Ladies & Gentlemen, The President

by Paul Martin

Communication followed by communication and then, after that, a little emphasis on communications.

Peter MacKinnon (BA (Dalhousie)'69, LLB (Queen's) '72, LLM'76) assumes the presidency of the University of Saskatchewan on Canada Day, taking over from George Ivany who steps down after 10 years.

For MacKinnon, a native of Prince Edward Island and former instructor and dean of the Saskatchewan law school, the presidency "was not a longstanding ambition" but the conclusion of a process that began when he answered a request to serve as acting vice-president (academic).

"It exposed me to a fascinating list of issues," MacKinnon reports. That fascination prompted him to let his name stand for the presidency.

Among the "fascinating" issues MacKinnon encountered is the campus image inside and outside the university community.

"It's a large and, as Canadian universities go, a very complex institution," he asserts, noting "the place of the University in the province and the country is the fundamental issue."

The U of S campus was spawned by a desire to build an institution of higher learning in a province that was embarking on a remarkable growth trend nearly 100 years ago. The vision enunciated by its founders included a dedication to a wide array of program offerings as well as research.

Such a diverse and demanding agenda invites comparisons and pointed questions from a variety of stakeholders. "We have to ask questions and demand answers," MacKinnon suggests, adding that if the campus is to be a research institution, then it has to be competitive in an era of growing demands for research dollars.

"We have to ask: are the partnerships in place that will allow us to do that? Public and private partnerships." Research has a lot to do with the kind of teaching capacity a campus can provide, MacKinnon advises. Quality instructors and instruction are a by-product of an advanced research capacity. He is optimistic about the possibilities.

While the U of S was woven from a unique fabric of applied sciences and social study, he says this unique blend requires a constant commitment to having undergrad programs that are second to none in the nation. But we may not be all that far from the forefront, despite the comparisons generated by so-called national ratings.

"We tend to be a bit defensive about our setting," MacKinnon offers. "But we have strengths." One that doesn't find its way into a 'ratings' regime but affects the life of a student every day is the physical setting of the U of S campus. Striking buildings, situated on a riverbank, have appeal and "could make it the preferred place to study."

Advancing such a different message, MacKinnon adds, will require a "very, very vigorous communications strategy so these strengths [diverse offerings, research capacity and physical appeal] are known throughout the province and across the country." Integral to advancing that new approach are those who have already experienced the U of S advantage - the alumni. "The contribution the alumni can make will be very, very important to the University," he suggests.

Former grads will also help the campus adjust to a new reality. Originally, MacKinnon asserts, the university was conceived as a provincial, public institution where the taxpayer would pay the bills. In more recent years "we have asked our alumni to become more involved in moral and financial support of the University. All universities are doing this.

"We come to it later than many but we now articulate the reality that the University will be a better university if the alumni are involved both as critics and supporters."

MacKinnon salutes retiring president George Ivany, an active promoter of increasing the involvement of former grads in campus activity today, for starting the U of S down this road. "One of the great contributions President Ivany made was in this area. I hope to be able to take his very important work to the next level."

Enhancing the communication process is one way to achieve that objective, says MacKinnon. The U of S has much going for it - diverse program offerings, a research capacity that attracts quality instructors ensuring solid undergraduate teaching and a unique setting. The challenge is to spread the word of the U of S advantage.