Ilene Busch-Vishniac Installation Speech

Good morning. It is my great pleasure to address Convocation for the first time as President of the University of Saskatchewan. I am honoured to assume this position at a key time in the university’s history -­‐ a time when we have assumed a new role among the top universities of Canada, but our actions must still confirm our commitment to this choice; a time of great opportunity in the province, but with the challenge of global financial gloom. It is a time when the choices we make will have a long term impact on the University of Saskatchewan of the future.

Today I’d like to talk about the future of the university -­‐ more specifically the context for our future, the landscape ahead, as defined by our history, the provincial status, and global challenges.


To understand the future it helps to look back – to look at our origins. On April 3, 1907, the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan passed the University Act. Its preamble contains the following words:
… It is desirable to establish in and for the whole province of Saskatchewan one university for the purpose of providing facilities of higher education in all its branches and of enabling all persons without regard to race, creed or religion to take the fullest advantage of the same:
Although not mentioned in the preamble, the University Act also specifically mentioned the rights of women to the same educational opportunities as men. This Act was the culmination of a fiercely competitive process in which it is clear the province understood the impact a university can have on its community.
The U of S was intended from the very beginning to be Saskatchewan’s university in perpetuity. In the book In Western Canada Before the War by Elizabeth Mitchell, published in 1915, a passage describes the early days of the university:
The University of Saskatchewan is the most startling thing I saw in the West. For, if there is one preeminent character in those Western cities, it is the note of change, of rapid and amazing and unpredictable change. … and then one emerges on the bare prairie and sees the University. It is built of granite, solid granite boulders from the Saskatchewan. … It is so obviously built to last for five or six hundred years that one’s brain reels at the sudden shock of passing from a view of life limited by one generation. … The University at Saskatoon cries aloud to the West that the acts of today will affect distant generations.”
That last sentence speaks to the long history of planning that has been a defining characteristic of this university. We are deliberate, prudent, and forward thinking rather than haphazard and rooted in the present moment.

The University Act was interpreted by Walter Murray, our long-­‐serving first President, to provide a moral imperative that the focus of the university be public service, in other words to serve the people of the province. In a manuscript in our archives from November 1911 Dr. Murray says the following:
The supreme test of our University must be its contribution to better living in Saskatchewan, its contribution to the improvement of the means of living, as well as to the enrichment of life itself, to the exercise and development of all those spiritual, intellectual, moral and social capacities which are the crowning glory of man. It must aid in making life on the prairies not merely more comfortable, but a source of joy and delight to those who have sought homes here.
The university has remained true to the vision of Dr. Murray and to the University Act. It has retained a strong reflexive instinct to use public service to the province as its touchstone.
We must be mindful, as we craft our future, of these strong traditions of planning, of serving all the people of Saskatchewan, and of standing as part of the rock solid foundation of the province, indeed as a symbol of provincial strength.


Of course, it is also impossible to separate the future of the University of Saskatchewan from the future of the province. Saskatchewan is the second fastest growing economy in Canada and has the fastest growing provincial population.
Although our economy is now significantly diversified from its roots in agriculture, agriculture has always held a special place at this university. Andrew Ross Sorkin, a columnist for The New York Times, said in an October 11, 2010 column – “if you care at all about the future of the world’s food supply, you care – whether you know it or not – about Saskatchewan.”

The challenges of our economic boom are the demand for skilled labour and the need to grow our infrastructure commensurate with our population growth.
Because the colleges and universities of Saskatchewan collectively cannot produce graduates quickly enough, government and we have actively engaged in recruiting international workers and students to the province. We have also focused on increasing the number of First Nations and Métis people who pursue post secondary education.

