New in the chair

On Campus News writer Kris Foster sat down with Greg Smith on October 16, the day of his election as chair of the University of Saskatchewan Board of Governors, to talk about his views on his role, risk and the path forward.

By Kris Foster
On Campus News (OCN): What convinced you to let your name stand to be chair of the board?

Greg Smith (GS): When I took on the position of vice-chair I wasn't seeing the position as a precursor to the chair position. I would have been quite content to have Susan (Milburn) continue her term and to serve as vice-chair under her. Unfortunately timing did not allow for that to happen. So, there was a natural progression, from vice-chair to chair.

A number of board members are relatively new to the board and given that a certain number of the 11 members are not eligible to serve (as chair), the pool of candidates becomes somewhat limited. I was pleased to take on the role of chair with the support of my fellow board members. I don't see the chair as a having an agenda or being in a position of particular influence; the role is defined by our terms of reference.

OCN: How do you see the role of chair?

GS: The term I would use is the Latin phrase primus inter pares; first among equals. The chair does not drive a particular agenda; I need to facilitate our agenda. I need to perform in particular areas of responsibility that are assigned to the chair in our governance model and I will look to my fellow board members to support that work.

One of the significant responsibilities is the chair of the board also chairs the presidential search committee. Given our current circumstance we are actively searching for our next president.

OCN: What are some of the priorities for the board in the year ahead?

GS: Our most important role in the coming year is to appoint the president.

The other significant responsibility is to monitor the connection between strategy and mission. For us to perform at a high level we need to be cognizant of the risks that face the institution and be vigilant as to how the risks are being managed and how we are evaluating risk. We need to ask difficult questions of management and probe and test their assumptions about alignment with strategy in the operations of the university.

OCN: What are some of the risks that are top of mind?

GS: The risk register moves; it is a document that is dynamic and changes. We worry about deferred maintenance, the capital requirements and there are always funding risks.

Not all risks are financial and certainly the risks we are concerned about impact whether or not we can be successful in achieving our strategy and delivering on our mission.

OCN: How does the board deal with risk?

GS: For those risks we believe have the potential for significant impact, we look at our mitigation strategies and evaluate our options. We can insure against certain risks, we can accept certain risks and put controls in place to monitor those risks or we can eliminate risks; these all come at a cost and of course we do not have unlimited resources so we must make choices.

OCN: The board was involved in a tough time this past spring. Was there a point where you thought "I really don't want to do this anymore?"

GS: Oh no, not at all, (laughing). I don't think that ever happened to me and I don't think it happened to any of my board colleagues, not that they shared with me at least.

We ask tough questions and we must make difficult decisions. I think it is easier to make those decisions when you are fully invested in the wellbeing of the institution. Every board member has a strong affinity for the U of S and cares deeply about the institution; I know this to be the case for myself and I've heard that sentiment articulated by each and everyone of the board members. When you have that orientation, I think it is a little bit easier to make the required decisions.

OCN: How have the events of the past spring affected the university?

GS: The U of S has been here for more than 100 years. We have been through some difficulties this spring and I don't want to underplay that, but in the rich history of the university and the bright future that we see for it, I don't want that to define us. I think we are on the path to renewal and we've made some strong appointments in our interim president and interim provost. They are doing some tremendous things to help the campus heal.

We are still interested in our teaching and discovery missions. We were teaching students and conducting research before the spring and we continue to do that now. It is important work.

OCN: What are some of the issues you're looking forward to dealing with?

GS: It's not an issue but I am really looking forward to the presidential search and identifying the next president of the University of Saskatchewan. We are currently in the midst of populating a search committee whose 12 members should be identified by end of the month. We are anxious to get underway and will take the time necessary and exert the effort required to identify the very best possible candidate and secure that individual to be the next president.

OCN: What are the selling points for the U of S in attracting a new president?

GS: There are so many good things happening at the University of Saskatchewan that I believe we will be attractive to an individual who will be interested in helping the university deliver on its potential. That prospect excites me the most.

The campus is an exciting place to be; it's vibrant. You come here and there are young people learning, research being undertaken, people engaged in discovery, developing great partnerships.

OCN: Any other key agenda items?

GS: A secondary issue I look forward to is having the College of Medicine realigned and working under full accreditation. There is tremendous potential and service in that college; it is such a significant part of our university and I look forward to them realizing their potential under the leadership of Dr. Preston Smith.

OCN: Those are big issues.

GS: (laughing) Well, these are some of the issues that face us and others will present themselves. That is the nature of what we do as a board. We have a fiduciary responsibility for the resources that are entrusted to the university by our funders. This is a weighty responsibility, but I think … we still have to be nimble to react to what comes before us. I believe we have tremendous capacity in that regard.

We have a great set of skills around the board table. We work well together and we know that as issues present themselves we will have to respond and make decisions. A couple of issues are well formed and known to us, but there will be others that arise in the coming months and years, there always are, and we will be prepared to address them.