University of Windsor’s Year of Change

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Windsor Star/Dalson Chen

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the University of Windsor‘s eventful year, it’s that change requires adaptation, says university president Alan Wildeman.

“Situations evolve,” said Wildeman in a recent interview. “We need to be vigilant to evolve with them.”

But Wildeman insists that all of the university’s ambitions — from completion of the new engineering building, to development of the downtown campus, to acquisition of the Assumption University buildings — are necessary.

“I don’t think anybody has questioned that we needed to do these things,” he said. “You need to have a campus that’s modern, that functions well, that has spaces where people want to be. If we don’t have that, we’re not going to attract students.”

Wildeman emphasized that these changes weren’t undertaken recklessly. All of this year’s activity was the result of careful planning, he said. “It just seems like there’s a lot going on at once.”

And as 2013 draws to a close — marking a half-century since the institution was granted university status in 1953 — Wildeman says 2014 will bring further renewal.

The new campus cluster

Although students began using the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation in September 2012, it wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that the $112-million facility had its official opening ceremony.

Four years of development and two years of construction went into the 300,000-square-foot, state-of-the art building, which puts the university’s entire engineering department under one roof.

“We’ve had a tremendous response,” Wildeman said. “The students have been very excited about it.”

Still to come in the new year are the integrated Innovation Centre and multi-level parking garage, which are being built across the street from the engineering building, on the southwest corner of California Avenue and Wyandotte Street West.

The two-storey Innovation Centre will be the new home of campus police and other campus services, while the seven-storey garage will provide 1,055 vehicle spaces.

Wildeman said he expects the parking structure will be ready by the end of January 2014, and the Innovation Centre should be complete by the spring.

“It’s really going to create a very exciting cluster around the Wyandotte and California intersection,” he said, going on to note that a campus section of Sunset Avenue will be permanently closed to traffic in mid-2014.

“This will become a pedestrian area.”

Progress on the downtown campus

The first physical steps in the university’s takeover of three downtown Windsor properties took place this year.

Work is now underway to transform 167 Ferry St. — the former home of The Windsor Star — into the new location of the university’s social work department.

Heavy equipment is being used to tear down large sections of the 89-year-old building while leaving the historic facade intact. “That’s the signature piece of the new building.” Wildeman said.

Completion is hoped for early 2015.

The two other structures that are part of the university’s $70-million downtown campus investment — the old Armouries building and the former bus depot on University Avenue East — are still in the planning stages.

But Wildeman said physical work on those projects should begin in 2014. “These are very complex projects. We look forward to being able to tender them as early in the new year as we can.”

When the transformation is complete, the Armouries building and the 74-year-old Greyhound terminal will be the new homes of the university’s music, film and visual arts programs. Concept renderings have involved a new recital hall, studio areas and outdoor performance space.

Wildeman said the impact of the 2,000 students that the downtown campus is expected to bring to the core cannot be overestimated. “People will see these historic properties brought back to life,” he said. “For businesses, it will mean a lot more activity. There are all sorts of upsides to this.”

Purchase of Assumption University buildings

Although the deal was only finalized earlier this month, the acquisition of the properties of Assumption University is something that has been under discussion for a while, Wildeman said.

“For us, it represents an opportunity to re-think how we’re positioned on campus,” he said.

The $2.97 million arrangement will allow the Catholic ministry to remain on campus at no cost, while the university’s central administration — including Wildeman’s office — will move into the main historic building at 400 Huron Church Rd.

The current location of university administration — Chrysler Hall Tower — will then be free for further consolidation of student services.

Assumption University’s two-storey house at 2629 Riverside Dr. also now belongs to the University of Windsor.

Unlike the downtown campus, the re-purposing of Assumption University properties won’t involve heavy renovation, Wildeman said. The relocation of administration should be complete before next fall.

“In the new year, we’ll start a planning process, with the intent of doing the move in late spring,” Wildeman said. “It’s a lovely old building.”

Aside from the logistic benefits, Wildeman said it was important to administration not to lose the campus connection with Assumption University. The financial burden of maintaining the properties was weighing heavily on the Catholic ministry, “and their building was not being used to full capacity by any stretch,” Wildeman noted.

“Overall, it’s very much a win-win scenario.”

Possibility of law school moving downtown

For now, the suggestion the University of Windsor’s law school could move downtown remains only that — a suggestion.

Of course, the $15-million grant being dangled by the City of Windsor makes a compelling argument. But Wildeman said the next step is to leverage that grant to attract funding from other levels of government.

“The project will require that to be able to go forward,” Wildeman said. “We’ll see how successful we can be.”

Asked how much more investment would be necessary to make the suggestion a reality, Wildeman declined to name a figure — only saying it would need to be “a very significant” commitment.

The CUPE strike

Progress on projects, deals and developments weren’t the only stories involving the university this year. The 2013 fall semester had a controversial start when members of CUPE Local 1393 went on a month-long strike over job security, pay equity and bumping rights.

The striking members included lab support and information technology staff, resulting in many student complaints of lack of services and cancelled classes.

A tentative deal was finally reached on Oct. 8 — 30 days after the strike began.

“I think it was to everybody’s credit that people worked hard to get back on track as soon as they could,” Wildeman said.

Asked the current state of campus labour relations, Wildeman replied that administration continues to approach bargaining “as best we can,” but from the standpoint that “we have to live within our means.”

“I don’t expect the collective bargaining processes across the public sector in Ontario to be unlike what we had here. I think there’s always a lot of questions, a lot of issues — whether it’s the University of Windsor or any other place in the province,” Wildeman said.

At one point during the strike, the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance called for a monetary refund, arguing that students weren’t receiving the value of their tuition.

Wildeman said the university “did all we could” to make up for lost time, but a refund won’t be forthcoming. “When the strike ended, we did some things to try to increase services…. The loss of services is something we regret, but it’s a reality of the collective bargaining process. When all was said and done, the students were able to complete the semester,” Wildeman said.

“We just need to do all we can to avoid it happening again. But I can’t make any guarantees about how collective bargaining is going to go.”

Wildeman said full-time students received $15 and part-time students received $10 on their UWinCARDs as a token of administration’s appreciation for their patience during the strike.

As for complaints about rising tuition, Wildeman said the university follows the provincial framework — which he acknowledges has increased tuition 5 per cent a year, on average.

“Tuition in Ontario is amongst the highest in Canada,” he said. “Student debt is a big issue. Everybody knows that. Right now, about half of our students are taking OSAP loans.”