June 25, 2010
By Colleen MacPherson
Looking back over his tenure as the university’s first vice-provost responsible for teaching and learning, Ernie Barber suggests his most important role has been in simply representing “what was already true – that this university believes the student experience is vitally important.”
When he accepted the position in July 2008, Barber said he found “a lot of lament” about the university not valuing teaching. “I think what we had were people who cared a lot about teaching and academic programs, who intrinsically knew teaching and learning were important but who needed to hear somebody say it, needed to hear that they (the university) value what we value.” By putting in place a vice-provost totally focused on teaching and learning, the university said what needed to be heard, and “you can never understate the importance of clearly articulating intentions.”
With a new position but no budget or resources, Barber said his job was to focus “100 per cent on what other people could accomplish.” He described three aspects of his work, the first being “listening, encouraging and empowering, and that was the most enjoyable. When I had a hunch that two people needed to talk to each other and I brought them together, good things happened.”
The second part of his job was devoted to removing barriers and building structures to support teaching and learning. Thirdly, the vice-provost role involved creating opportunities for the university to distinguish itself as leaders in teaching and learning through creativity and innovation. “Now that teaching and learning has begun to find a voice and confidence on this campus, we need to take the giant step of imagining how we can be distinctive in our approaches.”
That distinctiveness will come, said Barber, in areas like involving undergraduate student in research, in collaborations and partnerships, in recognizing and supporting teaching and learning as a field of scholarly work, in curriculum development, in the incorporation of different world views into all teaching and learning, and in looking at the needs of learners from new perspectives.
“I think this university is ready for that kind of innovation,” said Barber. “I believe we have immensely creative people and I hope we find ways to give them more support, more confidence to bring new ideas forward. I also hope the university can take more risks and tolerate a bit more disorder because from disorder comes new ideas. There’s a greatness here waiting to bust out.”
On July 1, the vice-provost will move to the position of acting dean in the College of Engineering. It completes a circle for Barber; he began his academic career as a faculty member in that college. The vice-provost position will then undergo a review “to assess whether it’s the right investment for the university,” he said. In the interim, Angela Ward, currently acting associate dean in the College of Education, will replace Barber in an acting capacity.
Asked what advice he would like to pass along to his successor, Barber said it would be to do more of what the university does not do often enough – celebrate.