Monday, 1 July 2013

One Year On

One year ago I became the Dean of Science at the University of Alberta. I was nervous about this position as, like any new job, there is always doubt as to whether one can succeed. At the back of my mind was the worry that this would be my "Peter Principle job" – rising to my highest level of incompetence. The jury is still out about the Peter Principle, but I do feel comfortable in my new role.

The year has had several highlights, some of which I would like to share with you:
  • The Faculty of Science has an impressive team of professors, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students. I did not fully appreciate this at first, but over time my admiration grew. "Impressive" sounds like a generous adjective, but it is an apt description. For example, the past year has seen numerous members of Science receive prestigious awards, lifetime achievement awards, research prizes, scholarships, teaching awards, and service awards. If it were just a handful of awards, then "impressive" would be an exaggeration. It’s a bushel full, and that’s impressive! There is a commitment to excellence, and it shows throughout the Faculty of Science.
  • It has been amazingly fun and an incredible learning experience to find out about all the cool things going on in Science. Many researchers (from professors to students) are working on projects that excite the imagination. Whether it be looking at bones from 65 million years ago, understanding what happens when the temperature drops to within a degree of absolute zero, predicting the effects of climate warming on the polar ice cap, working with oil companies to reduce environmental impact, preparing to send an experiment into space, or getting a better understanding of the causes of some diseases, every scientist has a story to tell. I have heard many stories and all the storytellers have infectious passion for their work.
  • We have made great faculty hires in Science. The quality of people we are attracting to Edmonton is a reflection of the quality of the Faculty of Science.
  • An unexpected surprise for me has been meeting with donors and alumni. Actually, I feared this part of the job, as I am not the most social of people. Instead, I found most of these interactions to be fun and engaging. Every donor/alumnus has a story to tell. It is amazing to hear what people have accomplished with their University of Alberta degree.
  • Convocation this year was a highlight for me (see last month's posting). It was a delight to personally congratulate this year’s class on their milestone achievement.
  • The Faculty of Science has started moving down the road of offering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Our first MOOC will launch in September – affectionately called "Dino 101" (actually PALEO 200: Dinosaur Paleobiology). It has been a huge amount of work by a lot of passionate people to prepare this high-quality course for the world. You should consider taking the course – for free or for credit.

Okay. so not everything has been rosy. Along with the fun part of the job, one also has to take the pain. And there has been some pain...
  • Budget. What else can I say? On March 7, 2013 the Alberta Government shocked everyone by deciding to cut the post-secondary sector in Alberta by 7.2% (actually 9.2%). This has been a massive blow to all the affected institutions. The University of Alberta is still wrestling with how to handle this enormous loss of funding. The Faculty of Science’s budget has been reduced by over 4% this year, with more cuts coming in the next two years. I became Dean with the intent of growing the Faculty of Science both in size and in reputation. Instead I find myself doing damage control, making hard decisions how to shrink the Faculty in the least harmful way. 
  • The job involves an enormous amount of work. It seems impossible to escape it, seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is no notion of a 40-hour workweek. At one point I kept track of how many hours I worked each day but abandoned it after two weeks; the results were too depressing.
  • I have been frustrated with the level of bureaucracy at the University of Alberta. Everything seems takes longer to get done than it should. Even "obvious" things can get mired in paperwork. Sometimes I fantasize about throwing out all the rules/regulations and just getting on with the job and doing the right thing (and ask for forgiveness later).
  •  I eat out too often and it is bad for my waistline. Donor meetings. Awards ceremonies. Visitors.  Celebratory events. Too many.
What’s in store for the next year? Clearly the budget will be the dominant issue in most people’s minds. For me, I look forward to September and the launch of Dino 101. I hope it/s everything we dreamed of – a superb online experience that will excite learners of all ages. What’s cooler than a free course on dinosaurs?

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