Saturday, 20 October 2012

Betting on the Future

Last week I released a memo to members of the Faculty of Science. It announced that the Faculty was taking a loan from the University of Alberta to allow us to grow the professoriate. Some of the justification was given in the memo:

“Now is the time to be hiring. Across North America, the number of open academic positions available is incredibly small, a reflection of the difficult financial times. It is a buyer’s market – departments who are fortunate enough to be hiring can pick and choose amongst the very best Ph.D. graduates from the very best schools. In a few years, this situation will reverse itself into a seller’s market. When financial stability returns, there will be massive hiring across the entire academic spectrum, the consequence of many years of a forced hiring diet. That is exactly when we should not be competing in the market.”

Because of budget reductions over the past four years (13%), the Faculty of Science and the Department Chairs have largely concentrated on damage control. This has to end. The first step was announced in the above-mentioned memo: stop the decline by having the Dean’s Office absorb the entire 2013/2014 budget cut. The second step is to reverse the direction and start growing. How do you do this when your budget is being reduced? Get a loan.

The case for a loan was made to the President and Provost based on the argument that the University of Alberta would be wise to take advantage of the current job market situation. There was no possibility of getting a loan to offset the upcoming budget reduction.

With a loan, the Faculty of Science can resume being proactive on a number of fronts:
·    We can grow. In 1999/2000 the professoriate numbered 288, in 2003/2004 we peaked at 300, and today we are down to 292. During the same time, Science Faculties at many of our peers have grown significantly.
·    The University’s total NSERC funding has fallen from second in the country into a pack of several universities vying for a distant third place. Although the total dollars going to Science has stagnated, our funding per faculty member remains strong. In other words, a large part of our fall has been due to the quantity of faculty members, not the quality.
·    A paucity of hiring over an extended period of time is unhealthy. For example, consider the Department of Computing Science, which is top heavy with only one junior Assistant Professor. What state will it be in after a few more years of little or no hiring?
·    There are opportunities to hire outstanding researchers, potential chairs or award winners. We need to be able to take advantage of such opportunities when they arise.
·    There are research gaps that need to be addressed. For example, adding the right person to a research team might elevate it from “Canada class” to “world class”.
These new positions are not business as usual. These positions are precious and need to be carefully thought out. They must be strategic. There are no preconceptions where they might land. At one extreme, it is possible that they all end up in one Department.

A few people have criticized my decision to ask for a loan on the basis of the potential risk and additional cost (interest) to the Faculty of Science. There are several responses to such an argument, but the one I prefer is personal. I never would have owned my first car had I not received help from a bank loan. Similarly, I would have been living in an apartment instead of a house for an additional 8.5 years had I not asked for a loan. Yes, loans incur risk and cost money. However, if thought through carefully the advantages should outweigh the disadvantages. In my case, the freedom to drive wherever I wanted whenever I wanted meant a significant improvement in my quality of life. A similar case can be argued for the purchase of my house. And, for Science, being able to take advantage of an opportunity (the current job market situation) might pay huge short- and long-term dividends. Is it a guaranteed win? No, but the odds are probably strongly in our favor.

I would argue that the risk is low in that during the timeframe of the loan (five years) there is a very good chance that the economy will improve. Even if that does not happen, there are other sources of funding that might offset some or all of the costs. An obvious example is donations – a large part of my job is working with donors to help strengthen the Faculty of Science. Another example is our annual one-time sources of money. Many of these funds are highly reliable from year to year. If they continue to grow at the current rate, then they can cover most of the loan.

To some people the idea of a loan looks odd – adding new faculty members at the same time as dealing with a budget reduction. We have no control over the latter, but the former represents an opportunity that will help energize the Faculty of Science and position us well for the future.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Visiting Tokyo

A few weeks back I had the privilege of spending a week in Tokyo. My daughter, Rebecca, was going to study for a year Waseda University in Tokyo. She is doing a double major in Creative Writing and Japanese, and the chance to immerse herself in the Japanese language and culture was too much for her to resist. My role was to help her get settled.

I have been to Japan several times in the past but my previous visit was way back in 1999. Since then, based on my dim memories much has changed. The following text gives ten observations of Japan and one personal pet peeve.

I pride myself on being a good navigator. Put me in a new place and I can quickly find my way around. But in Tokyo I made some mistakes and resulted in me walking the wrong way and losing time. I was annoyed with myself until I discovered the source of the errors. The maps in Tokyo are not standardized: north can be pointing in any direction. Once I clued in, then navigation was easy. For example, I was looking for the book district of Tokyo. I knew I had to go east, but the map I consulted at an intersection suggested I should go south. My interpretation of the map was wrong because north was pointing to my right, not to the top as is usual in North America. I started walking in the right direction but then checked my progress with a map a couple of blocks away. It visually suggested that I was going the wrong direction – in this case the map had north pointing to my left.

