From My Perspective – University of Alberta Hires First Female President!

In a remarkable and progressive move, a first for Alberta, the University of Alberta has hired Indira Samarasekera, a 52-year old engineer, to replace outgoing president Rod Fraser. Samarasekera is currently head of research at the University of British Columbia, and in addition to being a metallurgical expert, has a reported passion for the humanities. At her appointment, she announced that after being underfunded for far too long, the “social sciences, the humanities and the arts will enjoy a renaissance in the 21st century.

What does this mean for the U of A, Alberta students, Athabasca University and academia in general?

Athabasca University is currently well along in its search for a new president as well, and although the deliberations of the presidential search committee are highly confidential, it is no secret that AU is committed to workplace equity and encourages applications from individuals from traditionally under-represented groups in academia–including women, visible minorities, and the disabled (see Athabasca University’s Presidential Search notice: http://www.athabascau.ca/presoff/augc_new/presidential_search.htm). AU already has a significant number of well-qualified and extremely successful female executives–two of our Vice-Presidents and three of our graduate program heads are women. While workplace equity is important, of course, what is most important is that the president has the ability to meet the needs of the university he or she will lead. One of the challenges facing the presidential hiring process at AU is finding an individual who has the necessary qualifications to be president, and the search process is comprehensive and careful (see Athabasca University President Position Profile: http://www.athabascau.ca/presoff/augc_new/PresidentProfile.pdf).

The fact that U of A is the first in Alberta to hire a female president is not surprising. There is a dearth of female executives in all fields, but universities are even more likely to have a lop-sided proportion of male academics filling senior positions (see D. Jabbour, Voice, July 21, 2004; v12 i28: http://www.ausu.org/voice/archives/articledisplay.php?ART=3018). Samarasekera represents two of the traditionally under-represented groups, but more importantly, brings an impressive set of qualifications to the job–she is a working engineer and distinguished researcher who received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and her PhD in metallurgical engineering from the University of British Columbia (Express News, November 5, 2004).

The University of Alberta has always taken the lead in this province, and the other three universities often feel the effects of U of A’s decision-making. I’ve heard it said that AU could not have survived the turmoil of the 70s to continue as a full university offering distance education alternatives without the support of the U of A. That relationship has continued to be important, and all four universities in Alberta often work together on projects and issues. To have a woman heading up Alberta’s leading university has some interesting implications for that working relationship.

Women managers often have a different style, different priorities, and unique challenges. Author Fannie Hurst commented that “a woman has to be twice as good as a man to go half as far” (Quotedb, 2004). Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitten expanded on this, stating “whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult” (Women’s Voices, 2004). Based on Samarasekera’s credentials and accolades, she appears well-travelled on life’s successful journey, and is an excellent fit for the U of A (Express News, November 5, 2004). While some might argue that gender should be irrelevant, in reality this appointment represents a crack in the “glass ceiling”, with another qualified female “assuming her rightful place” in the senior executive echelons of the university workplace hierarchy. With women earning 6 out of every 10 university degrees, it seems quite appropriate that a comparable balance should exist among university executive (see D. Jabbour, Voice, March 17, July 21, 2004; Glass Ceiling resources).

Samarasekera has already indicated that her passion for the humanities will lead the university in a certain direction–one where social sciences, history, and literature will take a prominent role. In her role as head of research at UBC, she took quick action when UBC’s ethics review board was found to be deficient. (See next week’s Taking Notes for more information). Her decisive action in this controversy was apparently effective–not only did it bode well for her candidacy as U of A president, it has recently been announced that UBC is among 442 nation-wide initiatives that will receive significant federal research funding, with UBC the recipient of $18.5 million in funds for 4 health research projects. Samarasekera has stated that her priorities will be to address funding issues with the goals of increasing public funding to universities, enhancing the undergraduate learning experience through research, and building on the university’s research excellence. She also hopes to foster a creative climate that will foster “creative research” (Express News, November 5, 2004).

Regardless of whether a president is male or female, they face similar challenges and pressures. A university president has a wide range of responsibility and must represent the university externally. Fundraising is increasingly becoming a major presidential task in most Canadian and American universities, as is building relationships with alumni and other universities. This means a president must be a strong communicator, and must have a great deal of experience and knowledge of their university and the university community. There are different presidential models, with some presidents more inclined toward internal management while others direct their energies externally. The ability to work cooperatively with faculty is also essential, particularly with the tenure system–since a professor who has tenure can never, in effect, be fired. A president with a strong research and publishing record is usually desired. Not only does this earn respect among faculty, it helps the president effectively manage the university’s research portfolio. A president does not work in isolation, of course, and dynamics among workplace colleagues are a key factor in achieving success.

At AU we have some particular challenges that will greet the new president. Our current president knows the university extremely well, having been with AU for 25 years and working as a tutor initially. Dr. Abrioux has done an admirable job of strengthening the internal workings of this university, and has been tireless in building external relationships. AU, however, is facing many more challenges than it was ten years ago. Whereas we have had a fairly low research profile up until now, with increasing numbers of graduate programs this will have to change. AU also used to be the “only kid in town” when it came to offering distance and online education, but now competition is fierce for the open, distance university market. The increasing commercialization of education and consumer awareness has heightened demands for quality, and the difficult funding environment requires a delicate balance between tuition and education “product” delivery. These challenges require a special kind of individual, and it is important that the presidential search team ensure that the new president has the requisite set of skills to be a good fit for the university, regardless of gender.

Samarasekera will take over the presidency of the University of Alberta on July 1, 2005. Athabasca University’s yet-to-be-hired president will take on the position at approximately the same time. The appointment of such a well-qualified, dynamic woman as head of the U of A bodes well for the state of progressive education in this province. Change is in the air, and some interesting times lie ahead for Alberta students!

Johnsrude, L. (2004). New U of A president: Humanities, arts will see ‘renaissance’ Edmonton Journal, November 6, 2004.
The UBYSSEY, November 10, 2004. http://www.ubyssey.bc.ca/20041110/article.shtml?news/newsssss.html
Express news, November 5, 2004. University names its 12th president. http://www.expressnews.ualberta.ca/expressnews/articles/news.cfm?p_ID=6179&s=a
Athabasca University President & VPA Search Notice: http://www.athabascau.ca/presoff/augc_new/P&VPAad.pdf
Athabasca University President position profile: http://www.athabascau.ca/presoff/augc_new/PresidentProfile.pdf
Women’s Voices: Quotations by women. Jone Johnson Lewis, Ed.. http://womenshistory.about.com/library/qu/blqulist.htm
Fannie Hurst, Quotations, http://www.quotedb.com/quotes/2725
Jabbour, D. Taking Notes: Gender Disparity and Professors, Voice, July 21, 2004.
From My Perspective: Women in the Workplace, Voice, March 17, 2004.
Glass Ceiling resources:
Redwood, Rene (2004. The Glass Ceiling. In Motion Magazine. http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/glass.html
Morrison, A., White, R., Velsor, E. (1992). Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can women reach the top of Americas largest corporations? Perseus Publishing.
The Glass Ceiling Homepage: http://www.theglassceiling.com
Lopez, Naomi. Free Markets, free choices II: Smashing the wage gap and glass ceiling myths. Pacific Research Organization. http://www.pacificresearch.org/pub/sab/health/ceiling/0499ceiling.html

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