CTV Regina web journalist Ken Gousseau recently sat down with University of Regina president Vianne Timmons to discuss how the past year went for the institution and its students.

CTV News: Could you start by giving us your general take on how 2012 went for the university?

Vianne Timmons: Well, we had a wonderful year in 2012 as I look back. It’s the highest enrolements ever at the University of Regina – 1,700 international students, a large number of international students. Ten per cent of our students self-identify as Aboriginal and 1,600 graduate students. So, campus diversity is really important to us and we see a change in landscape on our campus with the students. It’s also been a year where we launched the College Avenue Campus Revitalization Project, which we’ve already raised over $3 million toward the $10 million goal, so we’re really pleased about that. We had an anonymous donor give us $1 million, a private citizen in Regina, so that was a real coup for us in that project. There’s been lots of faculty, staff and student accomplishments and awards. For example, Kelly Weibe, one of our engineering students won the national CIS in cross-country, that’s a big accomplishment for one of our runners. So, we had a great year in 2012.

CTV News: What were some of the other major accomplishments of the past year?

Vianne Timmons: It’s our second year of nursing, so we had a very successful launch of our new nursing faculty. We also, for the UR Guarantee program, now have over 1,300 students that are enrolled in it, which is a program that is focused on student success, so that’s been very positive. Our residence proposal has gone into government and they gave us $1 million to do the design of a new residence. We really need a new residence and we want to double the daycare spaces on campus. So, we’re very hopeful and positive about the possibility about that project moving forward in 2013.

CTV News: What about the issues the university faced? Are there any that stick out in your mind in particular?

Vianne Timmons: The academic program review became a reality for the campus this year. It had been launched a year before, but I think the conversations and the dialogue began this year, in which we’ve asked our campus community to look at ways to do things differently to meet the needs of today’s students, and to take a look at the programs we offer and pay attention to students’ needs and what they’re looking for. An example of that is we’ve had a 25 per cent increase in our distance Ed online courses. A lot of that increase is actual students who attend the University of Regina. They’re looking at more flexibility in their learning and opportunities that way. So, having that dialogue happen on campus creates anxiety and people are anxious with the possibility of change. So, I think that’s been one of my challenges this year is to be able to keep morale up and keep the university moving forward, and yet deal with the realities of having to look at changes to meet today’s students. At the same time, that collided with some difficult budget discussions. So, it’s been a challenging year to keep the positive momentum going.

CTV News: The cost of living in Saskatchewan has risen sharply in recent years, while students at the university have faced hikes in tuition and fees. Is a tuition freeze and increased government funding the solution or should the province focus on making it more affordable to live here?

Vianne Timmons: As the president of the university, I can speak about the university. Of course, we all should try to think of ways that we can make it an attractive place to draw people to. If that means more affordable housing, then we need to look at that. That’s why the university is so committed to the residence project because we know that will help a lot with vacancy rates in this region. Canada Mortgage and Housing just released a study and the area around the University of Regina has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the entire country, so we know the need is really there. I have no objection to modest, carefully planned tuition increases and, of course, I want to see more government funding in post-secondary education. I think as an educational institution, we’re an economic, social and cultural driver for this community and for this province. Now, the province, I will say, has invested well over the five years I’ve been here. The challenge is the cost of living on campus is growing so quickly – my student population has grown over 15 per cent. With a two per cent budget increase and a 15 per cent population increase on campus, it’s a challenge for me as a president.

CTV News: How has rising enrolment impacted the university? I can think of parking as an issue.

Vianne Timmons: Parking has been an issue, but we built a new parking lot and I think that dealt with a lot of the challenges that students were facing. A growing campus is a challenge for professors with class sizes and demands of students. The diversity of our student population is what really is challenging for us. Not in a bad way, in a very positive way. We’ve had to increase the space to our Aboriginal Students Centre; make sure services for students of Aboriginal descent, international students and students with disabilities are in place and robust and able to support these students being successful. The same with our graduate students. One of the big challenges we have is we have no provincial graduate scholarship program in Saskatchewan, while other provinces, such as Ontario, do have those. So, for our professors, that’s a real challenge. They have to fund graduate students out of their own research monies because there’s not a provincial program. That’s a challenge this university is struggling with because our graduate student numbers are increasing so much.

