A Runner Exclusive: One-on-one with the president

Mae Valesco/The Runner

By Dan Chalcraft

The Runner: Why did you come to Kwantlen Polytechnic University?

David Atkinson: I’ve been in higher education for over 30 years. I started my career a long time ago at the University of Lethbridge as a faculty member and since that time I’ve been at five Canadian universities in various capacities as an administrator, and faculty member.

R: What was so appealing to you about Kwantlen Polytechnic University?

DA: Actually Kwantlen approached me. Usually for positions like this universities will use [an executive search consultant.] They are used in both the private and public sector. I got a phone call one day from the search consultant that was being used here at Kwantlen and asked if I was interested in exploring the possibilities of coming out here and that is how it kind of started.

R: After being at Kwantlen for one year, what do you think you’ve accomplished to make Kwantlen a better environment for students to study and learn and also for teachers, faculty and staff to work?

DA: Well, I think that there is a lot more work to be done. The most important thing about this year is we went from being an university-college to being a university and that involves an enormous amount of change [such as] a new governance model, new academic programs, new expectations from students, a new collective agreement [and] all kinds of things that we’d never had to think about before.  But, I think that if there was one thing that I am most pleased about is that people are very excited about [being a] university. They see this change from being an university-college to a university as a great opportunity to do something important and my job as president is a very simple one. Actually it’s to encourage people to make them want to participate in the process of change. And you can’t do this kind of change by telling people what to do; they have to take ownership of it and it has to be what they want not what I want. I think that over the last year we’ve been pretty successful. As far as students are concerned I think [the most important] thing  is academic programs.  So what we’ve been about over the last year is trying to develop new programs of study, new and different forms of opportunity for students and it takes a while… but we have all kinds of new programs that are coming on stream in 2010 and 2011. I think that they will provide great opportunity for students especially the ones who live in this region.

Mae Valesco/The Runner

R: What do you think students want to see Kwantlen do to feel so they feel that it’s their number one choice over UBC or SFU?  Do you feel that Kwantlen has to better market itself in the community, British Columbia and Canada so that students will want to come here?

DA: Well, I’ve worked in big universities and little universities and there is absolutely no question in my mind that the quality of undergraduate education is better at a smaller school than at a larger school. Sure, we may not have the enormous library like UBC or the sophisticated equipment, but what we do have are classes that do not get any bigger than 35 students and I think the learning environment here is the one thing that is the best. It’s all about the teachers, the professors, the people who are in the classroom and would you rather take a biology course with 35 students in it or 535 students? It is not hard to make the decision. And so my hope is that people recognize that and want to come here because they know that’s the way it’s going to be.
You can have the greatest story in the world but if you don’t tell anybody it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think that Kwantlen has been particularly good at telling people what it is that it does and it is for that reason that we are doing a couple of things. One is that we are reorganizing ourselves in order to better recruit students who want to come to Kwantlen, and the second is that we are going through a comprehensive rebranding exercise. Universities are no different than toothpaste; it’s not the toothpaste it’s how you brand it [and] it’s how you market it and we’ve got a great product here but we need to brand it and we need to market it. We currently have a major exercise going on intending to create a new brand of Kwantlen.

R: How will Kwantlen benefit from being a sponsor or being involved with the 2010 Olympics?

DA: This is the biggest event to hit Vancouver or the Lower Mainland in a long time [I don’t know the direct benefit]. The indirect benefit is that they are going to be using our facilities… a lot of people for example don’t even know that there is a Kwantlen campus in Richmond. So, they will be coming to our campuses and they will say I didn’t know that there is a university here or better yet I didn’t know that Kwantlen was a university. I think that the benefits of participating in VANOC for us is quite indirect but the other part of it is the Olympics are important so I think that we have a responsible as a publicly funded institution to try to assist the Olympics in whatever way we can.

R: What types of changes can we see in the future?

DA: I am committed to having Kwantlen maintain it’s open access policy so it’s just not a matter of always taking the best students because very often the best students are the not so great students.  Our product is an educated student and the only way we can get an educated student is to provide the programs that the student wants. So, that’s where I see us going in the future.

R: How have you incorporated Kwantlen’s First Nation into being an integral part of the community at Kwantlen?

DA: I’ve only been here 15 months so there’s only so much you can do in a year. I would say right now that Kwantlen needs to do far more. For an institution that calls itself by a First Nation’s word I don’t think we do anywhere near as much as we should. The challenge in British Columbia is that you will have all kinds of First Nation students but unless self-declare then really, we don’t know who they are. We will be opening a new Aboriginal gathering place probably next month, we have a First Nations advisor, and we have a First Nations advisory committee. But, like a lot of Canadian universities, we’re still struggling to find the right answer to that question and I don’t think we’re there yet.

R: What does the Tireless Runner Endowment Fund mean to the Aboriginal students at Kwantlen and how has the Tireless Runner Dinner and Silent Auction helped Aboriginal students succeed?

Courtesy of Kwantlen

DA: It has raised money for bursaries and for scholarships for First Nations. The dinner is always a celebration of things First Nations and I think that it is an important part of what it is. My personal wish is that we could make it grow… and I’m hoping that will happen.

R: How have you promoted Kwantlen to the community members, the general public, provincial government and other organizations such as the Surrey Board of Trade?

DR: One of the biggest parts of my job is to go out and meet people and to be able to tell them the Kwantlen story.  I think everybody who works here [has] a responsibility to tell the Kwantlen story. I am constantly going out giving talks, making presentations, talking to the politicians in Victoria because, as I said earlier, you can have a great story but unless people hear it you got no story.

R: In your November newsletter, you stated “Kwantlen is hardly swimming in money” stating that although enrolment for the current year is up 11 per cent which will most likely bring Kwantlen the largest group of students in it’s history. The problem is that Kwantlen should be concerned about a 16-million reduction in student aid, which will have significant impact on our students. What do you mean by that statement? How will that affect the community at Kwantlen, especially the students?

DA: That’s a big question. Financially, Kwantlen is in pretty good shape. There are a number of other universities and colleges in British Columbia that carry very, very substantial debt and have to finance that debt. We currently don’t have that problem and won’t face that problem for a couple of years. Eventually we will, as our expenses outstrip our revenues. I think that is a concern for us and we don’t anticipate that we will get any increase from government this [school] year and we don’t anticipate that we will be allowed to increase tuition by very much either. We are in this steady state situation financially at the very time when we need new resources in order to become a university and this forces us to think very very carefully about how we spend our money.

R: How has the president’s Ambassadorial Team (P.A.T.), a group of students from all disciplines, worked with you to publicly represent Kwantlen? What do they do to promote Kwantlen?

DA: The best ambassador for a university is a student; it’s one student telling another student that they had a good experience. Me telling them that it’s a great place or a faculty member telling them that it’s a great place has some meaning, but the most significant way of communicating your message is to use students.  It’s to use the people who are already having the experience and that is why we created the Kwantlen ambassadors. These are people who are involved, they represent the university at various kinds of public functions and become role models, become representatives of the institution and I think that has helped the institution a lot.

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