University of Alberta will have to ‘recalibrate’ salaries: Samarasekera

EDMONTON – After a decade of improvements, the University of Alberta sits firmly among the top 100 universities in world, boasts a healthy $1-billion endowment and has made room for 11 per cent more students, said retiring president Indira Samarasekera in her final state of the university speech.

While proud of those achievements, Samarasekera also acknowledged at a Journal editorial board that salary levels of top people at the university need to be adjusted in the wake of public concerns.

A controversy over her salary — $529,000 plus benefits for a total of $1.2 million in 2013 — grew on campus in recent years as budgets got tight, professors were laid off, courses were cancelled and tuition went up.

“I think they are going to have to recalibrate (compensation) and they will have to look at benchmarks at other public universities,� she said.

“You also have to look increasingly at what the public thinks is appropriate. You don’t want a race to the bottom, but I do think there has to be discussion about what is appropriate.�

Samarasekera said her salary initially was in average range, not that much above some highly paid professors. But high inflation in Alberta meant a few years of rapid salary increases, she said.

“I actually went to the board and said ‘I don’t think I or the senior team should get 4.75 per cent,’ � she told the Journal Wednesday.

“But I was told: ‘You can’t do that, you cannot deny the increase to your VPs.’ � That’s because the president and all vice-presidents are part of the academic staff association, she said.

Samarasekera was told she could give her salary increases back to the university privately. She said she will make an announcement on that subject later this year.

At her last state of the university speech on Thursday, Samarasekera noted that U of A bumped up to 84th spot from 96 last year in the latest QS World University Rankings of the 200 top universities released this week.

University of Toronto ranked 20th in the group, with Montreal’s McGill at 21, University of British Columbia at 43, and McMaster at 83, just one spot ahead of the U of A.

That’s a clear sign of the quality of research and teaching, and the new international partnerships the U of A has developed, she said.

It was “exhilarating� to look back on the accomplishments of the community and the university, said Samarasekera.

But challenges lie ahead, including hiring more professors and convincing more high school students to go on to post-secondary education.

“We need far more Albertans to participate in higher education; we are only at 17 per cent,� she said.

The next president is expected to be named in December, and Samarasekera leaves June 2015 on a year sabbatical.

Doug Goss, chair of the board of governors, said about 100 people have applied for the post and the list is down to a handful at this point.

When Samarasekera attended president’s school at Harvard University in 2005 at the outset of her tenure, “they didn’t know where Edmonton was. Today that will not be the case.�

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