This year at the University of Calgary started with many changes–thousands of new students, new faculty, new buildings and a new Den. Don’t, however, expect to see new university President Harvey Weingarten boozing it up in Old MacEwan Hall. At the start of our interview, we asked if we could treat the smiley, approachable 45-year-old to a pint, but it seems the newest man about campus isn’t much of a drinker.
"It’s not a religious thing or anything, I just don’t," he said, when we offered to buy him a beer in the new Den. "I like diet cokes, but I understand you can’t do that here."
Weingarten spent his undergrad years as a student at McGill University, earning a degree in psychology, and his graduate years at Yale, achieving a doctorate in the same. It’s hard to tell from his easy-going demeanour and carefully chosen words what he would have been like as a student. Was he an academic, an activist, or did he–as do many other students at U of C–leave campus as soon as his classes finished?
"I wasn’t a particular activist," he explained. "I was an undergraduate at McGill at a time when, very much like now, there was not great political activity. In graduate school I didn’t have time to do anything but the research I was supposed to be doing."
So what exactly does one do with a doctorate from Yale? Anything they want, one would think. Somehow, Dr. Weingarten ended up back in Canada. Instead of working in the private sector, he began a career in university teaching and administration.
"I went to McMaster [University] in Hamilton–and for reasons unclear to me, they offered me a job."
He started at McMaster 21 years ago as an assistant professor, a position he was ecstatic to take. However, he wasn’t sure how long he wanted to keep his family in Hamilton, or how long he wanted to work at McMaster. Having grown up in Montreal, he had a stereotype of Southern Ontario: it wasn’t exactly the most visually appealing place. Hamilton, in particular, has a reputation for being a very industrial town.
"Pollution aside, it’s really a terrific place to live to raise a family," explained Dr. Weingarten. "It was really unexpected. [Hamilton] completely violates your expectations."
In his two decades spent at McMaster, Dr. Weingarten takes the most comfort in the knowledge that his actions and decisions improved campus life for students.
"I have a sense that the quality of the student experience there is better as a consequence of things that I and others–it wasn’t just me–did on that campus. There was an emphasis on the student experience… what happened to them in classes, what happened to them outside of classes, the type of courses they took, what opportunities they had for courses, and we obsessed about that. I take a lot of pride in that."
Dr. Weingarten’s personality is a tremendous difference from our last president, Dr. Terry White. Soft-spoken and articulate, he speaks easily, and is obviously comfortable with his knowledge. Dr. Weingarten repeats himself constantly, making every point several times. With his different approach to university management, however, one wonders if it’s simply to make people listen. While his ideas aren’t exactly ground-breaking, they contrast remarkably to those of previous administrators. Dr. Weingarten’s focus on undergrads, and his views on research and academics are the most encouraging, while his thoughts on tuition and government aren’t anything this university hasn’t seen before.
Changing the focus to undergrads
With his reputation for being student-friendly, it’s not surprising to discover that Dr. Weingarten has a problem with the treatment of undergrads, especially first and second-year students. We all make fun of frosh, but they pay as much tuition as older students.
This is not a topic he takes lightly. According to Dr. Weingarten, the main benefit to a research university is students being involved in research culture. To him, this entails getting into the mode of asking questions, thinking critically and actually doing research.
"It has to start from the very first day you get there. There has to be more attention to years one and two," he began. "Look at the distinction made between graduate students and undergrads. They’re part of the research culture. We always make sure there’s room for graduate students. That just has to be extended down."
As the father of two daughters, one of whom is in university, Dr. Weingarten has changed his perspective about how students should be treated. During Christmas breaks, his daughter comes home and tells stories of professors who treat students as though they are a burden, instead of treating them with respect. Having his own daughter treated in such a fashion affected his beliefs regarding the undergraduate experience.
"It does change my idea of what my job is, and what the role of the university is with respect to the students. Undergraduates are not here to be simply tolerated. They’re what we’re here for. We are here to make the best quality undergraduate experience we can."
Dr. Weingarten views research and academics as being one and the same, artfully dodging the "Does the U of C focus too much on research?" question. However, he believes students benefit directly from research, as long as it’s conducted with them in mind.
"We’re not a research institute, we’re not a pharmaceutical house. We share our research with students. It’s part of what it means to be a student at a research university," he said.
According to Dr. Weingarten, there is no distinction between the academic and the research goals of a university. The job of a professor is both to teach and research, and to incorporate them together.
"You’ve probably been in classes where some prof has gone and said ‘I’m only here because they make me do it. I really want to be in my lab doing research.’ I know this goes on, [but] this doesn’t work. At a research university, your job is to do both. It is different from going to DeVry, it is different from going to Mount Royal College. There’s a different flavour to the type of instruction and teaching you do at a research university."
According to Dr. Weingarten, of the nearly 4,000 colleges in the U.S. only about 150 of them are research universities. To Dr. Weingarten, there is something distinct about these schools. In his view, the culture of research offers an education that instills in the student the ability to ask clever questions, absorb and appraise information, and communicate it well.
"Drawing from the power of the research university, you can produce a stellar undergraduate experience," he said. "I see no dichotomy between the research goals of a university and the academic goals. I prefer to [say] we have academic goals and we are a research university."
Is tuition too high?
campus seem to be in general agreement that tuition is simply too expensive. Dr. Weingarten doesn’t see the issue that clearly, though.
"I don’t know if the tuition is too high," he said. "It’s not surprising that tuition’s a big issue. There’s no point in having a great university around if you can’t afford to go, so tuition is always an issue."
