March 18, 2011
By David Stobbe
The first question is about the timing of your decision. Why now?
There’s no perfect time but some times are better than others. I know that transition is coming to this office and transition in a university can take a long time so typically, you want to give 15- months notice. It was a combination of circumstances that led me to believe that this is as good a time as any for that transition. We have an able and experienced Board of Governors. We have a collegial, integrated and very able group of senior executives. And I think the university’s situation now, in terms of budget and planning cycles, is stable. All these things led me to believe the timing was good. I also think it’s helpful for a new president to be working in his or her first year with an experienced chancellor. These are the kinds of considerations that were prominent in my thinking.
What about timing for you personally?
Well, I’ll be 64 when I step down but I have plenty of energy and I do not plan to retire, play golf and sit by the beach.
Do you have plans for after you step down?
I’ll certainly be exploring other opportunities in which I can, I hope, make a contribution. We plan to stay in Saskatoon but I don’t have specific plans beyond that. I hope to write about my experiences as president or my understanding of the evolution of the University of Saskatchewan. I’ve been here for 36 years, which is more than one-third of its history. I care deeply about this institution and believe in the close connection between the University of Saskatchewan and the province of Saskatchewan. I’d like to contribute to our understanding of university history and its importance in the province. That will be a major project.
How does the length of your tenure as president compare to presidents at other institutions?
When I leave, I’ll have been in this office 13 years so I’m certainly among the longest serving presidents in Canada. I believe I am in the select company of Tom Traves at Dalhousie (appointed 1995) and Sean Riley at St. FX (appointed 1996). We would all, I think, consider ourselves fortunate to have had the privilege to do this work for as long as we have.
The three wise men of the post-secondary sector in Canada?
Or ‘other’ wise (laugh).
What’s the best thing about being a university president?
I believe it’s the opportunity to make a difference on a university-wide scale, to contribute to the development of the university, and to represent its importance in many communities. I have often said about this work that any university president gets one opportunity to shape the future of his or her institution. Any university presidency comes to an end quickly in the large scheme of things. By the time you come to understand a university, know its communities well, chart its future, by the time you do all those things your time in office is closer to the end than the beginning so the opportunity is very precious indeed. I’ve often said of my work that it’s not a job, it’s a mission, and it will continue to be for the next 15 months.
What is the greatest challenge of the job?
(Long pause) That’s a great question. I don’t think in terms of this job having a down side but, to be sure, it’s a very difficult job. The challenges and issues that come to this office are formidable, and the time required to do this job, well, it’s huge. Anyone looking to work 9-5 or even 8-6 need not apply. That’s not a down side – it’s simply a fact that you have to accept, and that your family has to accept, enthusiastically or otherwise.
Can you describe the characteristics of a good university president?
Well, I think you have to be optimistic without being unrealistic. The president is a university’s lead storyteller and you have to believe passionately in the future of the university, and I do. At the same time, I have said I don’t wear rose-coloured glasses – you have to understand a university’s vulnerabilities and face them head on. You have to be persistent and you have to realize that, in the work you do, you’re in a marathon, not a sprint. You also have to have contained impatience and by that I mean you have to be impatient about achieving results but you can’t manifest that impatience at every turn.
What is the single most important determinant of success for
Your success depends on your ability to build and sustain relationships. The quality of your relationships underlies everything you do. You need good and effective relationships with governments at all levels, successful relationships with public and private sector partners of all kinds. You have to nourish relationships with your alumni, with your faculty, staff and students – your success depends, by and large, on those relationships. That, by the way, is a wonderful part of the work. The phrase ‘people person’ is sometimes overused but, to run the risk of overusing it further, you do have to be a people person.
Do you need a sense of humour to do this job?
Absolutely you have to have a sense of humour.
(smiling) Because some of my strongest critics have tenure and feel free to engage in what I call ritualistic denunciation with severe language and innuendo so you have to be able to laugh at yourself. There is a saying – this is not original – that you take the job very seriously but you don’t take yourself all that seriously. This work takes a sense of fun and a sense of humour, and I think I have both.
Are there any good jokes about university presidents?
Yes, but I’m not allowed to tell you them (laugh).
What is your hope for the University of Saskatchewan?
Take a look in 2011 at our campus, at our city and at our province. This place is surely one of the most fortunate on Earth. You want a university that reflects and lives up to that good fortune by being an outstanding university that contributes at every level to the success of the province, and you want to do so in part by contributing more broadly to the country and, where you can, the world. I don’t use President Murray’s phrase ‘an honoured place among the best’ to be repetitive. I think it’s fair to say that there have been times in our history where our ambitions have fallen short of what they ought to have been, but when you know the stories of the University of Saskatchewan, you know that the best of our history is comparable to the best in the world. It is to the best of our history that we should appeal in shaping our future.
How will the announcement of your departure affect your work as president until June next year?
The reality is I’m not ready to leave this office but it’s the nature of this work that you must give a lot of advance notice. I’m looking forward to what I can do for the University of Saskatchewan in the 15-plus months remaining in my term and I’m looking forward to making the best use of that time.
I’ve interviewed you many times over the years and asked you hundreds of questions. Now it’s your turn – is there anything you’d like to ask me?
(long, long pause) Is this for publication?
(another long pause) Why do I enjoy these interviews even though you always ask me such difficult questions?