Extended interview discussing the challenges and successes of 2017-18
With the start of the new academic calendar, the creation of the Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), and the opening of the Learning Commons, Augustana has had a year full of challenges and successes.
The Medium sat down with Dean Allen Berger to discuss the past year and what’s to come.
Can you discuss your administrative leave and the search for a new dean?
The normal term for a dean is five years. My term was renewed a couple years ago, but I told the provost that I was more comfortable with three years over five. I’ll be stepping down as of June 30, 2019. So, at that point I will be going on an administrative leave and that was something I decided with the permission of the provost, and for all intensive purposes, I will still be in faculty.
I’ve already been in correspondence with the provost about getting an early start on the search for the next dean. I think that’s hugely important because we want to be at the front of the market, not at the back of the market. I’ve advised that we use an external search firm to identify candidates who aren’t necessarily looking for jobs right now or wouldn’t see an advertisement.
We may have an internal candidate, that remains to be seen, but even if we have an internal candidate, that person needs to be tested against the best candidates we can generate externally as well.
What will you do after you leave Augustana?
I want to do some writing projects and after my administrative leave, I will be retiring. I will have more time with my grandkids. They are in Mexico and the USA, so I want to see more of them. It will be a welcome change of pace.
What have been this year’s main successes?
Most of our focus has been on the implementation of the First-Year Seminar (FYS) and the new academic calendar. All indicators suggest to me that the FYS program has been a smashing success. There is a lot of research that suggests FYS programs are a high impact practice. In other words, they are investments in student success which means that success is measured by grade point averages, retention in university, and graduation. I think the main reason FYS went well was because we had a cohesive team that was planning together, bouncing ideas off one another, and reaching agreements about a collective approach.
I’m also thrilled that we were able to open the learning commons. I hope that we will be developing the kinds of programs that attract students there and shift the daily rhythms of campus so that more students discover that the space belongs to them. It’s an area that was underutilized in the past. Now student services is in a very visible space at the centre of campus. Another success was the lab renovations. If I could be allowed to dream, I’d like to see Augustana get funding for the next stage of renovations in the science extension. I’d love to see that happen in the short-term. We also worked on the LRDP this year, which will go to the board of governors later in the spring and hopefully be done by May. It’s important because it has to do with the future development of Augustana.
What have been this year’s main challenges?
The biggest challenge is that the university is facing a very difficult budget situation. The province hasn’t made a final commitment, but it’s looking like we will be flat-funded. In addition, there is a tuition and instructional fee freeze. There’s no new revenue coming into the university and costs continue to go up. The faculties, as well as the administrative units have all been asked to cut their budgets by 4 percent. That’s a big ouch. We’ve been attempting to adjust to that and we’ve also been told to anticipate that there will likely be another 2.5 percent next year and another the following year. These are serious challenges. The whole university faces this challenge and Alberta post-secondary. We’re just a small piece of a much larger trend.
When I look overall at the calendar, we had some fantastic classes that could only have been taught in a block format. But, to be perfectly honest, the overall implementation was a bit more uneven than I think it was for the FYS. In hindsight, that’s not surprising because individual faculty members were working in isolation rather than as a group in the way that the FYS instructors were. Going into next year, the challenge is, how do we share the pedagogical innovations and ideas that made some of our courses incredibly successful with faculty members? In any ambitious change, you have to be willing to accept that you’re not going to get everything right the first time. We need to learn from the assessments and make needed adjustments.
What’s in Augustana’s future?
As we think about Augustana’s future and budget cuts, we also need to think about the future in the of context of declining rural demographics. Augustana draws disproportionately from small towns across Alberta. I tease colleagues from North Campus because I look at where undergraduates from North Campus come from and I would call it the University of Edmonton. If you want to see the University of Alberta, come to Augustana, because our students are from across the province and beyond. Augustana in my mind, needs to continue to be a place that is attractive to and serves communities and students from across Alberta and other provinces. Yet, we can’t afford for that to be all we are – we’ve already said that we want to educate substantial numbers of Indigenous students and we want to diversify our campus with international students.
We have to ask how Augustana plays a part in the U of A’s national recruitment strategy. I know this risks sounding artificial, but that means we need to think about our branding. How do we describe Augustana? How do we position Augustana in the minds of prospective students parents and policymakers? I think that we have something pretty special here and it’s not offered in a lot of places, especially not in the province of Alberta. If the university recognizes the need to recruit nationally, we need to be a player.
What would your ideal hamburger look like?
It would have to be something that Fatburger makes, because they were so loyal to us when the ASA did the best burger in town fundraising campaign. A few years ago, they created the Allen Berger Burger. It would have swiss cheese, avocado, mushrooms, tomato, and salsa instead of ketchup.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
Time travel. I don’t think I’d want to go forward because I like the mysteriousness of the future. Going forward would rob us of our free will. It would suggest that the future is already determined and I’d like to believe we have the capacity to shape it. I’m an anthropologist and what I do is try to understand the human situation. There would be so much understanding from a capacity to go back in time, and you could converse with all the neat people who are no longer around today.