David P. Burns, Ph.D. is the associate vice president, academic at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and has been since October 2021. Previously, he served four years as the vice-chair on KPU’s Senate, chairing a number of committees including the Senate Standing Committees on curriculum, university budget, policy, program review, academic planning and priorities, governance and nominating, research, teaching and learning, as well as tributes.
He has also been a faculty member with the Department of Educational Studies at KPU since 2011, where he held a teaching position until 2021, and has published scholarly articles on moral education, scientific literacy, educational policy, university teaching, and the philosophy of education.
He received a B.Ed. in Secondary Education, and an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Alberta, where he previously taught, and has also worked as a high school teacher and educational consultant.
When did you join the KPU community, and why?
It was 2011, which was ten years ago this last September. I just passed my ten year KPU anniversary, which is pretty cool. I had a very unusual opportunity at that time to continue teaching at another university or to teach at KPU — and it’s not often in life that you have the chance to sit back and say, “Alright, there’s a fork in the road here, I can see it, and I can think a little while about which road might fit better with what I want to do with my life, and my time,” which is a really interesting experience, and one for which I’m grateful.
I thought that if I went the KPU route, I would have more space to take up really great projects and really interesting things that came up, and I thought that would just be terrific. One of the challenges of being an educator is that often you’re asked to teach the same course many, many, many times, and if the course is not your top priority, that’s much less fun over time, and it’s not as good for the students. It’s less interesting for you and them.
So, at KPU I had this amazing space to say, “You know I’m going to do a completely different thing with this next time,” and so all the time I was teaching — up until a few years ago when I started doing some different work in the university. I loved every single class that I taught, and I was able to do interesting things with all of them, and I never felt like it was the kind of chore that I was afraid of.
You’ve got this really great amount of freedom to do interesting things, and that was my reasoning behind deciding to go the KPU way.
What is your favourite story of your time at KPU?
One of the things that I have loved the most, that I will cherish my entire life about working at this university is that I had the space to just focus on working with particular students more closely.
I didn’t even need to have a good reason, you know I just had some interesting people to work with and so I could say, “Why don’t we do some research together — why don’t we do some work here,” and because you have a lot of academic freedom to choose those sorts of things, you can invest time in people just because they seem like they’ve got something to say academically. Because KPU has focused on smaller class sizes, those opportunities are not always available to people elsewhere.
My favourite story from doing that is, I took three students with me to a major conference on some research they did, and they held a presentation, essentially without me, and I had a really prominent professor from another institution — a research intensive university —come up to me and say, “Where did you find such good doctoral students? They just seem excellent.” And I said, “Actually these are B.A. students from KPU, we don’t have a doctoral program, this is just what people like this can do if they get a shot at something like this.”
I couldn’t be more proud of that. I’m so proud of them, I still think there’s so many students that I could tell you a story like that for, it’s incredible.
What is something you’d like to say to people new to the community?
KPU is what you make of it, and that’s true for students, faculty, staff, and everybody. I’ve seen careers flourish for people in ways they didn’t anticipate. I did not expect to do the kind of work that I’m doing — it’s amazing, exciting, and humbling.
It all comes back to this idea that the university is an open and flexible place, in the sense that students can have access to some of these opportunities that you wouldn’t see elsewhere, that faculty, and staff, and administrators can chart new paths at this university.
What are you working on right now?
So this job, one of the core pieces of it is to empower the other people around me. Find out what they need, and help them, because we’ve got champions of all kinds of major important exciting issues. One of the things that we need to do is make sure that those kinds of folks have the space and support they need to do this incredible stuff they’re doing.
I had a call on work-integrated learning opportunities for students, and we’ve got an extraordinary faculty member that’s been a champion of that, Larissa Petrillo. A lot of people are familiar with her work, she’s just done so much for so long, and for the precise reason that she cares a lot about what it means to students, and to their futures. She just goes out and does it, that’s one of the great things about KPU.
I’m working with Fiona Whittington-Walsh on her work to include all citizens, making sure that university education is open to a really truly diverse range of people, with different kinds of needs and cognitive experiences in their lives.
Perhaps the largest thing I’m working on right now is I’m trying to get the whole university policy system to be more consultative and responsive to people, so we’re engaging in a lot more consultation before we revise policies so that people can say, “Look this is what we want the policy to deliver at the other end.”
And then we’re going to go away and rewrite them in ways hopefully that deliver on what the community asks for, and start to get people to see more and more of their ideas. It’s really important to me that the rules we set for ourselves feel like they’re collective things, because we all interact with them. It’s just like the law, it’s just on a smaller scale.
What is something you would like people to know about you?
I always believed a person is a poor judge of how they are viewed by others in many cases. I couldn’t tell you what people think of me very well, perhaps that’s just me. After ten years, the amount I do not know about this university has increased, it hasn’t decreased, and for that reason — and especially now that I’m doing administrative work — it’s really important for me to hear from people. Bump into them in the hallways, send an email about something they’re thinking about that the university could do differently, or policies that we should change, and these kinds of things, because there’s just so much that is different in every little corner of the university.
I’m very cognizant that the diversity of experiences on our campuses, and the number of all the different people connected to KPU is just enormous — there’s just so much that’s different to different areas — so it’s really important for me to hear from people.
People will send emails and say, “Oh I’m sorry to bother you,” about this thing or that thing, but no, no this is really important. If I don’t hear from people about what they’re concerned about, what the opportunities they see are — it’s hard to support them. So it’s really important for me to hear from folks.