MRU addresses budget, capital projects and relationship with province during 2021 town hall
By Noel Harper, News Editor
Tuition increases, freedom of expression and a return to on-campus learning were all on the agenda at Mount Royal University (MRU)’s town hall for 2021, held virtually this year.
Led by President Tim Rahilly, the session began by discussing the feedback garnered from student surveys conducted in November 2020, “arguably one of the most stressful points” in the past fall semester.
In response to the results of these surveys, Rahilly said MRU expanded technological and learning supports through the Riddell Library & Learning Centre and remote learning resources for faculty, as well as adjusting health benefits for employees. Actions also included the delayed start to the winter 2021 semester and the extension of the withdrawal date for courses. The surveys will be repeated in April.
Regarding the nature of the upcoming academic year, alternative delivery as per the current standard will be continuing until at least June 30. As announced in a March 4 email, the university’s objective for fall 2021 is to bring as much programming back to the MRU campus as possible.
“Of course, I recognize that this is a dynamic situation, and just like we’ve been doing all along, we will continue to follow public health advice,” Rahilly said, adding that MRU is continuing to work on arrangements that would still allow for learning at a distance in the future.
MRU is projecting a $2.3 million deficit for the current fiscal year, due to a $20 million decrease in “commercial and ancillary services,” including parking, events and the on-campus bookstore, all of which have seen a drastic decrease in use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rahilly also gave updates on presidential committees, including ongoing work to do with Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and the university’s anti-racism initiatives through the EDI Advisory Committee.
“As much as we want to banish racism, this challenge has no easy solution … students and employees write to me and say they’re concerned that we’re not moving fast enough to make progress,” said Rahilly.
MRU plans to hire a special advisor to the President on EDI, and an assistant vice-president (AVP) of Indigenization and Decolonization, in the fall.
The town hall’s first question from the audience concerned the matter of EDI, wondering how the search for a consultant in this area was being conducted.
“Doing things the way they’ve always been done because that’s the way it’s done is not the way to EDI. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite,” the audience member added to their question.
Rahilly agreed, saying the university has an opportunity to remove some systemic barriers. Currently, he said, MRU is further along in hiring for the AVP role, but the description for the EDI position will soon be brought to the committee.
The other task force discussed by Rahilly concerns freedom of expression. The committee, he said, is exploring “how we might support free expression on campus in meaningful ways, and in a way that still honours important values at the university.” It will begin communicating with students this month, as well as publishing a new website for their work.
Another question asked about MRU’s upcoming renovation project, put forth after the university received provincial funding to upgrade unused areas on campus. Rahilly said that active learning spaces are planned for the past conservatory location, and consultations are still underway for the old library space along the campus’ main street.
“Personally, I would like to see us have within that space the ability to showcase things, bring people from the MRU community into that space, but as well, bring people from the outside. Bring employers [and] bring the public to campus,” said Rahilly, describing the vision as a place to advance and publicize what the university is working on, using the example of the recently instituted e-sports program.
On the topic of job losses in the wake of reduced funding to the university, Rahilly does not anticipate further significant faculty and staff cuts on the horizon, but added he cannot guarantee a complete lack of position elimination in the future. He described this method as “not the best tool in terms of dealing with the budget reduction,” instead planning to focus on vacant positions to save on costs.
Audience members were also concerned with the ongoing Alberta 2030 review, the provincial government’s post-secondary reform process, of which Rahilly was a member of the guiding coalition. He said that while the review may have started with a trade-focused mindset, it eventually came around to the skills provided by a liberal education institution like MRU.
“As the 2030 review moved along … much of the data collected by the province showed the importance of these broad liberal skills to employers,” such as critical thinking. Rahilly added that MRU needs to continue developing its brand in promoting how these skills impact the employability of students going forward.