Co-operation, benchmarks benefits of U15 membership, says president

The significance of the University of Saskatchewan’s admission last year into the U15—a group of leading research universities in Canada—has not been fully recognized, according to the president, who told members of University Council Oct. 18 that “what we need to do is make good on the opportunity that it presents to us. 

"It is hugely important to this university that everybody understands … something extra-ordinary happened when we were suddenly added to the list of those research intensive universities in Canada," said Ilene Busch-Vishniac. The U15 serves as a gathering point for presidents, provosts, vice-presidents of research and other senior leaders to work together on issues of common interest, she explained, before giving two examples. The first is the need to change federal policies around building national science laboratories without provision for funding ongoing operations or renewal.

This is of particular importance to the U of S, she said, because it has two national science projects—the Canadian Light Source and VIDO/InterVac. "Both organizations spend too much of their time trying to raise operating funds. That's not the way we should run science labs."

Through the U15, the institutions can speak with one voice, she said, adding that the issue of funding for science laboratories "is one that ought to be near and dear to every provincial premier as well." She suggests that 15 university presidents and the provincial premiers advocating for a change to federal funding policy "would be a pretty compelling group of people to stare down and say, ‘no, we don't think so.'"

The other U15 agenda item Busch-Vishniac mentioned were
federal policies governing international graduate students, particularly those related to work, and many of which "make it harder for them to stay here." The U of S is on board for changes that will ensure international students receive the same supports domestic grad students enjoy.

Originally formed by 10 universities in 1991, the group has grown to include, from western Canada, the Universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Calgary and Manitoba, which like the U of S, joined in 2011. Ontario universities hold six positions; there are three from Quebec and one—Dalhousie—from the Maritimes.

Beyond political advocacy, Busch-Vishniac pointed to the significant economic impact of the U15 members, including spin-off companies from university research. "From a provincial viewpoint, every dollar invested in the University of Saskatchewan comes back to them in a greater way than dollars invested in other academic institutions in the province."

Membership in the U15 also matters for students, she said. "We know from the literature that research methods work well to encourage student learning," and membership makes the U of S attractive to a diverse community of high achievers. "We also know that being on a prestigious list such as the U15 opens doors for our graduates. It helps them get jobs, it helps them go to graduate school if they chose. In other words, it enhances the value of their degrees."

As an institution, being part of the U15 provides the U of S with benchmarks for activities and achievements against its direct peers, she said, because "except on the football field, the
U of R is not our competition. Our competition is the 14 universities that also happen to be listed in the U15.

"The fact that we are on the U15 means that we have a peer group with whom we share," Busch-Vishniac continued, "and in the best academic tradition, we never think twice about borrowing what works elsewhere, putting a U of S spin on it and adopting it here. It gives us a way to learn from our peers what works for them and might work for us."

Asked by a Council member about the fine line between co-operation and competition, Busch-Vishniac said so far, relationships between the institutions have been very civil and friendly "but you're absolutely right—there's no dime that we cherish more than the one we stole from one of our peers."

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