View from the top
Photo by David Stobbe
Peter MacKinnon recounts 37 years at the U of S.
Peter MacKinnon (LLM’76) found a home at the University of Saskatchewan.
Originally from Prince Edward Island, he arrived on campus in 1975 and he never left. He started as a student in the College of Law, a college in which he would later become a professor and then dean.
In 1999, he literally found a home at the U of S when he moved into the President’s Residence as the university’s eighth president, a position he has held for 13 years, making him third longest serving president in U of S history behind only Walter Murray (1908-37) and John W.T. Spinks (1959-74).
That’s 37 years since first setting foot on campus. That’s 37 years of collecting stories and seeing a university undergo remarkable change. Evidence of his leadership can be found in virtually every corner of campus, as well as all of the students who became alumni under his watch.
But after 37 years of service at the University of Saskatchewan, he has decided to step down as president. “There is no perfect time, but some times are better than others,” he explained, adding that the university has an experienced Board of Governors, an integrated and very able group of senior executives, and stable budget and planning cycles. “It was a combination of circumstances that led me to believe that this is as good a time as any for that transition.”
In his final interview with the Green & White as president, he speaks with passion and zeal about the U of S, his time as president and what being a U of S alumnus means to him.
"wherever possible we continue with the enduring architectural traditions of the campus, including the use of the greystone and much of the collegiate gothic influence. I think people who study at the Kinesiology Building or the two new Health Science wings, or other projects on campus would say we have honored the architectural strength and traditions of the campus"
photo by David Stobbe
G&W: Shortly after you became president you wrote a document called R enewing the Dream. What was the dream, and what about it needed renewal?
PM: The ambitions of the founders of this university are evident on our campus. You can see it in the beauty of this place. For people to realize their dreams, a university like this was tremendously important. That was a powerful, motivating dream and the people who were doing it—the people who were building the university— were not doing it for themselves. They were doing it for their children and their grandchildren; they were doing it for the contribution the university would make to the province.
The years go by and the history of any institution takes unexpected twists and turns along the way. And from time to time it is important, I think, to revisit the original dream and ask, “What were its enduring qualities, and are they still with us today?”
For a university president, a document like R enewing the Dream gives you sign posts along the way. It gives you points of reference for a presidency. It gives you an anchor in the wind because this is a very large organization, and the dreams and the voices and the influences and perspectives vary. That’s how it must be, that is how it should be. But a president has to have some sign posts, some anchors in the wind, and R enewing the Dream became that for me. It really became an important document, not just in the year it was published in 2001, but throughout the entire now nearly 13 years of my presidency.
G&W: How do alumni fit into your vision or your dream for this university?
PM: I have said many times, and I believe it passionately, that the university takes its pulse through its alumni. What are they doing? Where are they? What are the contributions they are making in their professional lives, in their personal lives, in their community service?
The graduates of the University of Saskatchewan are all over the world, and I take great pride in their achievements. I take great enjoyment in the opportunities that I have to visit with the alumni, and I take great inspiration from them because fundamentally that is what the place is all about. It is about our students—past, present and future. And the alumni are our past students and a fundamentally important part of our university and our future.
Receiving 100 Alumni of Influence award from Chancellor Vera Pezer
Legal follies: Dan Ish & Peter MacKinnon
G&W: Campus has changed a lot during your presidency. Can you talk a about how the campus has physically changed.
PM: We know that we have a wonderful campus. We have terrific architecture. We have made some mistakes, but not too many. And it was very important to me, from day one, not to make any more mistakes. I think we have been able to do that.
There really is a multi-dimensional approach to the building of infrastructure. You build it for student services, you build it for the student experience, you build it for national purposes, you build it for other needs and you renovate sometimes to prevent buildings from falling down and to recapture important historical buildings.
We have had tremendous opportunities during the past 10 or 12 years to build new infrastructure and to renew some of the old, including this building, the College Building. It really is the architectural center-piece of the University of Saskatchewan— the original academic building, a national historic site, a provincial heritage building. It was crumbling and dark and it was closed to the campus and the public when I became president.
