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The future of UCalgary: Growth Through Focus update brings Transdisciplinary Academy, Partnership Playbook, modularizing programs

By Nikayla Goddard, October 17 2020—

The University of Calgary Town Hall on Oct. 13 brought forth details on Unstoppable: Growth Through Focus, which intends to bring the Eyes High strategy to a conclusion in 2022 and continue to build on the identified UCalgary values for the future. 

President Ed McCauley led the town hall, which was attended by 1600 people online, and was accompanied by vice-president (advancement) Nuvyn Peters, provost and vice-president (academic) Dr. Dru Marshall, vice-president (research) Dr. William Ghali and general counsel Karen Jackson. 

McCauley began by identifying UCalgary’s imperatives for change, which include reduced funding as a result of the Alberta government grant being reduced by an estimated $100 million and possibly slashed further in the future, the upcoming post-secondary system review that presents a need for UCalgary to adapt to new notions of education and COVID-19 and the resulting recession where UCalgary can play a role in rebuilding the economy. 

McCauley reviewed details on the budget, noting that their funding is being reduced from $475 million in 2018/19 to $375 million in 2022/23, back to pre-2010 numbers, adding, “That is a significant reduction in, in essence, our base funding for our operations.” He continued by saying that should the Alberta government decide to implement performance-based budgeting, an additional $95 million of funding could be at risk, taking the budget down to $280 million.

Unstoppable is built with three main ideas in mind: transdisciplinary scholarship, deeper community integration and future-focused program delivery, along with four areas of focus: life sciences, energy transformations, city building and exploring digital worlds. 

Transdisciplinary scholarship is about bridging connections and encouraging collaborations between different disciplines, or silos, in order to see and approach topics in a new way. UCalgary’s approach specifically to transdisciplinary scholarship includes defining major, wicked, globally-relevant problems, and approaching them through deep collaboration, community engagement and commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. What this looks like applied to the relatively individual discipline-focused university is moving towards a less departmentalized structure while still retaining faculty structure, which will be looked into this semester in order to address and implement governance changes as needed in Winter 2021. There will also be the creation of a new Transdisciplinary Academy for Spring 2021, which is not creating a new faculty, but is an academy that will welcome and encourage focusing research and collaboration around ‘wicked’ problems. UCalgary also wishes to enable and incentive the transdisciplinary approach. 

McCauley cites the benefits of transdisciplinary scholarship as exposing students to new fountains of knowledge from perspectives of other disciplines, more opportunities to tackle large problems, more exposure to experts and space for faculty members to engage with more meaningful work and community to integrate into academia. 

The second main idea from Unstoppable draws on deeper community integration, which focuses on developing UCalgary to be a “major contributor to some of the solutions of the big problems,” McCauley explained. This includes securing fully integrated industry and community partnerships and growing an innovation ecosystem​ through more strongly positioning the Hunter Hub in the innovation space, establishing the Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership and fostering ​and incentivizing commercialization through programming in the University Innovation Quarter. The biggest outcome from this idea is in the creation of the Partnership Playbook, which will give students, faculty, researchers and scholars guidelines to create community partnerships. The general outline is available online.

The third pillar is future-focused program delivery, or what McCauley calls a “bold approach to education credentials.” This is sparked by the expansion of online delivery due to COVID-19 and will include continuing to build and hone online learning in addition to creating more personalization for degrees and programming through the expansion of modularization, microcredentials and stackable certificates.

“Modularization breaks courses into their components, allowing foundational content to be shared among many classes,” the future-focused program delivery description online says. “The benefits are significant: they allow students to move quickly (or even skip) content covered in another class they’ve taken and allow faculty to share a common core – letting them focus on their areas of expertise.”

In action, this will also include reviewing programs to readdress enrolment targets and developing new programs as needed to fill gaps. The long-term plan is to develop program delivery through multiple modalities including face-to-face, blended and online programs​, and will include expanding infrastructure and support for learning technologies, such as through the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning’s $1 million grant that will go towards enhancing online and blended delivery learning for the future.

These three pillars are all connected by four areas of focus or umbrellas: life sciences, energy transformations, city building and exploring digital worlds. These areas are cited as “cross-cutting topics where the university is already seeing explosive growth” and will be given more focus over the next ten years. 

Life sciences focuses on diseases, the health of the planetary ecosystem with global warming, pollution and pandemics, health research and “the creation and maintenance of healthy, resilient, and secure cities and societies.”

Energy transformations, McCauley says, means “actively leading the energy transformations that our societies so vitally need, about reducing carbon emissions, about making sure that the energy is used effectively and efficiently, making sure that we deal with the issues associated with equity and access to energy around the world.” 

City building is about “how we need to help the City of Calgary pivot,” McCauley says, and means building a respectful, diverse, sustainable, accessible, innovative city, both socially and environmentally. 

Finally, exploring digital worlds again expands on the COVID-19-directed move to online and blended delivery, and focuses on how “the University of Calgary’s digital initiative will drive transformations though its transdisciplinary approach to developing advanced technologies in areas selected to pair societal importance with UCalgary leadership.”

These goals and areas of focus are all aligned with the Eyes High Strategy, which focuses primarily on boosting UCalgary’s position to be in the top five research universities in Canada and innovate and promote research, scholarship and innovation in connection with the community. Unstoppable falls in line with these objectives, while also making a push to become a top entrepreneurial university too.

McCauley describes Eyes High as being their “compass, road maps and additional strategies” for Unstoppable

“The terrain is changing dramatically. And a compass and a roadmap is insufficient. We have to embrace that change and the significant headwinds that we face with the Growth Through Focus plan […] In essence, we want to make sure that we achieve our status as a great research university on the world stage, to continue that incredible momentum, and to be able to deflect those headwinds and actually grow through focusing on what we can do best.”

What does success look like in ten years if the plan is successful? The University of Calgary will be a top five university and be the entrepreneurial university, have a distinctive brand, have over 37,000 students (+4,000 from now) and over 10,000 graduate students (+3,700 from now) and have an increased revenue of up to $2 billion (+$600 million from now) that will be used to “support the best possible student experience, the best knowledge creation and the best applications of entrepreneurial thinking,” McCauley says.

For more information and details on Unstoppable: Growth Through Focus, visit the president’s section of the UCalgary website.

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