Promise made, promise kept

For University of Saskatchewan president Peter Stoicheff, this fall’s opening of the new P.A. campus made good on a promise — one by him and one in the name of the institution itself

University of Saskatchewan President Peter Stoicheff speaks at an official groundbreaking ceremony for the Prince Albert campus on Sept. 16, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

When Peter Stoicheff was an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan — long before he became president and vice-chancellor, he was profiled for a small piece in Maclean’s Magazine.

They said Stoicheff was a professor at the University of Saskatoon.

The mistake, while small, stuck with Stoicheff as he ascended the ranks and became dean of the College of Arts and Science, and later university president.

“That error always stuck with me because it made me realize, yeah, that’s not what the university is,” Stoicheff said Thursday.

“It’s the university for the whole province.”

But despite billing itself as the university for all of the province, the institution only had a physical campus in it’s largest city.

Up in Prince Albert, where they offered arts and science, medicine and nursing courses, the university was scattered, relying on whatever space they could find.

“We’ve been in P.A. for a long time, but we’ve been scattered in different venues we’re been able to rent, lease, or even use free of charge,” Stoicheff said.

Stoicheff was named president in 2015. In the early days of his term, that scattered presence in P.A. was something he vowed to change.

“My first visit as president, I did say to a pretty large luncheon audience that we wanted to consolidate our different programming under one roof and wanted to increase the kinds of programs we had, and increase access for students who otherwise couldn’t make it to Saskatoon,” he recalled.

“I didn’t know what that looked like. You’re always on shaky ground making a commitment when you don’t know what the solution to it is, but really, I was just saying it was so important that we knew we needed to find the solution.”

That solution came to the university in 2018 as the forest centre in Prince Albert. It was a building owned by the province and had originally been the home of the Saskatchewan Forest Centre, a non-profit organization founded to improve the knowledge base for the forestry sector. That vision never came to fruition. The not-for-profit folded in 2009 and the building was put up for sale in 2015. It sat mostly empty, housing a handful of offices until the university purchased it for its Prince Albert campus for $8.125 million in 2018, with an eye on a 2020 opening.

That opening was celebrated virtually this week, though the celebration wasn’t what the university originally had in mind.

“I’ve never opened a new campus anywhere before,” Stoicheff said.

“I’ve opened new buildings and those have always involved lots of people in attendance and they give me the opportunity to thank people face to face for all the support needed for a big project … to come to fruition. For something as big as a whole campus in a brand new city, the fact that we haven’t yet been able to do it in person is a challenge.”

Stoicheff said he’s confident that as soon as the pandemic permits, the university can have that large, face-to-face celebration.

The virtual celebration, Stoicheff said, was “extremely moving.” He was glad to see the different speakers representing the university’s staff, instructors, students and alumni, along with community members such as Mayor Greg Dionne, MLA Joe Hargrave, Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte, Elder Roland Duquette and Métis Nation-Saskatchewan president Glen McCallum.

While Stoicheff called the virtual celebration somewhat “bittersweet,” the facility still marks a promise fulfilled.

In addition to making good on that promise to P.A. about five years ago, the new campus is “one of the ways to make good on that commitment that’s right in our title,” Stoicheff said.

The Prince Albert campus, though, also represents a new promise to the students and to the university as a whole.

“There are lots of ways we measure growth, but the most important one for us vis-à-vis the Prince Albert campus is to give access to students who would otherwise be prevented from attending university because they can’t make the move to Saskatoon,” Stoicheff said.

“That’s the really big deal with us. The fact that measurably speaking, that will probably lead to an increase in student numbers is an agreeable byproduct, but that’s not what we’re really looking for.”

Putting existing programs together and adding new ones, such as dentistry, business, agriculture and bioresources and the entire first year of kinesiology helps students and researchers, Stoicheff said. The university is also examining adding education courses in the city.

“You’re able to mingle with all sorts of students in other programs you wouldn’t have been able to mingle with,” he explained, improving the student experience.

As for research, a lot of what the university examined involves communities far closer to P.A. and the north than to Saskatoon.

“We’re a research-intensive institution, one of Canada’s top 15, and having a second campus in a different location that will permit different kinds of research is very important,” Stoicheff said.

“All the research I used to do as a professor happened because I was interacting with students and was able to test ideas on students in classes, hear back from them and change what I was doing accordingly to learn and improve. Having faculty there interacting with students (and different faculty in the same building) — all of that leads to a lot more research productivity.”

While the campus has only been open for days, and although it’s only offering limited in-person labs, the feedback has already been positive, Stoicheff said.

“People love the location of it, and that’s feedback I’ve gotten even up to yesterday,” he said.

“Being right downtown, it’s part of the energy of the downtown and I hope can contribute to the energy, economic and otherwise, of the downtown.”

 The Prince Albert campus also saw a modest increase in enrolment, about one per cent, Stoicheff said. While that doesn’t sound like much, in the midst of a global pandemic, the university expected numbers to shrink, perhaps even by a large percentage. The increase in P.A. is encouraging.

“It’s a huge vote of confidence to see the numbers trend upward,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that if we weren’t in a pandemic situation, we would have seen even greater numbers.”

The other feedback has been excitement over what may be the most anticipated feature of the campus. That’s the new dental clinic, set to open this fall. It will be staffed by dentistry students and is designed to offer services to people who otherwise may not be able to access dental care.

The College of Dentistry’s dean is an expert in bringing dental care to communities outside of the largest urban centres, Stoicheff said.

“This is what he did in Manitoba and what he and his college are doing here at the University of Saskatchewan.” The clinic, Stoicheff said, is generating a lot of buzz.

The university, now, is here, and it’s open. Stoicheff said he’s eagerly awaiting the day he can say “thank you” in person.

He’s grateful for Prince Albert’s mayor, business community, councillors, teachers and the grand council, who all helped welcome the university and make this fall’s unconventional opening possible.

“So many people have had a big hand in this,” Stoicheff said. “It’s been very, very encouraging.”