The first week of work for Jamie Cassels included dishing pancakes to University of Victoria students and leading a six-kilometre run around the campus, an upbeat start to the tenure of UVic’s new president.
Where the past year focused on UVic’s 50th anniversary, Cassels says his job is about setting the stage for the next 50 years. But the foreseeable future won’t be easy – across the board budget cuts that led to layoffs last year will likely continue.
That will set the stage for the next round of union negotiations for contracts set to expire in 2014, barely two years after a rotating strike and hard bargaining ended with temporary labour peace.
As UVic’s vice-president academic and provost from 2001 to 2010, Cassels is no stranger to high-level administration of an institution with about 5,000 employees and 20,000 students.
“The top priority for me is a series of consultations on campus and in the community. I’m scheduled for 40, 50 or 60 meetings in the next few months with students, faculty, staff and the community to begin the conversation of what the next 50 years will hold,” Cassels says.
“We have to be careful not to march out a prepackaged vision of where we need to go. Even the president of the university can’t do a lot unless you’ve got the community working with you.”
Cassels, 57 and a resident of Fairfield, takes the helm of a university ranked best in Canada without a medical school, and labelled research university of the year in 2012. During his time as vice-president, he drove the integration of teaching and research – enough to have a research scholarship named in his honour – a priority he plans to expand as president.
“Hands-on learning through co-ops, clinics, and practicums, we can build even stronger educational components. I am passionate about integrating research and education,” he says. “We have a real opportunity to say how to put (research) in the education environment.”
Shaping the future of one of the region’s largest employers will continue to be tempered by declining provincial operating grants, and upward pressure on salaries and costs.
UVic budget estimates project a $5.9-million funding shortfall for 2014-15 and a $5-million shortfall for the year after, even with increases in tuition.
Last year departments and faculty cut four per cent from their budgets and are expected to do the same for the next fiscal year. In December UVic laid off a few dozen staff and cut positions through attrition.
Cassels says the university will know this fall how the budget will shake out, but he expects “more significant cuts in the next few years.”
“Going forward, we face a budget challenge on one hand, and a desire of employees for appropriate compensation. It’s the challenge of any administration … to try and strike a balance and make sure employees still feel valued and part of the organization,” Cassels says.
“I find this a welcome challenge, and one reason that motivated me into the position. It may be the most important thing a president does is showing employees they play really important roles on delivering the mission.
“At the same time, I’m accountable and responsible for resources of the institution, while keeping in mind the mission to deliver education to students,” Cassels says. “It’s a juggling act.”
UVic saw more than $220 million in capital construction in the early 2000s, but likely won’t see new major buildings this decade once the $77-million athletics building, CARSA, is complete. The university has plans expand the continuing studies building and student housing. Some dorm lounges had to be retrofitted into apartments this month due to overcrowding.
“I think UVic is the right size. It’s big enough to be a national player but small enough to be a personalized, collegial environment for students,” Cassels says. “But we need more residential space. Students come from across Canada and the world, and Victoria is small enough that it can’t offer student accommodation in proportion to the size of the university.”
After spending the past two years in the relative quiet of teaching in the faculty of law, where he started at UVic 32 years ago, Cassels is eager to take on the big job of steering the institution.
“I’m passionate about this university. I’ve got something to offer and I see challenges and opportunities that I’m able to help the university pursue,” he says. “I have a straightforward understanding of the mission – education and research that makes a difference to students and the community.”