Walk Me Through Something Like That
Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce
September 17, 2009
Thank you to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce for this important opportunity to speak to you. I am barely past the anniversary of assuming the role of President of the University of Manitoba. This has been an energizing and fulfilling year for me.
I continue to find my life to be exciting, and filled with experiences I did not imagine when I was a boy growing up in a small town in Northern Ontario. I attended the University of Toronto where I studied computer science before it became popular to do so. I then worked at Queen’s University as a faculty member and was allowed to take on a number of administrative roles. During my nearly two decades there I completed a graduate diploma in Christian studies and some executive leadership training. I had almost a decade at the University of Regina, most of it as President. After that I spent a few years in the IT business in Regina, before returning to the academy a year ago. I have had the opportunity to work with business and public sector boards, and as a member of federal and provincial task forces. I have met and worked with a wonderfully diverse and stimulating group of people during my career.
This past year has been no exception. I have felt welcomed here in Winnipeg by members of the community active who are in the arts, in government, in non-government organizations and other groups. The welcome by the business community as represented by the Chamber, the Business Council of Manitoba, the President’s Advisory Committee established by my predecessor, Dr. Emöke Szathmáry, and many individual contacts, has been particularly warm and helpful. I have taken advantage of the business community’s eagerness by seeking advice from a number of business people on various issues already in this first year. And I expect to do so on future occasions as well.
I have been privileged in past roles to work with outstanding individuals who have bound themselves together strongly as teams to define and then accomplish previously unimagined outcomes together. My experience at the University of Manitoba is turning out to be a wonderful continuation of that pattern. Universities have employment practices that differ from those in your own business community in some ways, including having many leadership positions occupied by people on limited term assignments. Some of those in leadership roles at the University of Manitoba came to the ends of their terms in this past year, so there has been some reconfiguration of the President’s Executive Team, but many of the members of the team are continuing. I want to particularly acknowledge their warmth in welcoming me to be part of that team, their willingness to teach me the particularities of this working environment and their embracing of – and careful filtering and criticism of – my ideas.
I believe that the role of leaders can be characterized by these five responsibilities:
· Set the tone,
· Work with others to set the direction,
· Get good people,
· Get them the resources they need, and
· Get yourself and other obstacles out of their way.
I’m working with a team that makes it easy to continue believing that this characterization is a good one, who set a tone of affirmation, expectation and possibilities, and with whom I have had many stimulating direction-setting conversations.
Universities in western liberal democratic societies conceive of themselves as having a threefold mission: we preserve and pass on the intellectual heritage of society through our teaching mission, not –when it is done best – with a magisterial spirit but with a spirit of humility; we challenge the content of that intellectual heritage and push its boundaries through our research mission; and we apply what we know in the debates about important issues through our public service mission.
As you can imagine, this complexity of mission creates stresses within an individual institution; for example, the first is an inherently conservative mission while the second is an inherently radical one, so there can be a challenging discussion about the balance of the two. Further, like the environments in which all of you work, we work in an environment rich in ideas, and face a challenge in deciding how to allocate limited resources to these good ideas. And, of course, in addition to the stresses within one institution, there is the larger question, almost always kept below the level of explicit discussion in Canada, of how various kinds of institutions fit together into a system that serves the needs of society – colleges, teaching universities, comprehensive universities and medical/doctoral universities.
Nonetheless, the academic environment at the University of Manitoba is a tremendously rich and productive environment. I would like to tell you about some of the things that have been happening at the University in the past year.
· One of our researchers, Dr. Digvir Jayas, who is now Vice-President (Research) and most recently held a Canada Research Chair in Stored-Grain Ecosystems, has partnered for years with Dr. Noel White, an entomologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in the search for effective ways of improving the world’s food supply. Their work has had a global impact, especially in developing countries. Their dedication and commitment, and the extremely high quality of their work, resulted in them being honoured last year with the Brockhouse Prize awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for interdisciplinary teams with achievements of outstanding international significance. This prize has been awarded only four times since its inception, and University of Manitoba researchers have been involved in two of the four.
· The University of Manitoba has produced more Rhodes Scholars than any other university in Western Canada. We attract outstanding students and they receive teaching of very high quality when they are at the University. Raed Joundi a few months ago became the 92nd student from the University of Manitoba to receive a Rhodes Scholarship.
