees, you must carry the cachet of a university in label and substance.”—MRU’s Marshall
The defining feature of Marshall’s career seems to be a knack for turning colleges into universities. Before coming to Mount Royal, Marshall was president at Nipissing University, a small liberal arts campus in North Bay, Ontario. He led the school to university status in 1992. Mount Royal hired Marshall in 2003 with the expectation he could repeat the process. “There’s no question they sought me out because I’d already done it somewhere else,” says Marshall.
But it wasn’t just senior administration that wanted to see MRC become MRU. Even as Marshall was still getting comfortable in his new office on the third floor of Kirby Hall, Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education began pursuing a strategy to increase access to university education. On March 17, 2004, the government proclaimed the Post-secondary Learning Act (PSLA), consolidating the Universities, Colleges, Banff Centre and Technical Institute acts into a sweeping piece of higher-education legislation. One law to rule them all, the PSLA threw open the door in Alberta to foundational undergraduate degrees: universities were no longer to be the sole providers of baccalaureate degrees in Alberta. In order to ensure the integrity of degrees to be granted, however, the Act also created the Campus Alberta Quality Council (CAQC). Comprised of Albertan academics, the CAQC is responsible for assessing applications for new degrees in the province.
Mount Royal—almost 60 years older than the U of C—was a prime candidate to become Alberta’s newest university. But Marshall notes that although the government recognized a need for another university in Calgary, it didn’t want to create another research-intensive institution. So Mount Royal worked with the Ministry of Advanced Education over the course of six years to carve out a new species of university, the Baccalaureate and Applied Studies Institution. For Mount Royal, a big part of that process was creating the unique atmosphere the AUCC prescribes, wherein students can “freely pursue knowledge and understanding and search for the reason of things.”
AUCC membership is crucial, says Marshall. “If you deliver baccalaureate degrees and your institution doesn’t carry with it the cachet of a university in label and in substance, your students are going to have some challenges as they move on.” Indeed, these days many students move on to jobs or to further schooling outside the province. Many Canadian employers and universities trust the vigilance of the CAQC, but for the rest of the world, induction into the AUCC is the ultimate stamp of an Alberta institution’s legitimacy.
In 2006 the government passed the Alternative Academic Council Regulation, creating a process through which colleges could apply to implement a bicameral governance structure (separating financial decision-making from academic policies, a small but vital change designed to protect academic independence).
In order to be accepted into the ranks of the AUCC, Mount Royal had to secure more funding and upgrade its library facilities, and a certain percentage of faculty needed doctorate-level qualifications. (MRC began to hire instructors with doctorates in the 1980s.) A majority of its students also had to be enrolled in university-level degrees. The school offered its first undergraduate degree in 2007 (a Bachelor of Nursing), five more in 2008 (Bachelors of Arts, Science, Justice Studies, Business Administration and Communications) and another in the fall of 2009 (a Bachelor of Computer Information Systems). Four more proposed degree programs are under review by the CAQC.
The last step—the one that drew the most attention but involved the least amount of actual change—was an order-in-council from the Alberta legislature that gave Mount Royal permission to call itself “university.” On September 3, 2009, Mount Royal celebrated its new status with all the pomp of an academic convocation. Premier Ed Stelmach, Minister of Advanced Education Doug Horner and Lieutenant-Governor Norman Kwong attended. Kwong, who was once a student and athlete at Mount Royal, was clearly moved as he accepted an honorary degree, the first ever bestowed by the school.
“When it happened, we woke up—and nothing had changed,” says Marshall. “We were a little hung over, but nothing had changed.” On October 29, 2009, Mount Royal became the 95th member institution of the AUCC.
It took nearly a decade for Mount Royal to satisfy all the necessary requirements to become a university. The process also represented Marshall’s final “conversion.” Having completed the job that he was hired to do, Marshall announced in May of 2010 that he would step down as president of Mount Royal in June of next year.
Just five minutes up Crowchild Trail from Mount Royal is my other alma mater—the city’s now “senior” university. Hiring a new president is among the biggest changes a university can make, since, as Marshall’s experience illustrates, the president can have a big influence on the kind of education a school ultimately offers. Elizabeth Cannon won’t be officially sworn in as the U of C’s eighth president for several months, so today we’re in the office of the dean of the Schulich School of Engineering—a position she’s held for the last four years.
“Some of these students didn’t even know they could draw,” says Cannon as she shows me several framed illustrations on the walls of her office. In one of them, a bulky transformer robot is rendered in precise geometrical shapes. Another shows an expertly shaded sketch of a human skeleton. “These were done in a first-year engineering class taught by faculty from Fine Arts,” says Cannon. She’s clearly excited by the interdisciplinary nature of such classes. The drawings seem to stand for Cannon as framed reminders of the creativity of engineers; something not often associated with practitioners of a practical discipline. If a first-year engineering student can discover a talent for drawing, Cannon seems to suggest, then a tenured engineering professor can draw on the breadth of understanding needed to lead a university.
Cannon was hired in early 2010 to replace Harvey Weingarten, president from 2001 to 2009. Her appointment is significant for many reasons—she’s the first woman to lead the U of C and, along with Indira Samarasekera at the University of Alberta, only the second woman in such a position in the province’s history. She’s also the first engineer to be president of the U of C.
