Public Relations for a Public University: Pop Up, Open Out

Last week, as others have already reported, the Executive of the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta (AASUA) met, at her request, with the President of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera. At the meeting, the Executive heard (amongst other things) that the President does not understand the criticism that she has been receiving about the University’s office of Advancement. We were informed that research has proven that for each person hired to do the work of pursuing philanthropic investment in a university “you bring in a million dollars.” Harvard and Stanford have 1,000 people each doing this work. That’s a billion dollars! we were told. The President insisted that “we need a collective commitment” to Advancement so that we may “up our game.” The “bio” of one member of Advancement’s senior team claims that Advancement is building towards a campaign to raise a billion dollars. 

The logic is clear enough. If the Government of Alberta won’t provide the University with the funding that it needs to flourish, we must turn elsewhere for the money. Around the University this is described in terms of our achieving our independence from the Government. What gets ignored in such discussions: the fact that the University of Alberta is a public institution.

Philanthropic giving may be regarded as a wonderful thing. Amongst other things, we might argue, it facilitates a redistribution of wealth from the economically privileged, or those who have great financial success in their careers, to our social institutions. In a capitalist society in which social inequities are growing at an ever-escalating pace, such giving may play a role in mitigating some of the social depredations being produced by right-wing governments around the world as they cut the public sector and social services. Philanthropic giving plays a role, in short, in keeping our society humane

As I’ve argued here before, however, public universities must be publicly funded in order to maintain their independence from private industry or private interests. If the University of Alberta were to receive its philanthropic gifts on top of base funding from the Government that already guaranteed its flourishing, our donors’ gifts, where given with no strings attached, might have a chance to play a role of permitting us to diversify our academic programming and our research in unique ways that might truly distinguish us from other institutions. But where they have to substitute for inadequate government funding they risk changing the character of the institution. Our society, democratic, must be shaped not by the select interests of the privileged, but according to the common good. Our universities must also remain publicly funded to maintain their vital connection to the population they serve. This is especially important in a “petro state” such as Alberta. It must be clear that this public university truly belongs to the people of Alberta, and that the research that goes on here is appropriately autonomous from the corporate interests of the natural resource sector. No gates should go up around the University, and no private or corporate interest should be able to wield special influence here. Government funding is intended to be the guarantor of the University’s character as a public institution, serving the public good.

But what a situation we find ourselves in! In the face of the Government of Alberta’s unprecedented cuts to the funding of the province’s postsecondary institutions last March, the University’s Central Administration chose to introduce a “voluntary severance” program to get rid of academic staff — that is, the people who do the research and teaching at the University. And even as precious academic staff who make unique contributions to our research and academic programs are to walk out the door forever on 30 June 2014, only selectively to be replaced, more money is being and will be directed to the office of Advancement, created in 2011.

Last year the President told the University community that as we imagined the kind of change that would be of benefit to the institution in these difficult times nothing at the institution was to be treated as “sacrosanct.” But what the Association’s Executive was hearing is that at least one facet of the University will be treated as of indisputable value. There was no direct acknowledgment that the funds for the “commitment” to Advancement must come from the Operating Budget.

Advancement Budget 2009 to 2013As it stands, the funds that go to growing Advancement must come from elsewhere in the Operating Budget, and unless there is some radical restructuring of Central Administration occurring of which the University at large is currently unaware at least a portion of these funds will come from our research and teaching budgets.

To put it another way, the Government’s decision to cut funding to postsecondary education last March means that dollars that might otherwise go to the University of Alberta’s teaching budget for 2014-2015 (including the funding of graduate students) will be directed instead to the Office of Advancement. When the 2013-14 financial statements are finally available on the Resources Planning website we will decisively know what dollars were directed to Advancement this year.

This commitment to Advancement — which the President urges upon us as a “collective commitment” — might be a whole lot more justifiable at a public university if it had a necessary counterpart in a commitment to pursuing public investment. Stanford and Harvard are, after all, amongst the world’s top private universities. Of course their offices of “Giving” are well-staffed. Stanford and Harvard do not receive public funding, and make no pretensions to being public institutions.

Last year, after Jeremy Richards and I had both written blog posts on the lack of a reference to the University as a publicly-funded institution in the draft 2013-2014 Comprehensive Institutional Plan (CIP), Richards brought a motion at General Faculties Council for the addition of such language to the CIP. The addition of one brief phrase was all that was requested, but that phrase makes all the difference in the world. Acting Provost Martin Ferguson-Pell graciously acknowledged the problem of the omission, and agreed that it would be rectified. But the absence of that phrase in the draft CIP suggests that our Central Administration is, consciously or otherwise, surrendering its commitment to our University’s public character. And it is precisely that to which we need “collective commitment.” All the (woeful) talk of the “University of Alberta brand” that forgets how brands have been used on cattle and “criminals” loses all meaning entirely if we forget that the University of Alberta is first and foremost a public university, and the distinctiveness of the University as “brand” must arise from and remain always responsive to this fact.

What, then, would it take to Advance our Public character?

I submit that what we need at this time of continuing crisis to guarantee the prosperity of the University, and its flourishing for the good of all Albertans, is improved public relations. Why are we not spending, say, half of what is being spent on Advancement on deepening our relationship with Albertans, and their experience of why we matter to them?