Many fastfood restauarants handle no money. All financial transactions take place through a machine. You look at a menu, enter your order into a machine, pay the machine, take a seat, and then wait for your food to arrive. Efficient and fast. I have yet to see widespread use of that technology in Canada.

Vending Machines
You cannot go more than a block in Tokyo without encountering a herd of vending machines nesting at the side of the road. All the machines that I saw dispensed drinks or cgarrettes. The former was especially welcome given the heat (over 30 degrees) and humidity (near 100%) during my entire stay.

A typical street in Tokyo.
Food Displays
As is well known, many restaurants display plastic models of their meals in their windows. The 3-D model looks deceptively realistic and much more appealing than a 2-D picture. I stumbled on a store that sold plastic food. It was impressive to see thousands of different food pieces for use in creating culinary art.

Sometimes one had to look twice – is it real or fake?
Tipping is strongly discouraged in Japan. Excellent service is expected and considered the norm. It is usually regarded as an insult to leave a tip, given that the only reason one might want to highlight service is when it is bad.

The Japanese love to smoke, yet their cultural attitude towards smoking seems confusing.  At one extreme, smoking is permitted in restaurants. It seems a throwback to the way it was in Canada a couple of decades ago but some restaurants had smoking and non-smoking sections, with nothing separating the two. Do they really think that the smoke will stay in the smoking section?? At the other extreme, as shown in the picture below, some sidewalks are designated as non-smoking. It was nice to walk on clean streets that were free of the usual cigarette butts.

No smoking sidewalks.
A year and a half ago, a tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan. The Japanese people are struggling with the enormous financial and societal burden of having hundreds of thousands of people’s lives and livelihoods disrupted. Physical recovery (such as infrastructure) will take a decade, but the emotional impact will take much longer. To help pay for rebuilding the affected areas, all civil servants took a 10% salary cut. This measure will be in place for at least two years.

Like so many other places in the world (especially Europe), Tokyo has a fast and efficient subway system that spans the entire city (if only we had something like this in Edmonton). This is critical to the success of the city, as many people have long commutes from the outskirts of the city to their downtown office. Spending over an hour commuting each way every day seems to be the norm.

Tokyo has a reversed sense of space compared to Edmonton. In Alberta, land is cheap so we tend to build out. In Tokyo, land is expensive so they tend to build up. I visited NII, a premier academic computer science research center in Japan. Their faculty and graduate students are housed on the top 12 floors of a high-rise building in the heart of Tokyo, overlooking the Japanese Imperial Palace. It is a spectacular location. Imagine being a graduate student with quality office space and location that made you feel like a Manhattan business executive.

Compared to a decade ago, the North American influence on the under-30 generation is striking. Dyed hair. Tattoos. Stylish clothes. High heels. Sun glasses. It appeared to me that today’s youth have rebelled against their parent’s conservative attitudes.

Air Canada
I had a wonderful time in Tokyo, so I hate to end this posting on a downer. My “love” for Air Canada is well known, but the airline knows no boundaries. Even in Tokyo they haunted me. On a Saturday I was due to fly from Tokyo to Vancouver, departing at 5:00 PM Tokyo time and arriving the same day at 10:00 AM Vancouver time (the odd time difference is due to the International Date Line). I was then going to depart at 1:00 PM for Edmonton.  At noon on the Saturday, Air Canada sends me a text saying that they have changed my Vancouver-Edmonton flight to an 8:00 PM departure. Needless to say I was upset – why would I want to sit around in the Vancouver airport for an additional seven hours? So, I called Air Canada. After 55 minutes on hold (yes, I timed it – I always do because the delays are almost always quite high) I spoke to an operator who told me that my departure from Tokyo had been delayed five hours – leaving at 10:00 PM. Bummer, but why didn’t they tell me this by text?
It was a blessing in disguise since I was able to spend more time with my daughter before taking the train to the Narita airport. But a few hours later Air Canada sends me a text saying my flight to Vancouver has been cancelled and to call one of their operators. So, I am on the phone again, this time waiting for only 50 minutes. I finally get through and am told that I will now depart the next day – Sunday – at 2:00 PM. No explanation was given for the cancellation. But, I am told to go to the airport now so that Air Canada can make accommodation and food arrangements for me. Soon afterwards I get a text with my new itinerary. It now shows me leaving on Sunday (sigh) but going to Edmonton on Saturday (huh?). So, yes, I spend another 50 minutes on hold. Air Canada had not rebooked my Vancouver-Edmonton connection.

I ended up having an extra day in Tokyo, sort of. I spent almost three hours (!) trying to talk to Air Canada to get my travel arrangements sorted out. I completely lost the Saturday evening (Air Canada required me to go to the airport) and Sunday (I had to return to the airport before noon). The next day I finally arrived home, but Air Canada continued to reinforce their reputation. The flight from Tokyo left almost two hours late but fortunately it did not affect my Edmonton connection -- it was over an hour late departing.