Kwantlen's big man on campus

President Alan Davis has big plans and big dreams for the future of Canada’s best (and only) polytechnic university.

President Alan Davis has big plans and big dreams for the future of Canada’s best (and only) polytechnic university. 

By Matt DiMera
[news editor]

When president and vice-chancellor Alan Davis started at Kwantlen Polytechnic University five months ago, he had some concerns about working directly with students.

“I was worried,” says Davis. “What would the adjustment be after a few years coming back? But, I found it surprisingly easy.”

His previous posts had largely involved working in adult and online education and in administrative units isolated away from the action of students.

KPU president Alan Davis at his ceremonial installation in fall 2012.
(Elina Gress/The Runner)

“I also find the students here surprisingly focused,” he notes. “They’re very serious about their studies and about what they’re doing here. I’m sure they have fun and do some interesting things that would reveal the generation gap, but I don’t get the sense of that.”

He has enjoyed being back in the action and cheering on the sidelines for the Kwantlen Eagles, recently attending a Friday night winning game for the men’s basketball team against Capilano University.

“The people seem to play hard, but they’re good sports as well. It’s been a very good experience,” he says.

Davis thinks his current gig is a fantastic opportunity; one that he intends to relish.

“I don’t have to deal with all the details, the slog through all the details, I can always take the glory when others do the work,” he jokes.

“I can’t imagine a better job in higher education right now than to be here in this region, at this point in Kwantlen’s history.”

Kwantlen is definitely at a turning point. It continues to make the transition from a university college into a full-fledged polytechnic university. What it means to be a polytechnic university however, seems to be a little more murky.

“I think it’s something I need to work on with the institution. It kind of lacks some self-esteem in a way. It has somewhat low self-esteem and I need to lift that both amongst the students, amongst the employees, amongst our donors and board members and external supporters, and then, hopefully, generally when we survey the community, and say, ‘what do you think?’”

You have to find things that are going to grab people’s attention, make them sit up, take a second look and make them proud of us.”

He believes that Kwantlen’s self-esteem problem isn’t helped by the sharp turnover rate in its administration. Davis is the third president in five years. Other recent departures include former vice president, academic Anne Lavack and associate vice president, students Jody Gordon.

“The leadership thing has been an issue because of the comings and goings,” he agrees. “It’s very hard on everybody. I can see the wear and tear on particularly those people who really care and are engaged in the university.”

President Alan Davis has big plans and big dreams for the future of Canada’s best (and only) polytechnic university.

“We are in fact a unique institution. We are the only polytechnic university in Canada, I make this joke — we’re the best polytechnic university in Canada,” he laughs.

“I want to make it the foremost — somewhere down the line, people are going to say that’s the foremost polytechnic university. Of its kind, it is the best that you can get. People are still talking, internally, what is a polytechnic university? Well, it is what it is. That’s what we are,” says Davis.

“A pure polytechnic would be something like BCIT or SAIT or something like that,” he explains. “We’re a polytechnic university so we have this unique blend of both career- focused, and professional, technical training and a really solid base of liberal arts, science and business.”

In the tradition of the Atkinhead (named in honour of former KPU president David Atkinson), the Runner presents: ‘Where in the world is Alan Davis?’ President Alan Davis runs from a menacing cropduster. (Illustration: Jeff Groat/The Runner)

Davis envisions a merging of a traditional university with a place that integrates theory and practice, the academic and applied. He points out that Kwantlen’s research is largely focused on social justice, the environment and cultural issues.

“I think the other defining feature is that we are not an ivory tower. We do, do research, some lovely research, but it’s
almost all research that connects us to our communities and it’s applied in nature. We’re trying to help people solve problems and gain awareness of what’s going on, whether it’s dealing with gang issues in Surrey, or sustainable food sources in Langley, or whatever,” he says.

He also stresses the important of teaching and the need to focus on helping all learners, regardless of their background.
“If they’re of college age we can find a pathway for them to achieve whatever educational goals they have, assuming that we can continue to grow, assuming we’ll be funded to grow,” he states.

Davis has already begun the process of transforming Kwantlen into the institution he envisions, by focusing on becoming a leader in teaching and learning. In that vein, KPU is now looking to hire a vice-provost of teaching and learning.

He is also interested in changing Kwantlen’s reputation both internally and externally.

“I don’t think we tell our story in as compelling a way as it deserves,” he comments.

Former Kwantlen president David Atkinson built an executive suite of offices in Langley, in part to help rejuvenate that campus. But Davis has decided to take a more mobile approach.

“I don’t have an office, that’s what I say. People say, “where is your office?” and I say my office is basically my car, and I’ve got a smart phone.

He doesn’t have an office listed on his business card. It just says: Kwantlen Polytechnic.

“I think that’s the way it should be, for the president,” he says.

Davis has very specific ideas about what the president’s role should be and how he intends to fill it. For now he is concentrating on internal issues, but eventually hopes to spend half his time and energy internally, and the other half externally. His plan is to stay as long as he is needed and wanted.

“My focus right now, and I hope this is good judgment, is to really try to build the team I need administratively, to build the connections I need with the faculties and students and all the service areas, get them on side with the direction we’re going in,” he explains.

“I need to get myself in a position where I know exactly what we need and I can go ask for it, I can go lobby for it, and I know that I’ve got the right team in place to take us there.”

“I have a five year appointment, and I’m hoping if I do a half-decent job that they’ll renew me,” he states. “I promised the search committee that I would stay for 10 years, which I think is right for a president. I don’t think you should be too much longer than that, but I’ll commit to 10 years.”

Another commitment that Davis has made — one that has made a positive impression on many in the Kwantlen community — is to transparency and openness.

To that end, he is attempting to master the secrets of the Twitter-verse. So far, the experiment has been positive.

“It’s just so hard to constantly engage with people, but here you can send something to out to everybody who’s interested and each person can link through to the email address that I have in there and people can respond to the tweet more publicly or they can respond individually with their ideas,” he says.

“I think one of the things I heard when I came and when I was hired is that people are looking for transparency, they’re looking for openness, they’re looking for engagement.”

I suppose that’s the simple answer is I said I’d do it, and here I am.”