First Nations and Métis peoples are the fastest growing population in Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, they are also underrepresented in our colleges and universities, and their degree completion rates are well below those of non-­‐ Aboriginal students. Michael Adam’s extensive Urban Aboriginal Peoples study found that the desires of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are no different from those of other Canadians: health, prosperity, and happiness in life. The Adams study also found education to be the top desire among Aboriginal peoples. Thus, the difference in degree completion cannot be seen as merely a reflection of cultural
norms. We cannot rest on the observation that our First Nations and Métis degree completion rates have dramatically improved over the years. Instead we must seek to understand the unique barriers that these students face and work to lower or remove these barriers. We must articulate and understand the challenges of leaving a largely First Nations or Métis community for a campus on which traditional practices and beliefs are mostly hidden rather than in plain sight. We must, for First Nations and Métis students as well as others, appreciate the difficulties of being the first generation in a family to attend university and we must provide support for students and their families. And we must do this while recognizing and valuing cultural differences, and being guided by the principle of self-­‐determination.

The immediate and short term needs of Saskatchewan put us under considerable short term pressure. However, universities operate on relatively long time scales. Producing a graduate, as everyone here can testify, requires years.
Creating new programs or changing those already in existence takes years as well, since ethically and legally we cannot strand students partly through a degree program.  And while we must and will respond to provincial needs, we have a moral imperative to ensure that our graduates have the skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Global Challenges

Historical and provincial contexts are no longer sufficient background from which to consider our future. We must face the future in a very different world from the one Dr. Murray found – a world in which there are instantaneous global communication, greater personal mobility and economies that are more dependent on events outside regional boundaries. Importantly for universities, the modern world also presents many more educational options to students.

The growth of educational options for students is a sign of the success of universities. Once the domain of an elite few, a university education has become an
essential first step for many job sectors.  So, it should come as no surprise that with an exponential increase in the demand for post-­‐secondary education should come increasing options and competition. It is simply an example of the law of supply and demand.

The U of S today is different from the university in the early years. Clearly, we have grown, our academic programs have expanded and changed to keep pace with maturing and emerging fields of study, our student body is more representative of the population of the province, our teaching methods have shifted significantly, and we rely on technology in ways that could not have been predicted in the early 1900s. But fundamentally, we have retained our defining characteristics. We remain an institution that deliberately plans for the future and links its resources to its plans. We remain a beautiful campus, open to the public.
We continue to partner well with government and to retain our commitment to the people of Saskatchewan in all of our endeavors. We have become a critical part of the social fabric, hosting cultural activities, sporting events, clinics and public meetings.

The most important changes in the university since our founding relate to globalization and research intensity. We remain committed to serving the province, but the meaning of this commitment has been forever changed by global connections. In serving Saskatchewan, we can no longer limit our gaze to the lands between Alberta and Manitoba, south of Northwest Territories and north of Montana and North Dakota. Instead, we serve better by enhancing our national and international visibility so that the unique opportunities of Saskatchewan are appreciated more widely. Universities operate with a requirement to share best practices and new discoveries so that others might benefit from them. It is only through this open communication that new pedagogies gain a foothold and research progresses. This imperative to share is a key characteristic of universities and separates us from our corporate sisters and brothers. To balance our commitment
to the province with the reality of a worldwide community of scholars, we must achieve what is encapsulated in the adage, “Think globally, but act locally.”

The second critically important change in the University of Saskatchewan since its early days is our increasing focus on discovery – i.e. research. Research has always been part of the U of S. Indeed, J. W. T. Spinks, the President of U of S from 1959 to 1974 said the following words in his inaugural address:
An increasingly important part of our effort will be expended on graduate students and research, commensurate with our advance in stature as a senior institute of learning. And the growing complexity of the economic life of the Province, and indeed of Canada as a whole, together with the widening range of needs and interest of its peoples will give to the University a new kind of responsibility to the community. This responsibility will … be met … by the activity of intellects pushing into the unknown, an activity marked by freshness, excitement, beauty, and growing power.
What has changed from the time of Presidents Murray and Spinks is that we now understand that research and its accomplishments drive political change and economic growth and define best practices in teaching and learning such as problem-­‐based learning. The distinction between education and research is disappearing – they were always different sides of the same coin. The evidence of our research emphasis is most visible in our large scientific projects, but discovery must permeate every discipline, from history to dentistry, from engineering to law because the thorny problems of the world today demand teams of scholars from many disciplines working together to find innovative solutions. Discovery must be a part of all courses, from entry-­‐level classes to those for advanced graduate students.