· One of our outstanding alumni, Dr. Clayton H. Riddell, was inducted into the Order of Canada last year, and was also honoured with the Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award from the University of Ottawa. Dr. Riddell’s personal and professional achievements speak to the excellent foundation that he established as a science student at the University of Manitoba. Some of you will know him and others will certainly recognize his name, because as a result of his generous investment in the University of Manitoba, our Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources bears his name.
· Like other medical and doctoral universities, we are dependent on generous support from the private sector, both from individuals and from organizations. Just a few months ago we announced that we had received a $7 million bequest from the estate of William Stobie who, with his wife Margaret taught English literature at the University of Manitoba and had previously made other donations. This is the largest bequest in the University’s history. And it came just after the end of our fiscal year, in which a record setting $44.1 million had been raised, the largest amount raised in a year that was not part of a capital campaign. We deeply appreciate the generosity of so many members of the community, on whom we are dependent for these gifts that enhance the research activities of the University and provide many tangible benefits for students such as new facilities, library acquisitions, scholarships and bursaries.
· We are proud of many things that our students have done, but I want to tell you about an activity that stands out. During reading week, or spring break, this past academic year, in a program delivered by our Housing and Student Life staff and supported by the Students Union, a group of our students participated in the “Alternative Spring Break.” They travelled to El Salvador where they helped local villagers build access to their local water supply. The University of Manitoba seeks not only to educate students but to instill in them a desire to assume leadership roles in their communities and elsewhere.
· We also value the relationships that we have with all orders of Government – with the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba and with the federal government. Government programs have been critical to the enhancement of our facilities in the past year. For example, we opened the Apotex Centre on the Bannatyne Campus as a new home for the Faculty of Pharmacy and parts of Medicine, began work on a facility for our part of the WestGrid intensive computation project, opened the Robert B. Schultz lecture theatre and Aboriginal House on the Fort Garry campus, and began a number of renovation and amelioration projects. We anticipate more work in the next year on Project Domino, which will rejuvenate and modernize a number of facilities over the next few years, and on the stadium project, where we also appreciate the good working relationships we have with David Asper and the Winnipeg Football Club.
What Lies Ahead
Now I would like to turn our attention to the future, to what you can expect from the University of Manitoba over the next few years. During the past academic year we have had widespread discussion within the University of a Strategic Planning Framework that will guide our major decisions during the next five years. I want to tell you about some of the things contained in that document.
I want to assure you that the fundamental mission will not change:
To create, preserve and communicate knowledge and thereby contribute to the cultural, social and economic well-being of the people of Manitoba, Canada and the world.
We have embraced these values, which are a slight expansion of what was in our previous plan:
· Responsibility to Society
· Equity and diversity
· Academic freedom
· Environmental sustainability
The vision that we have for the University is this:
We want our students, scholars, staff and alumni to have an association with the University of Manitoba that is transformative and we want their discoveries to be of the greatest possible benefit to their own lives, and to the lives of others.
Moving from these general commitments to more specific decisions and tactics has been shaped by several considerations:
· Uniqueness of the activity,
· Potential to draw on strengths from across the University,
· Potential to exploit being a great research university and thus to combine teaching, research and public service activities, and
· Alignment with provincial realities.
This is Manitoba’s university and thus we should focus on things that are of vital interest to the province, though at least some of what we do will have national and international significance and relevance.
There are 4 broad areas in which we see opportunities and needs for increased attention.
1. Academic enhancement: innovation in teaching and research programs.
Since this is our core business, it is to be expected that we would want to be continually refining the offerings – continuing some, adding some, possibly phasing some out.
We have identified the following 6 themes as being particularly important in the next stage of our development.
a. Healthy, safe, secure and sustainable food and bioproducts.
You can easily see how this builds on the traditional strength of the University of Manitoba (which had an agricultural college as a forebear) and its continuing major contributions (as witness the Brockhouse Prize I described earlier), as well as addressing the economic and social situation in the Province and international realities.
b. Sustainable prairie and northern communities.
