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Elizabeth Cannon said private donors should not be able to influence U of C research.
Louie Villanueva/the Gauntlet

Private money and research deals

Gauntlet Q&A with University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon

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Elizabeth Cannon is the eighth, and first female, president of the University of Calgary. Prior to becoming president, Cannon was a renowned geomatics engineer and the dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. Since taking office in 2010, she has organized campus under the "Eyes High" strategic-growth plan to turn the U of C into one of Canada's top-five research universities.

The Gauntlet talked with Cannon about the university plans to pursue this goal, including courting private donors, forming international partnerships and bringing more international students to the U of C.

The Gauntlet: The University of Calgary’s growth plan emphasizes investment in research-based programs. How will you ensure non-research based programs receive the attention they need to thrive?

Elizabeth Cannon: The university has three foundational commitments. One of them is around research. We have a mandate from the province to not only do undergraduate education, but to also do graduate education and research. It’s important that we maintain and grow a research program and do it at a high level in terms of quality and impact.

Second, and equally important, is our commitment to teaching and learning. We have 32,000 students here and it’s very important that our programs are of the highest quality and are serving the needs of our students and the broader community.

This is not about teaching or research; it’s teaching and research. We are committed to excellence in both, and we have major initiatives in both of those areas.

The U of C has received some large private donations over the past two years. In June, businessman Geoffrey Cumming gave $100 million to the U of C's medical school. What role should private money play in a public university?

By someone coming forward and investing a lot of money, they are giving us the opportunity to do things, attract new people, support more students and create new opportunities.

Donations allow us to create value-added opportunities for our students — scholarships, leadership programs for students, facility upgrades, undergraduate and graduate research — things that are above and beyond what we can afford with the government support we have.

Should these donations influence the type of research the U of C does?

We need to be really clear. When somebody donates money, they do not get their fingers into which projects get funded, which faculty members get dollars or what their research program looks like. That’s not in their interest and that’s not their expertise.

In the case of the Cumming gift, [the money] is in a broad area of brain and mental health and chronic disease. Some of the other monies will be used for scholarships and global health.

But the two main areas are brain and mental health and chronic disease. Those are areas that are building on our strengths. You’re investing in success and allowing more research to be conducted and larger opportunities. This isn’t about people getting their fingers into directing research. This is about donors coming forward and having a match of their interests about where they want to invest to our strengths and priorities.

The U of C has partnerships around the world with institutions that are owned and operated by states with troubling human rights records. Is this a concern?

Do we look at what happens in other countries? Yes, we have a concern about that, absolutely. But we want to build partnerships that allow us to provide opportunities for students and researchers, and frankly, we view this as an educational opportunity both ways.

I don't think we can stand here and say we have all the answers for other places. This is about building on capacity, sharing knowledge, learning from other places. Through those academic linkages and individual experiences we will, I think, bring Canadian and Albertan values to other places.

What about the U of C's academic partnerships with universities in Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst women's rights records in the world? Do you think a few researchers are going to have any impact?

Look, this isn't short-term. We don't expect to have a direct impact on a culture or policies within a particular country within the short term. But on the other side of the spectrum, should we say we, the administration, are not going to have linkages with countries or institutions because of my particular values? I don't think that would be fair.

A lot of these linkages are developed through bottom-up processes — a faculty member has a linkage to a home institution where they were educated and they see value for either students or faculty in having that linkage. It's not a top-down process. A lot of it is bottom-up. We have to be diligent, but also pragmatic in how we approach those linkages.

Administration plans to bring more international students to campus. Will this displace prospective Canadian students?

When we talk about international students and growing that cohort, we are talking over and above the monies that the provincial government is funding us for. International students pay a significant differential fee. They're effectively self-funded when they come into the system.

We're not taking money from the provincial government and building more capacity for international services. We want to take it from the monies brought here by new international students.

So no domestic students will be displaced?

That is exactly the case.

Why should students support the West Campus development?

You know that we're a commuter campus. Students come for the day, we hope they get involved with clubs and teams, and then they go home. It's pretty quiet here at night. Maybe not on a Thursday night, but most nights are pretty quiet.

Having a community adjacent to the main campus will provide opportunities for students and others to live by campus.

Obviously, we would not do a West Campus development unless there were direct benefits back to the university. I'm talking about funding and resources. These will be funds that are used to better the academic and research missions of the university. If we didn't derive any financial development from these lands, we shouldn't be developing them. There has to be something of return.

Will the development be affordable to students?

There will probably be 10 to 12 thousand people living on West Campus when it’s fully developed. We want some of those to be students. The exact nature of what the individual buildings will look like hasn’t been developed yet. But the vibrancy of West Campus, to me, will be dictated by having lots of students living there, seniors living there and young kids living there as well. You want it to be reflective of a true community.

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