Some scholars of post-­‐secondary education question the relevance of a campus for the future, suggesting that in this age of lectures available through You-­‐ Tube and iTunes, the concept of a university as a physical place is destined for the dustbin. Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, suggests that technology will
encourage educational competition and traditional universities will lose large parts of their market to online education providers. In his analysis, online providers justify the cost of creating polished web-­‐based lectures by the revenue opportunities of a worldwide community of simultaneous learners as opposed to the traditional market limits imposed by the number of seats in a classroom.

We must ask whether Clayton Christensen and others predicting the demise of universities are right. I believe Clayton Christensen’s argument misses two critical points: universities are far more than large lecture classes that might yield well to online development, and the student experience is far more than the academic interaction. University research and creative work require specialized equipment, or texts, or artifacts and all of these require a physical edifice.
Additionally, the best research universities incorporate research results and locally appropriate examples into classes at all levels. Thus, the case study of automobiles in Michigan might be replaced by agricultural machinery in Saskatchewan. How does one make this sort of change in “canned” lectures and how often can a lecture be redone to bring in the latest research results?

For me, the telling problem with online courses replacing a campus, is the strong evidence that learning is significantly dependent on factors that are not related or related only indirectly to course pedagogy or content, including hours spent outside of class studying, involvement in extracurricular activities, and peer relationships. If nonacademic factors have a strong influence on learning outcomes, then polished online lectures are limited in what they can achieve, and a greater focus on the student experience, viewed holistically, might be much more effective in producing improvements in learning outcomes. It is clear that a campus facilitates the establishment of a community of students that is so important to learning.

This intermingling of academic and nonacademic factors in student learning is a symptom of a well-­‐kept secret about universities – namely, that although our
missions are education and discovery, we have much more profound impacts. We change lives. We are the place and the community where people determine their lifelong career path, students establish a social network that often is maintained for life, and where it is safe to experiment with broadening experiences. We are also the place where one is most likely to meet one’s life partner. We are the best route out of a cycle of family poverty. We change lives. It is as James S. Thomson, President of U of S from 1937 to 1949 said in his memoirs, and I quote,
You can enter the University but you can never really leave. … attendance at the University for a few years, with all its decisive importance, [is] more than an interlude in the onward movement of life.

To be sure, we must accelerate the pace of change at universities, recognize our new competitive environment and respond in ways that emphasize the advantages of a campus. We cannot be arrogant and content to rest on our history. We must instead be proactive in defining and creating our place in the future.

My Commitment

I stand before you today and pledge my commitment to the University of Saskatchewan. I will work tirelessly and with a clear purpose – to serve this fine province through education and discovery. However, I am but one person. I need your engagement in your university as we create our future.

Graduates, I hope the friends you have made will remain close to you for the rest of your lives, that the experiences you have had will become fond memories and sources of strength, and that the material you have learned will guide you on a marvelous career. I wish you great joy today as you celebrate with your families.

In return I ask for your commitment. We need your advice and counsel as we define and create our future, particularly helping us to understand those things we do well and should preserve, and those things we do not so well and should change.
Do not make this day your last day of considering your university. Make it instead the start of a new relationship and use your knowledge to help the generations of students who will succeed you.

Thank Yous

Finally, I cannot end my remarks without a series of thank yous. I am  grateful to the Board of Governors and the search committee members for providing me this opportunity to serve as the President and Vice-­‐Chancellor of this great university. I am inspired by the accomplishments of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends who achieve greatness, at times under extremely difficult circumstances. I appreciate the senior leadership team of the University of Saskatchewan, who have made my transition smooth and guided me around the potholes in my path. I thank the provincial government for reaching out to me in a spirit of collaboration as we pursue common goals for the people of Saskatchewan.

I am supported today by my network of friends, collaborators and family, many of whom are here today.  Thank you Ethan, Mom, Robert, Sue, Dan, Pat, Tom, Saralynn, and Sue for your love and patience. In a world in which I could easily become full of myself, thank you for keeping me grounded.

Congratulations to the graduates and their families and supporters! Thank you.