CTV News: Your top capital spending priority is the College Avenue Campus Renewal Project that you referred to earlier. Why is that a top priority on a long list of capital needs?

Vianne Timmons: That’s a top priority because we can’t do any renovations to College Avenue and Darke Hall unless we do a complete overhaul because of building codes. We can’t go in there and Band-Aid anything anymore. We’ve been Band-Aiding that campus for a long time. It also is an area that serves 7,000 students. It does all of continuing Ed, which is about 4,000 students in our distance Ed program, and our ESL program administration is housed out of there; our lifelong learning; our conservatory. So, all of those areas are growing. One of the other challenges is we have Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy that doesn’t really have a home, so the professors are all scattered. We need to bring them together because that school is booming and doing so well, and we need a state-of-the-art educational facility for that school because it is a jewel in the university. And so, all of those pressures on us for College Avenue Campus have kind of come to a head. We have lots of capital needs – we have residence needs; we have challenges in space in our business school and engineering school; we need a rink on campus. So, there’s a lot of challenges we have, but that one is a critical one because of the timing. The other thing is it was the 100th anniversary of College Avenue Campus, so it seemed like the right time to celebrate the 100 years and then launch it as a capital project.

CTV News: How did it feel to recently receive a $1 million anonymous donation toward the project? You touched on that earlier, but how does that feel to get such a large sum from somebody who doesn’t even want to be recognized for it?

Vianne Timmons: Let me share with you how I found out. I got a phone call from a citizen in Regina, and it’s not a corporation, it’s a private citizen. Not one that you would think of in terms of wealth in this community, as many people that automatically come to mind that own businesses and have done well. It’s somebody who was an alumnus of the university who cares deeply about College Avenue Campus and when I got the phone call, I was overwhelmed. I think the biggest thing it’s done for me is really heightened for me the responsibility I have as president of this university to preserve and enhance that amazing educational setting. So, I was filled with appreciation and I was stunned and amazed at the generosity of this individual. At the same time, I am overwhelmed with the responsibility I have to make this project happen. When someone believes that much in it to give you their life savings, it’s incumbent upon you to honour them and to see this to fruition.

CTV News: Do you have a target for reaching your fundraising goal in terms of time?

Vianne Timmons: We need $10 million and we’re at over $3 million. My hope was that it would be a five-year project and we’re at about year three. The first part of it was just identifying potential donors. It’s just in the last couple of months that we’ve gone out public, saying that we need this money. So, I’m hoping that within the next 18 months, we can see the $10 million raised.

CTV News: What’s your view on the prospect of SIAST being able to hand out degrees and would that cut into the university’s bottom line?

Vianne Timmons: SIAST, right now, hasn’t been approved to offer degrees. They’ve asked for it in psychiatric nursing and that’s a very specific program. I would like to partner with SIAST on that. Many provinces who have increased the number of degree-granting institutions have done it because of the challenge with accessibility and students can’t get into programs. We don’t have that problem here in Saskatchewan. There’s still enough capacity at the two universities to accommodate any student who wants a university education. So, at this point, I don’t see one degree offering cutting into the university’s bottom line. But I would not like to see a new university start up in the province. Both universities are growing and for the funding to be spread even thinner would be problematic.

CTV News: What do you think 2013 will have in store for the university?

Vianne Timmons: I’m looking forward to 2013. I think it’s going to be a very significant year for the University of Regina. I think we’re going to see even more campus engagement in hard issues like budget and academic programming than we’ve seen even in 2012, and I think that’s a positive thing. To have your campus engaged, caring, even critiquing, is a good thing. Apathy would be the other extreme, and I don’t want to see that on our campus. I think it’s going to be a tough year in 2013 because of the challenges we face with a growing campus and limited fiscal avenues for us to pursue. But I’m confident this campus can pull together, as it has on every hard issue that it’s faced and do really well. So, I think it’s going a positive year in 2013 and a very, very busy year.