The Leaders by Ivey
The Leaders by Ivey

Episode · 1 year ago

Rallying a community for the future

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Ambitious. Bold. Hopeful. These words encapsulate the mindset of Western University’s President. In this special episode hosted by Ivey’s Dean Sharon Hodgson, Alan Shepard discusses how the university community rallied through the pandemic and pivoted to a blend of online and in-person learning. The conversation touches on the future of teaching, research, lifelong learning, and partnership.

Insights in wisdom lie within every business decision. Welcome to the leaders by Ivy podcast, where we discover hidden narratives and unlock key learnings for our own leadership and career journeys. Hello Everyone, I'm Sharon Hodgson, Dean of the Ivy Business School. I'm excited to be hosting the final episode of season two of the leaders by Ivy podcast. My guest today is my friend and colleague, Alan Shepherd, president of Western University. We covered so many important topics like community resilience during the pandemic, driving lifelong learning and the value of partnerships to achieve great outcomes. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. So I wanted to start today's discussion with taking you back to our first the first time that we met it to remind you, it was in March of two thousand and nineteen and it was before either of US actually officially started our roles here at Western. And in that first meeting we spent a lot of time talking about what inspired us to take these perspective roles, and your answer was phenomenal. Why don't you start by sharing with the audience a little bit about what did inspire you to take a role like this? I'm always interested in opportunity and I had a sense that Western, already strong and already strong institution, had great opportunity. He's out of it and I feel like I had wrapped up my work in Montreal. I was I was ready for a new role and a new a new challenge for myself, and part of what I drew me to Western was it's got it's got an amazing and great, World Class Faculty and it gets the world's best students and it has resources and it has beautiful campus. So what's next for it? And I thought that it was ready. I sensed in the community a readiness and a hunger actually to be an even more influential institution nationally and internationally and to really go for it, and I like that environment. I thought it was great opportunity for me and for you, for all of us. And now we find ourselves in quite a different situation. Or eighteen months into our respective ten years and we're eight months into a global pandemic. Has Anything about your hopes and dreams for the university changed and any strengths that you had? Have seen in the school that maybe you didn't know when you first came here, but really sean during this last little while. So I think my hopes and dreams are essentially the same as they were. They're a little bit delayed and slowed down by the pandemic, but that would true for everybody listening to us, be true for all of us and our professional lives, maybe our personal lives too, but certainly professionally everybody's had to pivot a bit from what they thought they were going to be doing. It's been quite an extraordinary challenge to try and lead a public institution under these circumstances. I will say that the community is completely rallied and that's been thrilling and gratifying. And to go back to my earlier comment about being ready for a challenge. If I hadn't seen that, I'd be worried because I think the resilience it's been shown in the and the ambition and the drive for quality and for influence in impact is just very strong in the western community and I think those are really important ingredients for a really bright, bright future. I think it's I think it's been difficult and everyone what I've what I've been really struck by as the kindness actually the way in which the community is rallied as a community, and I mean the students for sure, the faculty, but also the staff of the university. There the backbone of the place. They they keep this place going. People are doing the cleaning of the of the spaces. Everyone's felt like they were on the same team and they cared for the place and they cared for Western success and our students success in our faculty success, and that's really been so gratifying to see that and participate in that. So I'm really thrilled by that. Sticking...