I used to say that this building haunted me because I walked by it several times a day and there it was—empty, crumbling, symbolically and substantively. It was depressing. I would come around the corner in the morning whistling, and then all of the sudden there was the College Building. And I would stop in my tracks and feel a sense of great distress that we, the entire community at the university and beyond, had not rescued this building. We did rescue it, and we reopened it four days after the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this wonderful province of ours in 2005.
Patricia Brachman, President MacKinnon, Dr. Ed Brachman (BA’44) at the La Jolla, CA event
G&W: You often mention the student experience. Students affectionately refer to you as P-Mac. You did the ceremonial kick-off at the Centennial Homecoming football game, you danced with Howler in the Bowl and you took part in a Flash Mob with students during orientation last year; these are not necessarily things people would picture a university president doing. Why are they important to you?
PM: They are fun, my job is fun! There are many dimensions to the work of a president and a dimension that I have always prized is the connection with students. I started here in 1975 as assistant professor of law and for 23 years, including the 10 years that I was dean of the College of Law, I taught students. The students at the University of Saskatchewan are great young people. They see the university not as a place of entitlement but as a place of opportunity. There is all the difference in the world when you see a place as a place of opportunity. You take advantage of the opportunity but you respect it. You respect all that it means, you respect what others have built, you respect all of the interests and investments that have gone into the university over the years, and I have found that our students do that.
G&W: You often refer to the position of president as the university’s chief storyteller. What are your favourite stories to tell?
PM: Well, there are so many of them. But for me, the university comes alive through its stories. Some reflect the university’s history, or its current situation, and perhaps future ambitions, better than others. I think part of the role of the university president is to talk about the university in human terms. I don’t know that I would single out a single story as being a favourite, but there are some that you talk about more than others. You talk about Gerhard Herzberg and the unfortunate circumstances in which he came to the university; or Sylvia Fedoruk and Cobalt-60, which has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of cancer sufferers. These are great stories, and there are quite a few of them. You hope that the university comes alive and remains alive in the minds of those who love it in part through these stories.
Addressing students in Melfort during President’s Provincial Tour in 2009-10
G&W: What are you most proud of during your presidency?
PM: (Laughter) I don’t know if there is a single thing. You know, when you approach the conclusion of your time in an office like this you have things you are proud of. You also have regrets. I am certainly proud that we were able to tackle many of the infrastructure issues. I am proud of the fact that we were able to emphasize the student experience. I am proud of the fact that we were able to make progress in the university’s research capacity and performance. We have more work to do there, and we have made a lot of progress there too. I think the university has a great future, a great future.
G&W: In hindsight, are there things you wish had turned out differently or you would have done differently?
PM: Well, I think that there are always those. Whether they are matters of substance, matters of process, you know we all make mistakes and we are conscious of those. I have sometimes said, “I wish the victories felt as good as the defeats feel bad.” And any university presidency is a mixture of both. And mine is too. Others will have to evaluate the balance, but I think on the whole I leave office believing that I did the job as well as I could do the job.
Homecoming football game 2011 with USSU president Scott Hitchings and Alumni Association president Jason Aebig
G&W: What does it mean to you to be a University of Saskatchewan alumnus?
PM: Well, it means a tremendous amount. I decided when I was a young person growing up in Prince Edward Island that I was going to use my university years to see the country. So, I attended university in different parts of Canada. I still think that was one of the luckiest day of my earliest years was the day when one of my professors, W.R. Lederman, at Queen’s University, who was from Saskatoon and a graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, said, “So you want to see a little bit of western Canada, why don’t you go to the University of Saskatchewan?”
It was because he suggested it that I ended up coming out to the University of Saskatchewan. Loved it! Just loved it, and have ever since. So being a graduate of the university just increases the connection.
G&W: What are your plans for the future?
PM: Looking for honest work. (Laughter) I have ruled nothing out, but in the immediate future I do want to write a book. It is the nature of this work that you are exposed to many circumstances, situations, activities on many different levels. And I think I could make a useful contribution to literature on universities and university presidencies.
G&W: Any final thoughts or comments to alumni that you want to share?
PM: Thank you. Thank you for your interest, thank you for your support. Thank you for caring so much about the University of Saskatchewan.
Ceremonial kick-off at 2007 Homecoming football game (centennial)