Mayor Naheed Nenshi is true to his school, no doubt of that.
His blast at the province for looming cuts to post-secondary education — especially at his own Mount Royal University — is emotional, personal, and absolutely correct.
Former MRU professor Nenshi says you don’t have great cities without great universities. Nor do universities thrive when sudden provincial budget cuts tear down a decade of growth, or when cuts threaten the philanthropy that fostered both.
Don Taylor and family, for instance, have given the astonishing total of $60 million to higher education in Calgary over the past few years — $40 million to the University of Calgary, and $20 million to MRU for construction of the Bella Concert Hall.
Now, MRU may be forced to cut some of the very music programs that support the Bella Hall. Other potential donors in any field might ask themselves, why bother?
Everybody knew this year’s provincial budget would be tough, but it remains a mystery why the province chose Advanced Education as a key victim, with $147 million in operating cuts.
One reason is they’re trying to force more efficiency and standardization. But at Mount Royal, what the province has induced is more like panic, as the young university tries to find $14 million in savings.
The early hints from Tuesday’s campus meeting are only the beginning. You don’t save $14 million by cutting programs like music performance, theatre arts and disability studies.
These are known as “low-yield” courses. This makes them easy targets for bean-counters, both in Edmonton and university executive offices.
But at MRU, especially, some are tremendously important.
Anyone who’s listened in awe to a jazz performance at MRU knows that greatness can emerge from the smallest corners of a school. With one wrong step, the province could obliterate MRU’s international reputation for musical excellence.
Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk now says he must approve cuts, after MRU’s board decides what it wants to do. Tuesday’s campus meeting was preliminary, he adds.
This raises some hope that the minister might back away from program losses. But how can he retreat when MRU’s overall target is so big?
In the end, he’s far more likely to approve much wider cuts to staff, administration and programs. There’s no other road to save $14 million.
You’d expect the universities to fight back hard, but they rarely do. Most board members are appointed by the government. They care about their schools, but rebellion is not in their nature.
Luckily, MRU has a powerful public champion — the mayor.
“I really urge the provincial government to walk this one back, to realize they made a terrible error in public policy, one that’s going to have implications on generations of students and on all of us in the community,” Nenshi said Wednesday, after releasing a letter that blistered the government.
The mayor says the decision puts university boards in “an impossible position. I would not want to be in that position today.”
In Edmonton, Mayor Stephen Mandel has been saying much the same things, often angrily, about the province’s assault on the universities.
This is a first. Mandel has usually been a quiet co-operator rather than a rebel. He watched and waited, for instance, while former mayor Dave Bronconnier took on the province over infrastructure funding in 2007.
But now Mandel is in lockstep with Nenshi. This should worry the Redford government.
The big-city mayors, when they unite, wield serious political power.
During last year’s election, they helped keep Wildrose out of power by blasting the party’s perceived intolerance and homophobia.
United again, they might push the PCs off their draconian, ill-planned agenda for higher education.
They would be doing everyone a favour — even the government.
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Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.
dbraid AT CalgaryHerald.com
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