April 23, 2010
They were adopted back in 2002, and since then, the University of Saskatchewan’s strategic directions have served the institution well. For Peter MacKinnon, they are still an inspiration and guide.
In his annual state of the university address, delivered to a crowd of about 100 in Convocation Hall April 9, the president looked both backward and forward, gauging the university’s progress both among Canadian medical doctoral institutions and against the goals set out by the strategic directions – to meet or exceed national and international standards, to establish a sense of place, and to develop pre-eminence in specific areas of academic programming and scholarship.
Early in his presidency, MacKinnon said he was told by the provost of another university that the U of S was “falling off the radar screen. These were his words, not mine, and he was not alone in sounding the warning.” By clearing defining its strategic directions in 2002, the university was able to answer “the question that any occupant of my office has to be able to answer – what do you expect the University of Saskatchewan to be 15, 25 and 50 years from now?”
Speaking about the statement the university must maintain national and international standards, “the response might be, well hello, what would you expect? The significance of this strategic direction was not in its originality. It lay rather in the fact that we had to say it to ourselves.” There existed, and still exists, the belief that the U of S is unique and marches to its own drummer, said MacKinnon, “so we had to say to ourselves, and be guided by the idea that, in fact we did have to adhere and conform to the standards of medical doctoral universities across the country and beyond.”
In terms of a sense of place, MacKinnon said his annual tour of the province has revealed the “profound and powerful” connections the university has made across Saskatchewan.
Turning to the third strategic direction, pre-eminence in academic programming and scholarship, MacKinnon recalled fighting hard for the word pre-eminence over excellence because “pre-eminence is measurable. Not all universities can do everything, or everything uniformly well” but those things the U of S does well should be acknowledged and celebrated. He said more will develop in this regard as Karen Chad, vice-president research, continues with a project to define signature areas of research (see related story on this page).
The strategic directions identified four high-level goals – attract and retain outstanding faculty, increase the commitment to research, scholarly and artistic work, become a presence in graduate education, and build a diverse and academically-promising body of students. “”
He said the U of S had done a good job recruiting faculty but to retain them will require a concerted effort within departments and colleges across campus. Total annual research funding has increased three or four fold over the past 12 years, said MacKinnon, a strong indicator of a commitment to research, scholarly and artistic work. And climbing numbers of grad students – to 13.8 per cent of the student population currently – indicate the university is responding.
As for the make-up of the overall student body, MacKinnon said growth in international students, aboriginal students and out-of-province students indicate progress.
But despite the advances toward the strategic goals, “the University of Saskatchewan remains vulnerable.” The post-secondary environment is changing, he said, pointing to “shake ups” in funding allocation based on competition between universities, a weak innovation performance within the sector, and growing expectations from off campus. “They watch us closely, and they expect us to be highly successful.” Where the U of S is vulnerable is “in fully meeting our strategic directions goals.”
MacKinnon said the university continues to under perform in securing tri-council research funding, and whether because of lack of commitment or enthusiasm, “this has to end. We must continue to improve our tri-council performance, particularly SSHRC and CIHR where the performance remains, in a word, weak.”
To continue to improve graduate education, MacKinnon called for strategic enrolment management and more attention to student needs as well as innovative programming.
Looking ahead, the president set the bar high, suggesting grad student enrolment should be 20 per cent of total enrolment by 2015, and that aboriginal students should be 15 per cent of the student body by 2020. The U of S should also surpass the average in tri-council funding competitions. “In short, there is continuing vulnerability, continuing change. The strategic directions are current and will continue to inform our foreseeable future.”
In conclusion, MacKinnon said the U of S has strong partnerships with government, industry and others along with planning and budgeting processes “envied and imitated elsewhere.” Continuing to be guided by its strategic directions, “I’ve come to understand … that the opportunities at our university match or exceed those at any other Canadian university.”