Affordability aside, is there any point in spending thousands of dollars on a university that ranks so consistently low? Dr. Weingarten said he is unable to separate the issue of tuition from the more general issue of the student experience. In other words, he’s willing to charge for quality.
"It serves no one’s purpose to bring students into the university, to let them graduate with a credential… that will be perceived to be of poor quality, that won’t get [them] into the graduate schools [they] want, or get [them] the jobs [they] want. That serves no one. If we did that, the faculty would still be paid, the grounds would still look okay, but the students would be really irritated," he said.
It makes sense, then, in his eyes, that tuition increases. In order to increase or even maintain quality, it takes money. Who, then, should pay the bulk of the costs? The right balance must be found between students, government and private sector, said Dr. Weingarten.
"The burden to keep up and enhance the quality of education should not be solely on the backs of students. If you want to sustain quality, you need resources. The support of the university has to be a shared enterprise."
Apparently that equilibrium has not yet been reached, as students have covered the bulk of increases over the past decade. In fact, that’s the reason tuition battles get so much attention, Dr. Weingarten said. It’s gone up too quickly.
"There would not be this emphasis on tuition if the level of government support went up at exactly the same rate as tuition."
The provincial government
After admitting that the government has offered little support to post-secondary institutes in Alberta, Dr. Weingarten should be raring to lock horns and secure the necessary support needed to turn this school into the high-quality institution he so desires.
It’s so easy to forget he’s administration.
Ultimately, he is and is therefore quite willing to work hand-in-hand (in public, anyway) with the Alberta government. Dr. Weingarten believes that our government, like all governments, is interested in the economic and social well-being of the people living in this province. Fair enough, but where does the university fit into that? According to Dr. Weingarten, supporting universities ensures the economic and social well-being of the province. The end products of a research university are the graduates, and having well educated, intelligent workers keeps head offices in town.
"I’m looking forward to working with the government, because the government and the university have exactly the same goal, and that is to make this a wonderful place to live."
However, even Dr. Weingarten admitted the government doesn’t seem to act with that goal in mind. His solution? It’s all a matter of convincing them. But don’t expect him to do all the dirty work.
Premier Ralph Klein won’t listen to just him, said Dr. Weingarten. He runs the university, so of course he’ll have great things to say. The people who need to convince the government are the students, he said.
"Don’t minimize the impact of a group of students who everyone understands are the future of this province. I’m not the future of this province, you people are. When I go to speak [on] the importance of a university education, I welcome students sitting there next to me. They’re the ones who make the case."
The very students who do try to make the case, the Students’ Union, can expect a similarly open relationship with Dr. Weingarten. While he hopes to have an "open, honest and frank" relationship with student groups, he explained that student groups rarely get along with administration because it’s impossible to give students everything they want. So, just because the university exists solely for the students, don’t expect everything, from low tuition to cheap, plentiful parking.
"I don’t think there’s a university administration in North America and a student group who agree on the issue of tuition," he said. "Students and their leaders need an opportunity to hear what the constraints are on them."
Most student leaders want tuition rolled back or frozen, he said, but you will rarely see that position promoted by administration. Sometimes, as seen at the U of C in the past few years, administration will raise tuition less than the maximum amount allowed by the government. Regardless of the implications of an administration that will do no better than not taking the maximum, student’s have, in the very least, a chance of being heard.
"What’s critical is that students have the opportunity to make their case, to be heard. And it’s critical administrators have a chance to explain to students their position and why they’re doing it."
Envelopes and Engineers
Envelope funding, a government practice that earmarks funds to a specific use, is not a major concern of Dr. Weingarten.
"Does envelope funding bother me?" he said. "Shit, sure. Everyone would like to get a check you can do what you want with, but it’s not gonna happen. That’s the reality."
At McMaster, Dr. Weingarten saw envelope funding designed to produce more graduates for the IT sector. This didn’t happen because universities wanted more IT grads, but because business did. However, the government missed a key point. In a position paper written and signed by the Chief Executive Officers of 28 major technical companies, not only were engineering and computer science degrees emphasized, but liberal arts degrees as well.
"It’s not a position paper on the importance of electrical engineering. It’s not a position paper on the steady flow of computer scientists. It’s a statement that talks about the critical need in the IT industry for people with a liberal arts and sciences education. If you want the strongest advocates for liberal arts education in this country, go to the IT [sector]. They are the strongest advocates for it."
In fact, Dr. Weingarten said that to get a good job in that industry, you don’t need engineering. You do need to know about computers, and how to use them. His suggestion:
"Take the Computer Science Department, stick it next to the Fine Arts Department."
At the end of our interview, Dr. Weingarten slouched in his chair. His wild hair, thick beard and square glasses gave him the look of a disheveled professor. A university seems like a good place for him. It’s hard to imagine him clean-shaven in a boardroom. He’s not the squash-playing, wing-tip wearing corporate-minded president we’ve seen before.
The big difference? He honestly likes students. But it’s not affection; he considers it his "moral, ethical obligation" to run this school as well as he can.
"You have taken critical years of your life and chosen to spend them here. That imposes an obligation on us," he said.
This isn’t to say he won’t make wrong decisions. In fact, he dared us to keep track.
"There are decisions made every day. [Take] the last hundred decisions, and show me where they stay true to the rhetoric… and if we can’t show you that we’re staying true to the rhetoric, you’re gonna cream us in the Gauntlet. If we’re gonna say to you that the undergrad experience is important, you’re gonna say ‘show us.’"
However, we won’t be watching his last hundred decisions, but his next hundred. If Dr. Weingarten stays true to his beliefs, follows his own rhetoric and honestly does what he thinks is best, he’ll have a running start over most other administrators.