Interview with the president

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Photo – Jael Eartnik

The Carillon sat down with University of Regina President and Vice Chancellor Vianne Timmons in her office on Oct. 14 to ask questions submitted by students, and pertaining to student life on campus.

 

U of R has stepped up recruitment in many different areas. Aside from proximity, why should students choose U of R over the competition?

Vianne Timmons: Well, I think the University of Regina is the right size for many students. It’s large enough to be comprehensive, but small enough for you to wrap your arms around it. I love walking the hallways and seeing students that I’ve met before and that I know, so it’s small enough that you can build a community quickly – you don’t get lost. And yet it’s big enough that it offers a comprehensive breadth and depth of programs. So I think it’s a perfect size.

What decisions or policies have you enacted as president which improve student life the most?

VT: I think there’s a number of things that, not myself as President, but the University has enacted. When I first came here, we had not invested a lot of money in student services. We had very few staff there. That was an area that I felt was really important for student quality of life, so we invested in the UR Guarantee program, in international student support, in student mental health support, in students with disabilities support. So my first three years here, that was a real emphasis – is to build up our student services to support students. And I think that in the long term that has really enhanced quality of life for students.

Also residence life, you know the new residence. We do know from statistics that students who live on campus have better academic performance… they get engaged more. Also student employment – we’ve enhanced the number of students who’ll get jobs on campus – which we also know enhances student achievements. So everything we’ve tried to do, we’ve looked through the lens of students’ quality of life.

How do you feel about the U-Pass, which it looks like [URSU] will be enacting in September?

VT: I’m very supportive of the U-Pass. I was very supportive of the referendum first, that students have a choice, and then I had said, “whatever choice students make, I will support them.” And they chose the U-Pass, and I think this generation – your generation – you’re much more environmentally conscious, you’re aware of the impact of vehicles on the road, and so I think it reflects the values that this generation holds dear.

Do you encourage the use of public transport among University staff?

VT: Yes, our Provost [Dr. Thomas Chase] takes the bus everyday to work, and he doesn’t drive at all. And he does that with great pride.

Do you ever use public transportation yourself?

VT: I use my legs! I walk to work. Most of the days I walk to work, unless I have a meeting. No matter what the weather.

That’s brave in Saskatchewan.

VT: One of my very many pleasures, to walk to work.

What are the biggest problems at U of R?

VT: Well, I think we have unprecedented growth on our campus, with student numbers. When I came seven years ago, we were under eleven thousand [students]. We’re now fourteen and a half thousand, so I think that level of growth at a time of fiscal restraint is a challenge for universities.

You know our government funding has never been cut, but has not kept up to inflation, so we’ve had to make cuts to maintain that balanced budget. That has been, and continues to be, a great challenge for us.

Could you be a little more specific as to which areas have suffered due to the lack of increased funding?

VT: I’m not sure – I think we’ve been able to be extremely efficient, and look at efficiencies. What I think has been challenging for many of our professors, I would say the small class sizes [have] been compromised. We’ve had to look at whether we can offer niche programs with small class sizes – we haven’t been able to do that. We’ve had to be less adventurous, take less risks in bringing in professors in a program that’s not growing on the belief it might grow. We haven’t been able to take those kinds of chances. I think that some of our physical infrastructure has been challenged, and we have to keep working on making sure we tackle that. So, I think there’s a number of areas that have been challenged. However, I think we’ve done very, very well.

Just alone in the President’s Office, we’ve moved a vice-president, which I think has been a challenge for us. We had two people leave, and we merged those jobs with other people. So we in the President’s office alone are down three full-time staff. Four full-time staff, because we merged the Associate VP Research with Associate VP Academic. So I would say that we’ve attempted to model and role model what we could do, even at our office level, to show that we can make efficiencies. But it’s at a cost – people are working harder, doing more, and it’s a challenge.

Building on what you said about infrastructure, there are a lot of leaky roofs around campus. I’m wondering why these haven’t been fixed.

VT: Well many have been fixed. We’ve had a pretty aggressive program on campus. This year, eight million dollars is being spent on deferred maintenance. We have a whole program of fixing our roofs. Many of our buildings were built around the same time, so we got hit in the last couple of years. You know, you build a series of buildings all at the same time, the cracks all show at the same time. So we’ve been putting the process in place for fixing roofs. To replace a roof is about two million dollars. One-to-two million dollars, depending on the roof. So you can’t replace them all at once. And you don’t want to replace them all at once or you’re going to have the same problem again. So we’re trying to do a systematic approach where we replace a roof, and then we patch a roof and know that in three years we need to replace it. So we have a system in place so they’re not all replaced at once, and we don’t face the same thing we’re facing now a decade out.

