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Over its long history, the University of Alberta has had various administrative units or divisions that enable it to accomplish its core functions of teaching or research. The principal such unit is the faculty, which can embrace a series of disciplines represented in departments. The term faculty also refers to the academic staff of a university. The term school, in common usage, refers to teaching institutions outside of the university system.  However, in Canada, there is a tradition of schools within universities and these are generally attached to faculties and the disciplines are more applied than theoretical.  Some schools may evolve into faculties. Such changes may be in response to societal needs and changing views of what are appropriate university disciplines or may be the result of restructuring for financial reasons.

In 1908, the Faculty of Arts and Science was the first faculty named by the Senate. Members of the University of Alberta's first graduating class—the Class of 1908—represented the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Department of Engineering. The Department of Extension and the Faculty of Law were established in 1912 and the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry in 1913. The Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences had modest beginnings as a department within the Faculty of Medicine in 1913, and, after 1917, a school. One of the original faculties, the Faculty of Agriculture, came into being in 1915. In 1923, the Board of Governors approved a School of Nursing.

As the oldest faculty at the University, the Faculty of Arts has the honourable tradition of providing programs in the liberal arts. Alumni in the fields of literature, drama, politics, education, and business have carved out some remarkable careers since the faculty was founded in 1908. The Faculty of Science was officially created in 1963 when Humanities and Social Sciences were moved to the Faculty of Arts.

The Department of Engineering was established in 1908 later becoming the Faculty of Applied Science (re-named Faculty of Engineering in 1948). Today’s Faculty of Engineering is noted for its research in engineering related to communications and software; catalytic, interfacial, and transport engineering; geotechnical and geo-environmental engineering; intelligent systems and control; nanoscience and technology; and plasma science.

Since the Faculty of Law was created in 1912, it has provided the province with lawyers versed in important fields ranging from civil, criminal, and constitutional law to women's issues and rights to oil and gas law, resource law, labour law, and corporate law.

The Department of Extension had its start in the basement of Assiniboia Hall in 1912. Its mission was to reach out to Alberta’s predominantly rural/agricultural communities to find out what the University could do for them beyond the walls of its classrooms and laboratories. As one of the University’s oldest and most enduring departments, the Department of Extension grew into the Faculty of Extension which, today, is still reaching out to the public with certificate programs, seminars, non-credit and credit courses, and a post-graduate degree in communications and technology.

The Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry opened its doors in 1913. Today’s vision for the Faculty is “to be nationally and internationally recognized leaders investing in education, research and service, making important contributions to health.”

The Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences had modest beginnings as a department within the Faculty of Medicine in 1913, and, after 1917, it became a school. It wasn’t until 1955 that the school was granted faculty status.

It is hardly surprising, given Alberta’s proud heritage of farming and ranching, that the University has an impressive Faculty of Agriculture whose beginnings, as one of the original faculties, date back to 1915. Today, the Faculty has three areas of emphasis: agriculture, forestry, and home economics.

In 1923, the University of Alberta's Board of Governors approved a School of Nursing. The first students were admitted to the hospital-based diploma program in October 1923. Following passage of the Universities Act in 1966, the University of Alberta's School of Nursing became an autonomous academic unit within the administrative framework of the university, and in 1976, the School of Nursing received Faculty status.

The University of Alberta has been offering graduate programs since 1908. Today’s structure for the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research has been in place since 1957.

Courses in Physical Education had been taught through the Faculty of Education since 1945. By 1954, the School of Physical Education was formed. The Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation was formed as the Faculty of Physical Education in 1964. In 1976, the name was changed to the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation to reflect the additional interests of the faculty.

In 1970, the Collège Saint-Jean in south Edmonton became an integral part of the University as the Collège Universitaire Saint-Jean and in May, 1978 it became the university's newest Faculty when the name officially changed to Faculté Saint-Jean. Now known as the Campus Saint-Jean, it offers a bilingual program of courses in Arts, Science, and Education.

A School of Library Science was created in 1968. An independent Faculty from 1975 to 1991, it is now, as the School of Library and Information Studies, a unit within the Faculty of Education.

A School of Native Studies, now known as the Faculty of Native Studies, was founded in 1984 to provide a common ground for Native and non-Native students to learn, research, explore, and examine critically the historical and contemporary relations that concern Native peoples and communities.

The University is also establishing an enhanced presence in downtown Edmonton. One of the first announcements made by President Indira Samarasekera when she took office in 2005 related to the University’s purchase of the historic Hudson's Bay Company building in the Edmonton city centre. In October 2006, this site was inaugurated as Enterprise Square and, by late 2007, several programs and departments took occupancy. In addition, the University’s reach into rural Alberta was extended in 2004 when the former Augustana University College (founded in 1910 as Camrose Lutheran College) was incorporated into the University as Augustana Campus.

In 2008, the University of Alberta celebrates 100 years of service to the province and people of Alberta, as well as many and diverse contributions felt well beyond the borders of the province where it first opened its doors in 1908. From its modest beginnings a century ago, when enrollment was only 45 students and 5 faculty, the University of Alberta has grown into a multi-campus community. With external research funding in 2005–2006 of more than $400 million, the University now employs over 3,300 academic staff and 6,000 support staff and is home to more than 36,000 students in more than 200 undergraduate programs and 170 graduate programs. What’s more, the University of Alberta is one of Canada’s foremost research-intensive universities boasting 21 faculties, 69 departments, and nearly 100 centres and institutes.

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