Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Ask the President

 You often refer to TRU as being a special university. What is it about TRU that drew you to the position of president?

TRU has a unique history, and a special connection with the communities it serves, not one that you see often. It is this relationship, with our communities, that is a particular interest of mine. The success and strength of a university is not just about its educational opportunities or research activities; it is also about the communities in which it operates. What makes TRU distinctive, what attracts people to come here, ultimately has to have some connection to the Thompson-Cariboo-Nicola region, to the natural environment, to the social environment, to Indigenous communities. All these combined are the biggest strength of a university. Other universities are discovering that and starting to pay attention to the partnerships between universities and cities or between universities and regions. At TRU, it is in our DNA – it is our automatic way of doing things here.

 You have been in senior leadership roles while at the University of Saskatchewan, but this is your first time as a university president. What does the role of a president entail and how do you see yourself fulfilling this?

The formal job description of a university president is two to three pages of bullets, enough to make any reasonable person’s head spin. A much better way to characterize the job of a president, and something I learned from one of my mentors, is that a president is really responsible for four things. One of those is strategic priorities, ensuring a university has a sense of priorities that are appropriate for where it is and where it is going. Second is governance, cultivating an environment where people actively participate in university governance that in the end makes the institution sound. Securing resources is also part of the role of president, and that means helping to ensure the university has access to the resources it needs to fulfill its mandate. This includes financial and people resources. Lastly, and certainly not the least, is cultivating relationships with all the people who matter to the success of a university. That means relationships with students, faculty, with staff, with alumnae, with community leaders, with government leaders, with transformative donors and supporters.

Of those four things, in a well-functioning university the president will be spending 90 per cent of their time on relationships. I think that is particularly the president’s responsibility, it is the essence of the job and what attracted me here.

 What do you see as the biggest challenges facing TRU and what are the opportunities?

For all universities, there are issues of resources and relevance. Universities can productively use almost any amount of resources that society would conceivably entrust to us, and as a result, we will always perceive a shortage of resources compared to what we aspire to do. Public sector budgets are tight, student budgets are tight, many family incomes are tight, so there are no golden eggs that will rescue universities from what they will feel is a shortage of resources. So that requires universities to be thoughtful of where and how we use scarce resources, and have a balanced approach in how we secure resources from different groups. In the long run we have to justify the resources we receive through the impacts we make in external communities.

So the flip side is relevance. Society entrusts resources to universities because people believe what universities do is valuable; and it certainly is, and there is plenty of evidence to show that. However, in the last 10 years there has been more questioning of the value of universities than ever before. People are wondering whether the purpose of a university is just to prepare people for jobs, and if so, is a university preparing people for the right jobs and in a productive way. That relevance issue is being addressed across North America and many countries in the world today. It represents a challenge to the historic social contract that sustains universities, to the way universities serve society and are understood to serve society.

I think TRU is well positioned with respect to both those challenges. We have been doing many things to manage our own resources and that has put us in good shape financially. On the relevance question, the fact that we have such a close connection to our region, the fact that we have a unique mix of programs including open access, open learning, which makes us accessible to so many people, and we have trades and technology programs, we have a different answer to the relevance question. We have a unique and I think more compelling answer to the relevance question than many universities would.

 You have been hired for a five-year term. What do you hope to accomplish in that time?

TRU is a young, dynamic, ambitious and evolving university. One of the things that people have said to me, which I’ve taken to heart, is that TRU needs a renewed set of strategic priorities, or new vision, to guide it through the next period of time. That vision wouldn’t be set just by me, but through a process, where we get advice, feedback, from the people who care about the university’s success, and the region’s success. To have that vision in place, and within five years, to have our resources and efforts aligned to meet that vision, would be success.

 While you have a big job as a university president, at the end of the day, you go home like everyone else. What do you do to unwind?

Hiking has been a long interest of mine and the mountains in Kamloops are truly inviting. Whenever I can, when the weather is suitable, that is where I’d like to be. When it comes to indoor activities, my top priority is connecting virtually with my family who are far away from me. My children know that I have a fondness for silly cat videos, bad puns, and tabletop games that we sometimes play as a family from multiple locations. I also like reading. I try always to have one or more books on the go, and tend to alternate between fiction (science fiction preferred) and nonfiction (public policy, cultural studies, physics, or ecology). In addition, in between all of this, my wife Norma and I enjoy watching dramas on Netflix.

 Universities are ultimately about students. What advice do you have for students, whether current or future, or studying on campus, abroad or online?

Learning is work. Like work, it can be fun and satisfying; but it is still work and you have to organize yourself much as you would to get any job done. The first step is always to get out of bed in the morning and tackle whatever you need to do with energy and optimism. I find it important to clear away backlogs, clutter, and overdue tasks so they don’t weigh on me psychically or emotionally – if it needs doing, then do it. If it’s something that involves other people, do it respectfully but make sure it gets done. I also find that “the best is the enemy of the good.” There are so many things to learn that it is self-defeating to try to be perfect in any one of them. Fortunately, perfection isn’t the goal. It’s important to feel satisfaction from doing a good job within the scope and purpose of each assignment. Remember to take a few moments to enjoy that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and to compliment others when they have done well. I think you learn better when you pause to feel and reflect on what worked and what went well, before rushing on to the next task. And seek opportunities, especially opportunities that stretch your comfort zone. Take an unfamiliar course that interests you; volunteer for a cause; consider a study-abroad option. These are, by the way, pieces of advice I follow myself on almost a daily basis. Coming to TRU is my own, personal “something new that stretches me.”

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