Is oil money overflowing SAIT?
Keith MacPhail, CEO of Bonavista Energy Trust, donated $10 million in 2006. Enerflex Systems Ltd. founder John Aldred, along with Cheryl Aldred donated $15 million in April 2010. Not to be outdone Cenovus, an energy company based in Calgary, donated $3 million in 2012.
The number of donations that SAIT has received over the past few years is nothing short of astonishing. But is this oil money, no matter how impressive the sums, beginning to dictate what programs prosper and what programs fall under the SAIT radar?
SAIT power engineering technology academic chair Mitch McNeil said although it may look this way at times, it just is not the case. His program in particular has been around for 90 years at SAIT and just happens to be in heavy demand in the provincial workforce at the moment.
“I call them ‘flavour of the months.’ Some careers will go for a long time and then they will fade out because of new technology. Right now [power engineering is] in the limelight,” said McNeil.
The power engineering program was the major target of Cenovus’s recent $3 million donation, due to a crucial demand for trained power engineers.
The money has helped the department increase its enrolment for this year, and they will again open the program up to a higher number of students next fall.
SAIT academic faculty association president Doug Spurgeon said he recalled a time when his program, telecommunications, was floundering.
“For years our numbers were going down,” he explained.
But Spurgeon said that rather than allow the program to die a slow death, SAIT responded. The school “beefed up” marketing to ensure that a greater understanding of what telecommunications consisted of was made available.
Spurgeon said the move paid off, as next year the course will be running a double intake, indicating that the numbers are once again healthy and rising.
When it comes to where this donor money actually goes, SAIT attempts to find a middle ground between what the donors wish to accomplish and what SAIT requires in its strategic plan.
This is where director of alumni and development Brian Bowman comes in.
“It is our job to make sure everyone wins,” said Bowman.
Bowman explained that alumni and development essentially stand in the middle place explaining the direction the school wishes to take for the future.
Bowman referred to John Aldred, who wanted to increase the pride that comes with being a SAIT graduate. Aldred had originally began with scholarships and awards before he announced the colossal contribution to the Trades and Technology Complex.
“We didn’t convince him to support something. It was that he was so engaged in the TTC project that it was just essentially our brokering of John and explaining that he was the right guy to do this. The legacy [Aldred] will leave behind here, will live way beyond when you and I are gone,” said Bowman.
In terms of concerns over the abundance of oil-company influence on SAIT grounds, Bowman explained that there are protocols and advisory boards in place to discuss these potential scenarios. However, he explained that SAIT, potentially more than any other school in the city, is, “very much in concert with industry.”
“We seek input from them and we want them to participate in the development of our curriculum.”
“So if we are out to lunch and are teaching basket weaving when what industry needs is oil drilling, we are not going to receive support. The fact of the matter is, they succeed because we succeed in graduating students that are qualified to work in their industries,” he said.
Paul Oliver, a recent SAIT graduate, had moved to Calgary three years ago from Ireland where he had never heard of the oil sands.
Upon graduation, he was required to take on a practicum. Not surprisingly, the majority of the options were oil companies, but he opted for a position with WestJet.
“Everyone thinks money, money, money. I was thinking of the detriment to the environment. Working with oil and gas is like working for a cigarette company,” said Oliver.
Although oil and gas wasn’t his first choice, he still understands why so much emphasis is placed on oil and gas at SAIT.
“This is Calgary. Oil and gas are just an extension of the city.”