...with the pandemic and topics of the pandemic, early on I can remember having lots of debates amongst the Dean's, yourself and Andy, the provost, about what we were going to do in the fall and how we were going to respond to this pandemic. We made a really tough but I think important decision, which was to go mixed mode and to offer for a residential opportunity for our students. Are you happy with that decision? I'm completely happy with the decision and I haven't wavered on that. So I've had moments where I go like, Oh, this is complicated. For sure it is. So we had to make decisions about what we would do in September. We had to make them back in April, May and June in order to be ready for September. And the fundamental decision was to close the place down physically and be entirely online, or to sort of make a run for the border, as it were, to decide, yeah, we're going to we're going to be partly facetoface. And what does that look like? It poses a lot more complications. Be just easier to say nope, we're all we're all inline to see you, see you in a year from now. That didn't feel right to me. Didn't feel like that would be what the Western community would want. It didn't. It didn't feel ambitious enough or bold enough or or hopeful enough, I guess I would say. So it was a very complex set of decisions that were made with the deans, with the other academic leaders and other institutional leaders, complex set of discussions and negotiations. What we need and what we needed depended on where you sat. So if you were in the physical operations, you needed to know that we could change all the air filters to be higher grade. Filters that would filter out viruses. You needed to know that we could change the airflow or the the volume of exchange of air and different buildings. If you were in student health, you need to know that we could run a testing center and what would that look like? In whose permission would we need? If you were a prof or a staff member in academic and you need to know and we're going to teach online, we're going to teach facetoface, how will I be safe? What will that look like? And and we made a couple of great decisions. One was we asked the profs themselves, do you want to teach online or do you want to teach facetoface? And unless they were like operational reasons, like medicine, dentistry or so forth, we pretty much allowed people to make their own decisions. Of people made great decisions for themselves. So they had family situations or whatever, and we were able to make a great accommodations and I haven't had a single person say to me I was required to do something, you know, I didn't want to do, and that made people feel really safe. So they made their decisions and that's been great. We had most of our staff working at home and we've been gradually bringing people back and that's worked very well. What if from students and their families been interesting. So I heard through the summer we had the strongest summer enrollment we've ever had and the strongest fallen room we've ever had and the history of the university. And some of that was because we're a great place and and some of it was people were admiring Western's decisions and they were respecting what we were trying to accomplish and they understood that might not be perfect. And we have had a couple of outbreaks, small outbreaks, nothing like what you've seen in the US where they're like thousands of people in affected in any given university. Here we had very small outbreaks. They were all related to off campus stuff. They were not related to teaching or research at all. And so I would give ourselves a very high mark both for the effort and also for the outcomes. So and a for effort but also, I would say, in a an outcomes. I've heard a few complaints that the quality of online instructions not the same and it probably isn't. Like to be honest, like we shouldn't pretend that it's just identical. It's not identical. But then I say, well, remember, it's a pandemic. It's like a worldwide emergency and we've pivoted pretty well. And one of the cool things we did is we hired about three hundred of our own students this summer to help our profs convert their courses. So it's kind of a CO creation of some of these first courses and some of that...

...stuff may stick. That's pretty interesting when you think about coming out of the pandemic and even some of the things during the pandemic and the relationship with government, and we did, we had to work a lot with government, but it hasn't been really clear if and how government might play in our exit from the pandemic related to funding models and things like that. Any ideas of what we should be thinking about with respect to that relationship? And are they going to lower tuitions? Are they going to open up tuitions again, grant money? What should we be thinking about? Well, that's a complicated one. So recall about two years ago the government of Ontario reduced our domestic tuition by ten percent and then froze it for two years and we're in the end of that second year freeze now and we're waiting for a government framework going forward. That was very expensive move for Western and although you know we're a healthy institution and we could absorb at this time, if those kinds of things stick, they do eventually risk quality and I think all Western alumni and all of us want to really high quality experience. So excellence cost money, it's not free. Me My first point. I understand what the government's doing in the pandemic in a much larger context, which is around the relationship between the idea of a public good of university degree. What's the role of universities in creating prosperity fro Ontariy or for Canada? So I just see it in a much larger landscape. I'm concerned, I think all university leaders are, about whether they'll be shifting public opinion that university education is a private good that to students should bear more of that tuition, or even environment where your tuition is cut and capped but you're grant from the government doesn't compensate for that. So actually you just reduce the operating funds you have. And you know we're we run relatively lean as institutions go. We try not to waste our money. We we're trying to accomplish many things. Great Research, great teaching, community service. It's a complex environment. So I do I do have worries about where it's all going or waiting on this decision from the government and all those is excellence is expensive. Like if if you want a high quality operation, it's hard to do it on the cheap. You mentioned both teaching and research and the last comments that you made, and it's been a significant discussion over the course of the pandemic because there has been more attention to teaching than we ever have in the past in you know, quantity here, maybe a little bit at the expensive research. And these are two huge and very important contributions that academic institutions make in society. How do you see those both evolving as we move forward with the strategy? So I always think of research as solving problems that the world needs to have solved in making new ideas and new things. So and what I'm hearing both nationally, across Canada and internationally from other people in my role and other rules, other data I've seen across the globe, the amount of research productivity is down sharply since the pandemic. It's particularly down sharply among women profs because we know that when all the kids stay home, the women profs are in the front lines of caring for their children, and so we're more we're well aware of that phenomenon going so the research productivity, I think, is down somewhat at Western, but it's down. I've heard it right across Canada from other leaders. So in the relative competition of things, although we're down, everybody's down. So so what I would say going forward is a trying never to trade off research for teaching and try to see them as integrated whenever possible. And the best kind of teaching, I think for my own experiences as a student and now is an academic leader, is that is teaching that's inspired by research. So the prof is working on some set...