Winnipeg has a long history as a focal point for westward movement in Canada, and now is a link to an increasingly important north. Communities, and sustainability broadly considered – environmental, economic, social, cultural – are very important and the University of Manitoba will be engaged in studying these realities.
c. Human rights.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a new iconic presence in the city, and reflecting on the future importance of the Museum serves as a renewal for the discussion of a cluster of programs and priorities that already exist at the University of Manitoba. For example, two thirds of the faculty members in Law are involved in one way or another with issues relating to human rights. We look forward to building a close and multi-faceted relationship with the museum.
d. Innovations in public and population health.
Health care and the costs associated with it are of concern around the world, and certainly here in Canada and Manitoba. Population health and infectious disease research is a well-established and globally competitive focus at the University of Manitoba. Work in this area will continue to attract international attention but will also generate results of value here in Manitoba.
e. Innovative materials and technologies.
The University of Manitoba already has expertise in science, engineering, architecture, environment, textile science and medicine that contribute to the study of innovative uses of materials. This work is supported by a number of groups and centres within the University. There are opportunities for local economic spinoffs from this work.
f. Culture and creativity.
The fine arts and the humanities, innovation across all areas, all aspects of design, the research enterprise itself – all of these are areas where creativity and critical thought are brought to bear. One particular example is the creativity involved in entrepreneurship and the growth of business opportunities. The contributions of the University and its various schools and faculties in all these areas spill over into the broader community in many ways, and these contributions are a source of cultural and creative development. It is critically important that the strong desire to focus creative energy on recovering from distressed economic circumstances not result in a diminution of the creativity needed in other aspects of our shared life.
The University of Manitoba will be nationally and internationally recognized for its teaching, research and creative excellence, sought after by students and faculty alike as their preferred site for study.
2. Outstanding student experience.
The pursuit of knowledge that forms the basis of the University’s mission must be sharply focused on the needs of students. But beyond that core activity in the classroom and the laboratory, the University and students meet each other in many ways – in the services we provide from the point of initial interest in attending, through to the alumni relationship that develops after graduation. In each of these we want to give students an outstandingly positive experience. What we have is good, what we want is better.
The University of Manitoba will be a student-focused research university from the time of recruitment: a life-long academic home where students contribute to a diversity of ideas and experiences.
3. Aboriginal achievement.
Manitoba has a large and growing Aboriginal population, with an increasing interest in and need for post-secondary education. However, a smaller percentage of Aboriginal people complete secondary school than is the case for the larger population, and the same is true of university level education. We want to work with the Aboriginal community, with other educational institutions, with governments and with private sector partners to make this situation better for Aboriginal people.
The University of Manitoba will work with a variety of partners to make Winnipeg the national centre of excellence in Aboriginal education, and in particular to allow Aboriginal students to be prepared for and to achieve educational success in the full range of academic programs that we provide.
4. Outstanding employer.
Our continued vitality depends on recruiting, retaining and developing committed and engaged faculty and staff. We will make this a priority consideration throughout the University. We want people who work at the university to be successful, and to have opportunities to develop their capacity and their careers.
The University of Manitoba will be an employer of first choice, offering and expecting respect for all staff and faculty, providing opportunities for leadership, growth and development, and recognizing the contributions made at all levels of the organization.
As is the case in your businesses, all of this is to be done in a broader financial context that is worse than we have experienced for a long time. This will mean that we have to be particularly careful about balancing the need for innovation with the need for preservation of the good things that are already taking place, that we need to be vigilant about producing and observing the value that we expect to find from our activities, and that we need to focus on costs and control them carefully. These are things that you need to do as well. We have projects underway to address costs, the layers of accretion of process that occur in organizations over the years, possible duplication of effort, and so on. We expect to see benefits from these projects but we also expect that the next few years could be particularly constrained financially.
While all of this is important, and it will indeed be the framework through which the leadership of the University will consider strategic decisions, this does not convey the strength of our aspiration. We want to have the University of Manitoba increasingly be recognized as a great university. We want to be part of a great city, a great province and a great nation. And we know that if all of us in Winnipeg, in Manitoba and in Canada aspire to great things for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation, then we can achieve great things.
I am not going to be satisfied with anything less than reaching for greatness, and assisting others who are reaching for greatness. I hope that is what you want, and I hope that we will find ways to work together to achieve it.