The office of Advancement is a break-away from the office of University/External Relations.

On its website, the office of University/External Relations defines its mission according to “Three R’s.”

UR Three Rs Jan2014The use of the language of “stakeholding” in the context of a public university (of which there is more on the site) is strange, for it involves a contradiction: if you’re a stakeholder, you have a privileged relationship to one kind of property or another. But a public university is public or common property. This was something the University notoriously forgot the day that it kept members of the community from coming onto campus almost two years ago to attend a rally against tuition in the Main Quad. The Central Administration’s claim on that day was that the University is “private property.” (Police permitted only individuals with OneCards onto University grounds.)

But all Albertans are stakeholders in the University of Alberta. The University is one of Alberta’s public houses. And if we genuinely let Albertans experience it as such we might find it a great deal easier to achieve the third of the R’s above, “ensure the availability of adequate public resources.” And surely those of us who work at the University all have a strong enough sense of its value to Albertans that we should be fighting for the highest possible contribution of public resources to the University as public good — a contribution Albertans would be far more likely to secure from the Government if they were convinced that the University of Alberta was their university, and were encouraged to participate in it even when they are not students or alumni. 

What we need, in short, are Public Relations — relations through which we draw the public in to what we do, or go out to the public to bring the University to them. At a roundtable that the President held in the Fall, several members of the academic staff (including me) spoke passionately, earnestly, and vehemently to this issue. 

One of my immediate colleagues in the Department of English and Film Studies proposes now that we create the “Pop-Up University” — that is, hold events in public, for the public, showcasing what we do for Alberta by doing it with Albertans in locations outside the University’s walls. It’s also easy to imagine how exciting the public might be to have us have, on occasion, hold Open Labs. Sure, the public can receive news stories about our break-throughs and our successes, and this is important. But how might we create University experiences for Albertans that draw them into an understanding of why we matter and let them have direct encounters with our work?

Government Relations Events Nothing Available 11jan2014And then, of course, there is the question of what happens in terms of our relations to Government. In the Fall, MetroNews reported that then Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lukaszuk claimed to have had no dealings our Government Relations office, and was quoted welcoming them to pick up the phone. The site does have a list of government speeches to which we may link, but it comes to an abrupt end in March 2011. At any rate, what I’d like to see — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — is not reports of what the Government says, directly or indirectly, about us, but reports of what we say to Government. 

Let’s have each of our faculties receive Operating Budget allocations that permit them to pursue Public Relations, each of them on their own innovative terms. As it stands, our Deans are in the beleaguered situation of somehow having to Generate Revenue — which is to say, do their own bit to secure philanthropic funding — when what we need are the resources that let us reach out to Albertans on our own creative terms. If we could Pop Up or Open Out in properly-resourced inventive ways of our own choosing, the academic staff at the University would have a real chance of gaining the support of the People that the Central Administration’s slogan of choice tells us we are supposed to be Uplifting. The development of Advancement can wait until the Government appropriately provides the funds to support it; the nurturing of our relationship with Albertans cannot.

Uplifting the whole people CIP2012

Back cover of the University of Alberta’s 2011-2012 Comprehensive Institutional Plan

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7 Responses to Public Relations for a Public University: Pop Up, Open Out

  1. Shelagh campbell says:

    Well stated, Carolyn! As I recall! the former president Rod Fraser was a strong proponent of exactly the kind of thing you are suggesting – an event called Research Revelations when the public was invited to come talk with faculty about their research. A giant poster session that all of us were invited to contribute to. Lots of people came too, including Fraser.

  2. Ricardo Acuna says:

    Well said! As you may be aware, one of the ways that the University is funding this new focus on Advancement is by charging a 5% tax on all donations received by the U of A’s various centres and institutes, and by taking a further cut from what our endowments pay out. At the Parkland Institute, where we do all of our own fundraising and donor stewardship, and where 100% of our operating funds come from donations and our very modest endowment, this means that we will be subsidizing the U of A’s fundraising arm to the tune of $35,000 – $40,000 a year. For us that represents the cost of one staff position. For Advancement it means a couple of dinners wooing Alberta’s oil barons to donate more money to reinforcing the province’s current balance of power and political influence. Whether the new focus on advancement is political or not, it’s outcome will certainly have an impact on the political positioning of the University as a whole, and that’s a serious shame. One more public institution in this province being sold to the whims of the corporate interest.

    • Arts Squared says:

      Thanks for that in turn, Ricardo. This, then, is direct evidence of funds being directed *away* from those doing the work of the University to Advancement. Do you know if the Government has been asked to respond to this choice on the part of the Administration?

  3. I read your blog post with interest after it was shared on Facebook by a University of Calgary colleague. I did my Ph.D. research on marketing of post-secondary institutions. My findings support your assertions: that the outreach, advocacy, and public relations of public institutions must necessarily differ from that of private universities. When public universities mimic or try to act like private institutions, the initiative often fails. You’re right on the money with this post.

  4. Arts Squared says:

    Thank you for that, Sarah. Is there anywhere we can turn for details of your research?

  5. Laurie Adkin says:

    Well said, indeed, Carolyn. Thank-you for speaking for the very many persons at this university and beyond who are concerned about the pressures to make universities more reliant upon–and beholden to–corporate funding.

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