Cannon has been on the same campus for almost 30 years. She received her BSc, MSc and PhD in geomatics engineering all from the U of C—a virtually unheard-of feat. From the start of her studies she was intrigued by the emerging field of geomatics, ultimately researching and designing novel applications for advanced guidance-system technologies.
“I’ve been a citizen of the university for a long time,” Cannon says. “I’ve got a strong local base, if you will. [But] my experiences have gone beyond this.” She says her research and community involvement put her in contact with myriad organizational structures from around the world. Cannon also points to her experience within the faculty of engineering; every time she took a step further up the leadership ladder, she had to find a way to think a little more broadly.
The U of C’s new president has been entrusted with leading the school through a period of change, which she describes as a “refocus.” Cannon says she hopes to internally align the school behind “key research areas,” or, in layman’s terms, to concentrate on their strengths. “Within my first year [I want the U of C] to come out strongly and confidently as to where it’s going,” she says. Cannon emphasizes biomedical engineering, the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment & Economy and the School of Public Policy as three powerful knowledge-generation engines that put the U of C on the international map.
Students and faculty from disciplines other than these are wary about the U of C’s new priorities—and not without cause. On April 1 the faculties of Communication & Culture, Social Sciences, Fine Arts and the Humanities were merged into the Faculty of the Arts. Cannon says the U of C wants to encourage interdisciplinary study, and that it makes sense to amalgamate four liberal-arts faculties, 6,500 students, 350 faculty and staff, 20 departments and 12 programs into one new “superfaculty.”
Such reorganizations are rarely straightforward. Communication & Culture professor emeritus Tamara Palmer Seiler was part of the transition team that guided the four faculties under their new administrative roof. When amalgamation was first proposed, in October 2008, people were surprised, says Seiler, because the idea had come “from above,” in the form of letters the four faculty deans received from then-president Weingarten.
“The liberal arts are under siege everywhere… we might band together and be stronger.”—U of C’s Seiler
“It wasn’t a grassroots movement from the faculties,” says Seiler. However, by the time the proposal made it to the General Faculties Council in May of 2009, just about everyone supported it. “It was a pretty democratic process,” she says. “To some degree, I was surprised how it unfolded.” Although Seiler notes that some faculty are concerned about the level of support their disciplines will receive under the new order, she also says a sense of anticipation surrounds the new system. “The liberal arts are under siege everywhere,” she says. “There’s an idea that we might band together and be stronger.” The U of C is not alone in this thinking. Arts amalgamation brings the U of C in line with 10 of the other “G-13” schools (a group of 13 large, research-intensive Canadian universities), which contain all of the liberal arts disciplines in either one or two faculties.
In January 2009 the U of C announced that its endowment fund had lost almost $80-million, due in part to the global financial crisis. The 2009 provincial budget (announced in April) froze increases to the university’s base operating grant. Despite the economic slowdown, shrinking endowment and funding cuts, Seiler doesn’t think amalgamation was conceived as a strategy to squeeze more money from the arts. The budgets of the four faculties have been combined without being reduced. In hindsight, says Seiler, the amalgamation process was well underway when the worst of the financial news became public.
The U of C’s new president thinks Calgary is plenty big enough for two universities—especially, says Cannon, because they’re meant to be different institutions. She wants to help the U of C “find itself” as an internationally respected research-intensive university. Mount Royal, says Cannon, has established its focus on undergraduate teaching.
The administration at Mount Royal and the powers that be at the Ministry of Advanced Education share Cannon’s vision of how the two Calgary institutions might complement each other. While faculty at Mount Royal will conduct some research and their peers at the U of C will still commit to teaching, the difference will be a matter of emphasis. A research institution such as the U of C generally assesses faculty using a 40/40/20 balance of teaching to research to service. Mount Royal, on the other hand, has implemented what’s known as the Teaching and Scholarship Stream, a balance of 60/30/10. In both cases, the ratios are used when evaluating faculty for career advancement and help establish an institution’s priorities.
So while the U of C increasingly focuses on research, Mount Royal will favour teaching and studying the way learning happens. Mount Royal’s flagship research institute, the Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, was created in November 2008. The emphasis on pedagogy permeates Mount Royal’s atmosphere, whether it’s the students learning directly or the faculty learning about the way students are learning.
Granola bar boxes, paper filters and a white plastic coffee machine litter the table in the back corner of the office: Terry Field’s little sustenance way station. Field is chair of Mount Royal’s journalism program.
“For newspaper articles, it goes lead, then quote and then the nut graf.”
Something clicks. Here I am at the faculty vet, the last stage for the last article of the fall semester, and it was only now sinking in. Such hard-earned knowledge. By the time I made it with my articles to faculty vetting, I was positively battle-weary. But as with my experience at the U of C, my time at Mount Royal—however brief—equipped me with a kind of guide: lead, quote, nut graf.
The guide to the start of my story. Another minute advance—more of the mythical forest rendered intelligible.
As Doug Horner was transitioning from the castle to the forest, he spent a summer as an intern among the scriveners at Alberta Views.