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“A university is an institution for all time. It can only build soundly if it has wide vision and a far-seeing penetration. It cannot permit itself to be too seriously affected by the difficulties of the moment, whether in its spirit or its material well being. For it has a carryover value, which is one of its greatest assets: and to maintain this value a continuity of purpose is essential.”
 R. C. Wallace 1
Breaking ground for The Arts Building

The one-hundred-year history of the University of Alberta has been a century of vision, a vision borne out of the partnership of two ambitious men: Alexander Cameron Rutherford, the first Premier of Alberta, and Henry Marshall Tory, a McGill University professor who became the University of Alberta’s first president. Critics at the time dismissed their dream as impossible, or at best impractical, but the vision would become a reality. The passing of the University Act in 1906 by the new government of Alberta paved the way to the official opening of the University in 1908.

The early years, under the careful guidance of Tory, who served as President of the University of Alberta from 1908 to 1928, were fruitful ones in which Tory recruited the University’s first professors and organized the construction of the first university buildings, starting with Athabasca Hall in 1911. These years also saw the shadow of the First World War fall over campus life, as well as the dark spectre of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Both events took their toll on the university population, and the 1918 epidemic led to a two-month cessation of university classes and activities in the autumn of that year.2 Despite setbacks brought on by these events, the University emerged from these trials stronger than ever, and both building construction and population growth continued.

Emergency slide at St Stephen’s College

After a decline in both enrollment and construction through the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the University of Alberta enjoyed a period of expansion that lasted from 1945 to 1969. The expansion was sparked at first in the years immediately following war’s end by an influx of veterans eager to begin their civilian lives studying at university, and again in the 1960s, when the post-war baby boomers came of age to attend post-secondary school.3 During this time, existing university buildings were expanded and a host of new ones built, including: the Physical Education Building, the Education Building, and Cameron Library.

The period from the 1970s to the present day has been a time of continued growth. French instruction in Arts, Science, and Education on campus found a home at the Collège Saint-Jean (since called the Faculté Saint-Jean and most recently, the Campus Saint-Jean), beginning in 1970. In 1984, Aboriginal education was formally added to the university mandate in the form of the School of Native Studies. While construction of new buildings on campus slowed during this time, building projects started in the 1960s, like that of the Biological Sciences Centre and the Central Academic Building (CAB) were completed in the early 1970s, while older buildings like Athabasca, Pembina, and Convocation Halls, and the Arts Building were given much needed renovations throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. 

In the last decade of the 20th century, the University fell under financial siege when the government of Alberta introduced a series of cutbacks to university funding. The costs of university administration came under scrutiny, and many university faculties and departments found themselves compelled to merge in order to reduce costs while struggling to maintain a high level of educational quality for incoming students. Tuition fees were increased following the implementation of the provincial tuition fee policy in 1991, an ongoing increase that continues to generate controversy among university staff and students to the present day.

Despite these challenges, the University of Alberta continues to evolve and adopt a fresh vision for the future; one which embraces the potential of the University’s many research projects to bolster the Alberta economy. This new spirit is embodied in current campus construction projects like the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT). This new centre of research is a symbol of partnership between the University of Alberta and the governments of Alberta and Canada, but, more importantly, it is a place that will draw new scientific talent and inventive industrial potential to the province.

Now a century strong, the University of Alberta stands as a global leader in higher education and human innovation. The idea of the university is an ongoing, ever-evolving one in Alberta; continually cultivated by some of the finest minds from Alberta, Canada, and across the world.  As it casts its sights on the future, the University of Alberta continues to mark its place in history. In the words of the University’s twelfth president, Dr Indira Samarasekera, the University of Alberta should be “a cauldron of new discoveries and new ideas.”4

1. Robert Charles Wallace. The University of Alberta: 1908 – 1933 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1933), pg. 14.

2. Rod McLeod. “A Terrible Price,” from “The History of the University of Alberta” (unpublished manuscript).

3. Office of the Registrar and Student Awards,. “Section 231, University History and Traditions,” 2005-2006 University of Alberta Calendar, The University of Alberta, 2006. http://www.registrar.ualberta.ca/ro.cfm?id=0 (accessed September 2006)

4. Richard Cairney. “University names its 12th president.” ExpressNews, November 5, 2004 http://www.expressnews.ualberta.ca/article.cfm?id=6179 (accessed September 2006)

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