...of questions. They may be an ellectually maybe philosophical questions, or they may be data questions or scientific questions, whatever they may be, and they're driven by set of questions and that they bring that into the classroom and so the students are inspired to come here and learn with us because they're not only getting all the received wisdom of the getting the new stuff, the cutting edge, the where is it all going? And I think that's the kind of thing at a pluss like Western really contributes to a university students education that you might not get everywhere, which is this like you're really on the front lines of what's what are the new ideas? Where things happening and like a like the the vaccine development, we have perfect example. We're doing a lot of that work right here at Western. So anytime you have a chance to engage students and that kind of that kind of research and the teaching follows from it, it's a beautiful thing. I would say we have spent a lot more time on teaching this year. We've pivoted moving things online is hard. It's hard, it's really hard, and it's it's not intuitive for most of us and it we want to do it well. Our problem when they want to do a good job in the classroom, whether that's by zoom or whatever. So they're working hard at it. I know that I'm really excited to be part of the strategy and I'm thankful that you asked me to engage in the strategy work that the Western is taking on. One of the areas that we started to talk about in the last sessions was the future of work and some of the issues that we're seeing, or challenges we're seeing with respect to the half life of skills diminishing very quickly and the number of career transitions that are likely to happen of students of the future is they go into the workforce. I'm curious to learn a little bit more about your feelings of how the university participates in a market like that in, you know, lifelong learning, and what types of skills we're going to need to make sure that we're helping to develop in students and in these lifelong learners. Thanks for that question. So and I'm glad you're part of the strategy piece too. That's your expertise is really valuable to us and I'm grateful for your role there. I come to that to the shop playing in is a second so there's some skills that are kind of foundational and fundamental and they're transportable across careers and jobs and so forth. So the ability to read, write, think, synthesize, analyze incredibly important. Doesn't it doesn't matter even if you think you're getting a data job. Ability to like communicate to your employer, your boss, the board, whatever. Super Important numeroucy skills also very important in this generation. For sure, certain things like learning this this language with that language, copeter science, like some of the languages stick around for a long time, but O, those don't, and so those are kind of their their transit, transitional skills. You can kind of go in and out of them. The really interesting, the the real prize here, the most universities are not very good at, and I would put us in that categories the lifelong learning peace. It's got to be true that in a world that's moving so fast, where you have so many careerss and jobs and things are shifting so quickly, that we also need to be able to upgrade our skills in a fairly seem less way that doesn't require us to like, you know, move our house or we know whatever, that we should be able to in a write and a fairly straightforward way, refresh our skills, learn some new skills, just stay intellectually alive, whatever it may be, and universes aren't very good at that. Historically people said, Oh yeah, continuing education, and that meant something like when you're retired in your board you do something. It means more than that now and it has for a while, but there's still kind of a stigma, like people don't want to teach and continuing education because it's not the it's not the real meat and potatoes of the of the institution. I did hear one of my you Fifteen University of Research Intensive University Call Leagues say the other day that his continuing educations programs now that at the center of the universe, at the core of the university. I didn't really believe him. I know that he wanted to have that be true and it may send a be true,...

