September 2006 ISSUE


Dr. Chan Wirasignhe, P.Eng.


The Challenge has been to Grow the Place Despite Budgetary Obstacles says Dr. Chan Wirasinghe, P.Eng., who is now the former dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary.

Q. When you look back on your 12-plus years as dean, what things stand out as your major achievements?

We as a school created First Choice, which is a 10-year plan to create Canada's school of first choice for engineering, in Calgary, Canada's engineering centre. I believe that my major achievement was convincing the professors, students, alumni, the industrial and professional community and, over 12 years, several senior administrations of the university, that this was a realistic goal, and also making significant progress towards reaching that goal.

In fact over 85 per cent of the sub-goals of the 10-year plan have been initiated or achieved. The naming of the Schulich School of Engineering, and thus the establishment of the largest endowment in a Canadian engineering school, in the face of stiff competition from two major universities, was a key step in achieving our First Choice plan.

We have established leading Canadian multi-disciplinary research groups in biomedical, energy, environment, micro-electro-mechanical systems, telecom, software, pipelines, drilling, navigation, transportation, project management, structures and materials, manufacturing, to name but a few.

Our undergraduate programs such as geomatics, manufacturing, software, biomedical specialization are unique to the Pacific Northwest.

The Calgary Centre for Innovative Technology is emerging as planned as a major multi-disciplinary research infrastructure facility with unique and highly valuable equipment and laboratories.

Two of my most cherished programs that will stand us in great stead in future are the women in engineering program, and the very high standards set for appointment, promotion and tenure for professors.

Three new buildings added to the school have not hurt either!

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced when you took on the job?

I took over in a year, 1994, when the province imposed a 20 per cent budget cut and a resulting reduction of staff. Since then, in 10 of the 13 years, the university has imposed additional budget cuts.

The challenge has been to grow the place despite these obstacles.

We have doubled undergraduate enrolment, more than doubled post graduates, more than doubled the budget, and quadrupled our research funding. 

Q. What did you like most about the job?

I enjoyed winning the major battles we faced against well-organized opposition, by forming teams composed of academics, alumni, professional engineers and, in many cases, leaders who were not engineers, such as Art Smith and Scobey Hartley.

Most gratifying was the establishment of the oil and gas engineering B.Sc. program, the Calgary Centre for Innovative Technology, the naming of the school, the biomedical engineering specialization, and the software engineering B.Sc. – still the only such program in Western Canada.

Q. What does retirement hold for you?

I am not retiring from academic life – only stepping down at the optimal time from the position of dean. I look forward to teaching and ramping up my research activity. Initially I will take a sabbatical leave. 

Q. What do you think your replacement, Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng., brings to the job?

Elizabeth Cannon has many of the attributes required to be a great dean of the Schulich School of Engineering. I think that she will portray the energy, quality, ambition and enthusiasm of the Schulich School as it attains its goal of being First Choice in Canada.

Q. What words of wisdom have you passed along?

I think I am wise enough not to pass along “words of wisdom.” Dr. Cannon has been a big part of our success. Each dean finds his or her own wisdom along the way!

Q. Will you have some ongoing responsibilities at the university?

I will return to being a regular professor.

Q. Anything not covered in these questions that you’d like to mention?

I want to acknowledge the significant support of my family, especially my wife, Dhamitha, and our three daughters, Shiroji, Manoji and Marla. All of my friends from the Calgary engineering community are but a close second.

The outstanding students that I met and the great young professors whose accomplishments we celebrate made it all worthwhile.