Dr. Annette Trimbee may only be nine months into her tenure as MacEwan University president, but as far as she’s concerned, she’s in good company among her peers.
“What I say to my peer presidents from across the country is that it doesn’t matter if this is the second university where you’ve been a president or if you’ve been a president for a long time, we’re all new presidents this year,” Trimbee says.
It’s a statement that’s hard to refute given the empty classrooms and packed Zoom calls that have defined the past year at post-secondary institutions. Fourteen months on from COVID-19’s arrival in Alberta, and universities are still responding to the crisis in real-time. University presidents in particular are having to formulate impromptu contingency plans against a previously unforeseen threat, and despite increasing vaccination rates providing a bit of hope and clarity, there still isn’t much of a playbook on which to rely.
But for Trimbee, it’s also been a strange start to what should have been a homecoming of sorts.
Although Trimbee was born and raised in the small railway town of Transcona, Manitoba (the town has since been incorporated into a Winnipeg suburb), her loyalties are fairly evenly split between Winnipeg and Edmonton. After receiving both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Winnipeg, Trimbee went on to complete her PhD in aquatic ecology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., before moving to the University of Alberta for a postdoctoral fellowship. Her move to Edmonton proved to be rather permanent though, as she would spend the next 30 years in the city, as well as raise both of her children here.
“Like a lot of people who come to Edmonton for post-secondary, I stuck around for a long time,” Trimbee says.
Edmonton is also where Trimbee found herself being pulled from a life of research into government policy.
“I came to the U of A to do my postdoc in water, and I started to get very interested in water policy and water management,” Trimbee says. “I wanted to understand how policy decisions were made and how water management decisions were made, and that’s why I joined the Alberta Public Service.”
Over the next few decades, Trimbee served as the deputy minister of Advanced Education and Technology, Treasury Board and Finance and Service Alberta. She eventually returned to Manitoba in 2014 to serve as president at the University of Winnipeg.
Although her professional journey gradually moved her away from the laboratory and further into administration, Trimbee views her unconventional career trajectory as one of her strengths.
“I don’t think it was a disadvantage,” she says. “I think it was an advantage because I was always seen as a person that was coming to the table with fresh ideas and a different way of looking at things.”
Trimbee also mentions how her ability to engage in systems thinking has helped her respond to perturbations, whether they’re algal blooms on a freshwater lake or a global pandemic at her university’s doorstep.
Trimbee’s first nine months as MacEwan University president haven’t been without some positives though. When asked to give an example, she catches me off guard with a quaint metaphor involving a classic video game and trails of digital candy.
“You might be too young to remember the game Pac-Man, [but] the candy for me is being exposed to lectures, workshops, student research projects, convocations in-person, the celebrations, the ceremonies. So I’ve had to find ways to try and find that candy through Zoom.
“And so yes, it’s much harder to lead a university when you are not regularly bumping into faculty, staff and students. But I have very much been in the mix, and it’s amazing what you can do with technology.”
And the ghosts?
“The need to avoid pressure to quickly offer up positions on the ‘topics of time’ on behalf of the university, as if the entire community was of one mind,” Trimbee says.
Mediating between those dissenting opinions has been particularly vital as MacEwan simultaneously navigates the pandemic, as well as funding cuts from the provincial government.
As of Budget 2021, provincial post-secondary funding is projected to drop from $5.47 billion in 2019-20 to $5.04 billion in 2021-22. The provincial government’s stated aim is to reduce post-secondary institutions’ reliance on provincial dollars, but concerns have been raised about the cuts pushing students away from Alberta and serving as a catalyst for a “brain drain.”
MacEwan itself saw a 10.1 per cent cut in 2019 and 2020, followed by a zero per cent decrease in 2021. The university has also seen tuition costs increase — as have other institutions across the province — but the timing of the cuts means that MacEwan likely won’t be undergoing an intensive restructuring process, such as the one currently occurring at the University of Alberta.
“MacEwan had taken a major cut a couple years ago and made some very significant changes,” Trimbee says. “I know for some of my colleague institutions that received big cuts, this was a tougher year for those institutions than for MacEwan. But we had our tough year two years ago.
“We don’t have the option of solving our future sustainability issues by selling land and selling buildings, and we don’t have major opportunities to save by academic restructuring. Because of our size, we’re already administratively quite efficient. So not every institution can approach its challenges in the same way.”
Despite the perceived tension between universities and Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Trimbee speaks rather favourably of her relationship with the provincial government. She is particularly enthusiastic about Alberta 2030, a recently announced initiative aimed at promoting job skills training in post-secondary institutions. Trimbee helped develop the 10-year initiative alongside the provincial government, and with regard to its specific aims, she believes MacEwan already has a head start.
“MacEwan is actually in very good shape, because our programs historically have had practicums, experiential learning, co-ops and so on,” she says. “We feel like our agenda is very aligned with where the province wants to go with the system as a whole, and we’re now trying to better define MacEwan’s unique value in Alberta’s post-secondary ecosystem.”
MacEwan’s position as Edmonton’s downtown university is certainly going to be part of defining that identity, and two issues that have uniquely affected the university are COVID-19’s impacts on the downtown core, as well as the area’s significant Indigenous population.
Despite the blanket effects of COVID-19, downtown has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. The push to work from home has led to soaring office vacancy rates and further exasperated concerns about dwindling downtown investment. The reduced foot traffic in the area has also contributed to an uptick in violent crimes and worries about safety.
Having spent six years at another downtown university in the University of Winnipeg, Trimbee is fully aware of the symbiotic relationship that exists between MacEwan and Edmonton’s urban core. That awareness is partially why she recently chaired the City of Edmonton’s Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force, but with regard to the current situation downtown, Trimbee expects things to largely improve once the pandemic subsides and people come back to working in-person.
Indigenous representation is another issue that is especially important to Trimbee, in part due to her upbringing and heritage. Trimbee is Métis on her father’s side, although she grew up in a time in the 1960s when it was common for Métis people to downplay — or simply deny — their identity. Nonetheless, Indigenous representation would go on to be a major theme during her tenure as president at the University of Winnipeg, during which the university implemented one of Canada’s first Indigenous Course Requirements for undergraduate students.
Like Winnipeg, Edmonton is notable for having one of the largest Indigenous populations among Canada’s big cities. That said, although Trimbee acknowledges the need to promote Indigenous representation at MacEwan by adding more Indigenous course content and hiring more Indigenous scholars, she isn’t sure if the exact same approach taken at the University of Winnipeg would necessarily translate.
“There are different ways to get to the same end,” she says. “We are looking at our own goals towards reconciliation as part of something bigger.
“With the events of the last couple of years, all universities are looking at equity, diversity and inclusion, and how that intersects with reconciliation and anti-racism. We’ve recognized that we’ve got to try and figure out how to be more responsive to all of these issues that our students care about.”
Responsiveness has been the name of the game for the last 14 months, and as MacEwan prepares to celebrate 50 years of operation later this spring, it’s hard to imagine many tougher than this one. Still, Trimbee remains optimistic, and she doesn’t just believe that MacEwan will survive these latest challenges — she expects them to be a springboard for an even bigger half-century.
“The sky’s the limit,” she says. “I am so excited by how willing the community is to think ahead and be nimble and be responsive and be relevant. So, we’re not stuck. Sometimes people assume that universities are stuck in old ways, but it’s really not the sense of MacEwan at all. It’s a very practical [group of] people who want to be helpful and kind of humble. I don’t think we really pat ourselves on the [back] enough, but I think we’re going to do marvellous things in the next five to 10 years.”