...but we get a long way to go and there is a huge market there. There's a huge opportunity for us to engage in only our alumni but also the alumni of other institutions too, and myself, you know, I love to go back down. I love to go to law scholl personally, but a bit long in the tooth for it, but maybe not too late. It's interesting that you describe it like that. One of the words that I describe when I think about how we want to create the students of the future and the skills we want, we need to teach them to be intellectual athletes, that they've got a constantly be going back and getting those new skills and learning how to learn and learning how to grow over time. That's a great phrase I'm I'm going to borrow out us. Are Intellectual Athletes. That's right, you're welcome to it. That's right. That's a really good way to think of it. Sticking with the strategy, so in the last session that we had you shared a lot of data about where the university stands right now and one of the things that you highlighted was in the context of Ontario, we're really a midsized university and I wondered if you thought that that was a strength a weakness, and how you think about scale as we go forward. Yeah, so it's probably both. Like most, I don't mean to be evasive, like most most things, it's complicated. People would see it as a strength in that if you come to Western you get a very personalized experience and I think that the personalized piece is actually to get more important as we go forward. But it'll be the personalizing will be more on the academic side. Right now it's on the social development side that it's so feels such a lovely place to be, so you make lifelong friends, all those great things that happened to you when you're traditional age student. It's a liability in our ability to compete nationally and internationally. So in Canada and across the most of North America you're rewarded for scale, unless unless you're like cal TAXA. CALTEC has a like few thousand students in a gigantic endowment. If you got that scenario, you don't need to be very large to be world class. But if you want to be a world class in Canada, the way the government funding works and the way tuition works, you really have to have scale. So University of Toronto is, I think, approaching a hundred thousand students accross three campuses. Invocy Mo real in Montreal is something like eighty eighty five thousand students. MacGill is forty five thou students, etc. We're at around thirty five thou students at western and that puts us. It's a robust size and will have alumni out there who will think we shouldn't grow at all. But I have this wonderful graph that shows the growth over the last twenty, five or thirty years and the still slope is pretty steep. Like we've had. We've had to continue growing and I think we should grow some now, not across all programs. We should be smart about it, but there are opportunities out there, I would say, and I think the you the scale wise in terms of your research productivity, your ability to like Mount International programs, all the things you need resorte verses for. You have more difficulty doing that the smaller you are. You spent a lot of time thinking through how the process of the strategy was going to work and how you are going to engage the various constituents within the school. Can you speak a little bit about that? Sure, and I would have probably done it differently sharing if I weren't pandemic. Right, so some of this is pandemic driven, but I also didn't want to stick our heads in the sand and say, well, when the pandemics ever will start thinking about strategy. So you a new president's like me, you know you have a mandate and if you hope for renewal of that mandate you have to have fish in the boat. I showed that you're moving the institution forward, so I didn't want to just delay for a couple of years, I think then think that would be wise. And also, to go back to your very first question, I feel like the Western community wanted these to these strategy discussions. Like I've never worked at a place where we wi go like I'm ready for that discussion. When we when's that going...

...to start? So I find that pretty thrilling. People like thinking big picture. I think that's great. That's a good sign for our future. So on the engagement piece, it's very important that everybody who wants to, but not everybody wants to, but everybody who does want to has an opportunity to participate in some way. There's this like overly large committee, thirty six people, and we're going to have them sort of broken down into groups and they're going to do define tasks and projects as part of the strategic plan. A lot of it is listening, a lot of it is just giving people a chance to say hey, I have this idea and having them be heard and having it recorded and we will put it all into the mixer. It's not to say that you'll will make a you know, make a Ratatui of like everything that's in the refrigerator. Like it won't be like that it's more everybody has their chance to have their say and then this team of people that we've assembled, and we assembled in a very democratic way. I have a lot of faith and trust and teams like that when I've done other leadership strategy like this. If you trust people to do a good job, people will really rally to the occasion. Like I'm not worried that people will want to drive the drive of the Ratatoui truck off the cliff. I don't think that's what will happen. People will have really sensible ideas, they'll have good ideas and then when we take it through the governance process, the set it in the board, will have the courage of the community. People will feel, Oh, I was heard, my team was heard, miked apartment was heard, my institute and they'll go like right, and they made love some parts of it and not others. For me it's important that it be a big picture. It won't be a blueprint of like how to build the next house. It's not like that. It'll I hope it will be. I hope will be inspiring and it will give people permission to experiment and to test things and to try things and to take some risks, not crazy, stupid risks, but, you know, good, smart risks and basically to engage the community and make them feel like, wow, westerns on the move. We could do stuff. We won't dictate two individual faculties of departments you should do this, you should do that. What do I know? Like their experts in their areas and their domains, as it were. So but we will challenge them to say, okay, if we're going to up the game in this domain, what does that look like? What resources do you need? How can we help you? And I have a lot of faith in this kind of process. Actually, well, I can say so far, so good. It's been really interesting. Yeah, I'm looking forward to yea, it should be fun. I think it'll be fun. One of the interesting things that you just did recently was you made an announcement that you are putting in somebody full time to focus on university partnerships. And I know we have lots of partnerships today, government partnerships, business cover partnerships, even some university partnerships other universities that were very close to how do you see the role of partnerships evolving and the future of our strategy I'm just going to go back to the earlier question about university funding and what will happen with governments so across North America, more pronounced and in the US than in Canada, that you're seeing it now in Canada to a gradual decline in the funding of higher education, public her education by governments. I don't I don't think in my lifetime that's going to reverse. I think it's going to continue. I don't see it precipitously like falling off a cliff. I just think it's in a long, slow decline and it has to do with perceptions of our value to the society, but also a sense of governments have many other obligations and now, coming out of the pandemic, they're going to have massive debts that they've got to grapple with. They've borrowed lots and lots of money and they're going to have to graple with that. So maybe it's the American in me. I'm now Canadian citizen, I hastened to add. I feel like to point that out, but it's the American me. I don't like the way in which Canadian universities are so dependent on government for their funding. And for the way in which...

