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Nuance and duty: Scrutinizing the Eyes High strategy

By Stephen Lee, February 13 2020—

Here’s a bizarre question — does anyone know what the Eyes High strategy is about? It’s nearly impossible to have never heard or read the words “Eyes High” conspicuously written on university marketing material, construction fences and the like. I’m curious to know how many people have actually ever read it. There is a thirteen-page PDF file available online that elaborates on the strategy. In essence, the University of Calgary has a singular goal — to become one of Canada’s top five public research universities by 2022. Everything the strategy details aims to achieve this lofty goal. Upon reading the document, I thought of two paramount questions for the engaged reader:

  1. What is the university’s priority?
  2. What should be the university’s priority?

I believe the first question is straightforward — the priority is to enter the upper echelon of public research institutions in Canada by improving research output. The university extensively details their plans in their Comprehensive Institution Plan (CIP), an extremely long document that contains mandates for the university as well as budgeting information. Analyzing the university’s tactics for achieving their goal would take a very long time. Instead, I find the motives of the Eyes High strategy much more digestible in short form. Thus, I will attempt to answer my second question — what should be the university’s priority?

My pursuit of an answer became tortuous. The writing of the Eyes High document makes the university sound more like a corporate enterprise than a place of higher education, not only by the goals set forth, but by the use of vague concepts such as “thought leadership” and “leadership and innovation.” In this analogy, one may think of the research conducted at the university as a quasi-product, while the students, faculty and staff are the quasi-employees contributing to the mass production and dissemination of information. If the university were a corporation, then yes, improving research output is the “right” priority. But the university is not a corporation, it’s an educational institute. This situation would be okay if the university provided a salary, benefits, etc. to everyone. However, students — mainly undergraduates for this discussion since graduate programs have stipends — are hemorrhaging money to learn, not necessarily to produce. The university has two duties — research output and education. The university must be committed to both producing quality research and providing a quality education. 

According to the Eyes High strategy, one of the foundational commitments of the university is to the student by “enriching the quality and breadth of learning.” And the CIP clearly details how the largest portion of the budget is allotted to teaching. Written documents detail the university’s commitment to its student body. However, I can’t help but wonder if anyone feels any tangible benefit from these programs. Words are cheap, people frequently make flimsy promises. The university can make commitments to anything without acting. The university can claim that the student experience is a foundational commitment while ignoring the growing uproar of anguished, angry rebukes levelled at the Board of Governors. The university can announce their methods for “enriching the quality and breadth of learning,” though this must translate into a tangible improvement. Given the recent response to the tuition hike, I can only surmise that students cannot see a tangible improvement to their quality of life. The university is ostensibly committed to improving the student experience, though in reality, the growing resentment among students indicates that the university is flaking on their commitment.

Most of the discontent pertains to the tuition hike, but I think there is a growing, holistic sense of frustration. Several examples come to mind. The most glaring issue would be the multi-million dollar staircase renovation in admin. As mentioned in the last Students’ Union election, mental health services at the university are lacking. Infrastructure is failing, as seen last winter when several buildings experienced plumbing issues, perhaps the most notorious being the pipe explosion in Science B. The campus internet is horrible, so much so that it frequently debilitates productivity. There is also a sense of discontentment with the lack of a university culture here. The University of Calgary is a commuter school, and even though this is perceived as a difficulty to establishing a strong culture, I don’t think that it is impossible. Some students point to the University of British Columbia as an example. The University of Calgary doesn’t have the pride or clout of other large universities in Canada. Granted the university is trying to improve its reputation, but I believe that this will be a long process. Furthermore, if the university wants to improve its student experience, there should be not only a long-term plan to improve the university reputation aimed at providing sufficient clout to instil pride in students — you see how long and confusing this is — but also something more proximal. Overall, there are issues on this campus that I don’t think the university’s Eyes High strategy is addressing.

The student body has its grievances, and here is where I think the issue of priorities arises. The university has two duties — produce quality research and provide students with a strong learning experience. The reason I find the Eyes High strategy so perplexing is that it emphasizes the former duty over the latter. This is the unifying goal of the university, the singular banner beneath which every student, faculty, staff member, strategy and plan falls. The Eyes High strategy shows that the university values its research output over its students, a dubious and pernicious belief confirmed by the recent Board of Governors tuition hike. While the long-term goal to make the school more appealing to prospective students may work, it does not account for the current students suffering in the process. Frankly, it’s ironic that the university would sacrifice student welfare to improve the school’s reputation. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the university’s support fall out from underneath our feet. It is time for the university to reflect on the fact that their actions do not reflect their values. Because right now, the storm of student outrage and protest is only just making landfall.


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