Many of you who are here today already work with us. As we do our work, we are particularly dependent on partnerships with others in the community. Some of you have contributed advice and time, working with the units at the University that are most closely connected to your profession or business. Others have participated in joint research projects, helping shape research goals and programs, and working together to find results. Others work with students – in classrooms as sessional or guest lecturers, in the workplace as mentors for students on practicum or cooperative placements, and as employers of our graduates. Many of you have contributed not just your time and your advice, but also your financial support to research programs, development projects or student awards. On occasion some of you have raised your voices publicly in support of our work, and we are particularly grateful for that. Some of you have helped us to learn how to be good partners. Some of our partnerships have formal definitions and others are informal working relationships. Many of them start from friendships or eventually become friendships, as people with common interests find ways to work together. For all of this, I want to thank you on behalf of the University and my colleagues there. Our mission demands that we work with others in the community, and we want to do it. We want to be good partners, working with you to build a bright future.
I want to end with a poem by the American poet Robert Gibb.
Just as there is evidence of activity and planning at the University of Manitoba and in all of your organizations, so there is evidence of the successful planning and carrying out of projects by past cultures in many parts of the world. Much of this is fascinating and evocative – we look at it and we wonder about the people who created what we see, and what motivated them. One particularly compelling expression of human planning and subsequent creative action is found in Peru. The Nazca culture flourished for more than a millennium from about 2300 years ago until about 1200 years ago. The altiplano of Peru is a wide plane high in the Andes Mountains. The Nazca left behind a number of large images laid out on the land. One of them is an image of a hummingbird. The poet Robert Gibb links together the experience of seeing a live hummingbird, the Nazca image of a hummingbird and an aspiration for the speaker’s own personal experience, in his poem Hummingbird.
Shunt and plumb bob, a whirling top
That keeps touching down on its pivot.
Wings, the book says, like blurry gauze.
The long thin nectar-threading bill
Of a bird that backs off only to start again
From its still point in midair.
Revved up, head-first metabolism.
The stone at the throat like a heart.
High in the Altiplano, its wings spread
Hundreds of feet across, a hummingbird
Flies among the sky-faced drawings
The Nazca paced off on their tarmac.
Walk me through something like that.
In the first part of this poem the speaker attempts to capture something of what we’ve all experienced when we’ve seen hummingbirds: the distinctive shape of the tiny body, the almost ethereal appearance that results from the rapidity of motion, the tremendous energy expenditure. I particularly like the line “Revved up, head-first metabolism” because it evokes the feeling I get when one of these wonderful creatures happens to be, briefly, within my field of view.
In the second part, we see the same thing, in a sense, but very differently: the Nazca image to which he refers is a piece of art carved into the ground. It is fixed forever and there is no dynamic energy involved in it. And yet … the beauty of art is such that the huge fixed image is, in fact, an accurate representation of the tiny, rapidly-moving real hummingbird. We wonder at the capacity of the Nazca to generate such marvelous images that are best viewed from a vantage point high in the air that they could not attain, but in any case the images are powerful and beautiful. As the poem’s speaker says, the Nazca hummingbird “flies”.
In the single line that is the third part of the poem, the speaker says, “Walk me through something like that.” Possibly this is the poet reflecting on the artistic achievement that has successfully represented the small, energetic bird in a huge, static image, and longing to be as successful as an artist. But I think this longing can be interpreted as a desire to participate in the experience of the bird itself – to fly, as the Nazca image flies, and to experience the “Revved up, head-first metabolism” of the real bird.
At the University of Manitoba, the people with whom I work are spending their considerable collective energy on making differences for the good of the people of this city, this province, this nation and this world through teaching, research and public service. Collectively, they are like the hummingbird with its “Revved up, head-first metabolism.” It is an honour to represent them here to you today.
My brief sketch of their work is like the Nazca image – it can only suggest the reality of what they do. It is a thrill for me to experience with them the energy that comes from this work, and to have begun to learn about what has been accomplished here in the past 130 years. My own experience with these colleagues, though, lies primarily in the future. I invite you to join with me in anticipating their future accomplishments. Let’s experience the coming excitement together. Let’s each say with the speaker in the poem, “Walk me through something like that.”