...we kind of trade off our future for the funding that they will give you. Because, as I've said for a long time my career, governments will give you money to be good. They will not give you money to be great, because, from a government's point of view, if you're good, they say, wow, that's a I got to move on. I got hospitals to build and roads to build and teachers to pay. So if you're good, I'm okay. So what I think that places like Western really need to do is develop alternative revenue streams in a serious way, and that's very hard to do. It's easy to say, it hard to accomplish, but there are ways to do it. Intellectual property innovation is a key one. The other one is partnerships where you're working with private sector and Geo. It's could be the World Bank, could be the UN, could be a bank, could be you know many, many other kinds of partnerships. So I've asked our Prov standy rhyback, who really understands very deeply and a is a long track record of industry partnerships, to take over a role for partnerships in the Green Economy and sustainability and these are areas in which he's a deep expert with a deep track record of success, and I'm super excited to think that we're trying to position Western for the green economy. We think that a lot of funding is coming for a green economy and I'm trying to position Western. So we're ready to go and we're ready to take it. Take A to maximize the opportunity. I would say I'm really happy to hear about the Green Economy and sustainability in particular, which is a huge area of focus for our business school but I know across the university an area of great strength. Maybe I'll just stand on one question that I think a lot of the listeners would want to hear about, which is what is the highlight that you've seen in the pandemic? It's easy to focus on some of the challenges that we have had, but what would you hot want to highlight? Is just something that just blew you away. I talked to earlier about the resilience of the team. I think that's incredible. For me personally, I haven't been on an airplane since March and this is my ninth years university president. University presidents never stay at home. We're travel all the time and there's a certain exhilaration about seeing alumni, partners whatever all over the place. But it's really coming is it has early in my time at Western. It's given me a very deep appreciation for the quality of what's going on at Western. I think that if it hadn't been pandemic times, I would have been in Hong Kong, I be in London, UK, that would be in New York. We here, there whatever, and I think I would have missed out on just the deep appreciation I now have for the research that's going on, the comprehensiveness of that work all across all these beautiful faculties and for the loyalty and devotion of the Faculty and staff. I think I have I really have been put. I've been stayed put and that's meant a lot less time and, you know, airplanes and trains and all the rest, and more time to kind of absorb what makes Western special and extraordinary and what I think gives it such a great future. And that's been fun. That's kind of a in a difficult time. That's been a bonus for me to to see what's going on really up close. That's been fun. Well, Allen, it's been fantastic to have you here today. Thank you so much, an. I'm really pleased to be here. Thank you again to President Allen Shepherd for joining us for such an engaging conversation. Certainly with Alan at the helm, the direction of Western and the future of higher education in Canada is in good hands. Take care and thanks for listening.

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