A Season of Growth

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

For wisdom becomes known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue. ~Ecclesiastes 4:24~

Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

St. Mary’s University in Calgary is a unique institution. The only unaffiliated Catholic University in the west of Canada, St. Mary’s was created by the lay community to offer witness to the over 2000 year-old Catholic intellectual tradition. From the very beginning more than 30 years ago, the university’s goal was to offer an alternative to the excellent but far larger universities and colleges in Calgary and in Alberta, where small class sizes are a reality, not just at the seminar level, but in lectures too. The result, we know, is an engaged student community, resulting in a connection between the professor and the student that is second to none.

Recent conversations with community supporters reminded me that much is unknown about the challenges we face. St. Mary’s is the fastest-growing post-secondary institution in Alberta, with a growth of more than 50% in the last six years alone. We offer close to $250,000 a year in scholarships and bursaries to approximately one fifth of the student population, and we set our tuition rate level with the public universities (but with free parking to boot!). We are a provincial leader in First Nations collaborations, and have incredible and award-winning programs that support Calgary’s most economically-disadvantaged learners.

First and foremost, however, the university offers first rate academic programs in the Arts, Sciences and Education, with hundreds of President’s Circle scholarships supporting students with high academic averages. We have a dynamic sports culture on campus, with a women’s basketball team that has won silver medals two years in a row, this, despite the fact that we are the only university in Canada that does not have its own gym. Our Education students are not only being hired in record numbers, but are also dominating in nominations for, and winning, Edwin Parr Awards, a prestigious provincial acknowledgement for best first year teachers.

But here’s the rub. St. Mary’s is the lowest-funded postsecondary institution in Alberta by a wide margin. We receive millions less than institutions that have smaller student populations. We receive no capital funding from the province. Ironically, while St. Mary’s was one of the few independent academic institutions in Alberta to receive Federal Infrastructure Funding — which has allowed us to transform many of our buildings over the summer break — no matching funding of any sort was provided by the province, which of course provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the other universities and colleges. As such, St. Mary’s will now have to find $400,000 of new matching money during a provincial downturn.

Despite this, St. Mary’s continues to grow, though the lack of buildings and classrooms on our beautiful 35-acre campus will soon mean that we will not be able to continue accepting many of the students who are flooding our gates. Without a residence, many of our international partners cannot send students. Without a gym, our athletics programs can only grow sparingly. And yet so much is possible here! Our supporters have moved mountains to ensure that we continue to provide growth and opportunity, while avoiding deficits and building endowments to support our students. In the end I believe that God is watching over us, guiding our decisions and our partnerships, so that despite the financial pressures we continue to be the go-to quality boutique university in the country.