Back to the deferred maintenance, how can the administration justify the new construction projects going on around campus when the U of R has three times the national average of deferred maintenance [among Canadian universities]?

VT: So let me speak about the three times the national average. Our largest deferred maintenance issue is the College Avenue Campus – it’s not the main campus. So College Avenue Campus is over 100-year-old campus, and if we can get College Avenue Campus revitalized, we’ve taken care of a large problem that we have in deferred maintenance. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do, Taylor, is we’ve been fundraising, working with government, trying to get that project done. So that has been a real emphasis for us. So the thing with “three times” is that you have to look at the whole campus. People forget that we have a hundred-year-old campus as part of our campus community.

There are three different types of monies that we get from government. One is operating, one is deferred maintenance, and one is capital. And they’re very separate, so we can’t take the money for capital and put it in deferred maintenance. So we can and should be building new buildings as we go forward, and that’s a separate fund completely, so they don’t cross over. So what we’ve been doing is supplementing the deferred maintenance with fundraising monies. So we got five million dollars for deferred maintenance this year – we spent eight million on it. So we know that that’s an issue that we want to tackle, and that’s what we’re doing. But that’s why you have to build for the future as well as take care of what you have at the same time, if you’re a good steward, especially of a growing campus. So building a residence is a very important part of student life, student comfort, student capacity. To be able to live on campus, to find living [arrangements] when they want to go to university, that is as important as fixing a leak in a roof. So we look at the big picture. We can’t just concentrate on one aspect.

I’m glad you mentioned the new residence. Students in the new residence building have been putting up with ongoing construction since the start of the semester. I know it wasn’t really completed on time; I’m wondering if there’s anything being done to compensate the inconvenienced residents, or speed up the construction process?

VT: Well we have been working really closely with the students in the residence, and they have been, and their parents have been, very understanding. We asked them if they wanted to move out while the construction was done, the few students who have found it very difficult. And they have said “no.” We have not moved them out; they don’t want to move out. So the majority of the rooms were complete. It was the outside construction and some of the lobby work that needed to be done. When I was there on move-in days, the two move-in days, I talked to parents. Any student who had a complaint, we – within two hours – were able to fix the issue, and they were very appreciative. I know that the residence staff has been extremely conscientious of working very closely with the students that are there. Now, there are going to be a couple who are unhappy, but the majority of them are appreciative of what we’ve been doing, and [we’re] trying to make sure that they’re not inconvenienced, and will continue to do so.

On a more personal note, how do you think your background in education has impacted your time in university leadership?

VT: Well, my background is as an educational psychologist, and I think that helps me a lot. I think sometimes when things get rough and tough, I have to remember not to take things personally, because there’s lots of personal stuff said out there, and I think I recognize that people are reacting to a concern in a way that they know how, and so that’s challenging. I think the focus on students that we’ve had over the eight years, the real emphasis on student quality of life, student support, I think that comes from an education background. I hope that my legacy will be all the programs put in place to support students. That’s where my emphasis has been, and will continue to be. I also think one of the gifts I have is a strong team. And not just my leadership team, but it goes right down through the campus. There are faculty members that are exceptional, there are students that are exceptional, and I see them as part of the leadership team. You can lead from in front, lead from side-by-side, or lead from behind. And I am lucky that on this campus I have leaders leading from every place.

What are your favourite things about University of Regina?

VT: My very favourite thing about the University of Regina is something that happened yesterday. I was leaving work, and this young woman came up and tapped me on the arm, and she said hello, and I said hi, and she told me who she was and what she was working on. She recognized me, and she was able to let me know how she was doing. That’s my favourite thing about being the president of this campus, is that students will stop me in the hallway, and they’ll tell me things, and they’ll let me know what’s going on. And I don’t think that happens for every university campus. I think that they know who I am, and that’s very positive – that may be because the Carillon runs some pretty spooky pictures of me…

I didn’t have anything to do with that.

VT: But students do take the time to chat with me, and let me know how they’re doing. University for me – I came from a very poor family, a mining family, my dad was a miner – and if you had told me at your age that one day I would be a university president I would have been shocked and laughed at you. So every student I meet I look at and think, “Do you know the potential that you have? Do you know the path, the paths that are laid out for you? Do you know what you can accomplish?” Every single student I see, I think that, and we may have played a small part in that path.

So on the flipside of that, what are some of your least favourite things about U of R?

VT: My least favourite thing is when I know faculty are upset, and in particular, [when] it’s about something that I cannot fix, or do anything about. And some things they’re upset about are things that are national issues, right? And they look to me to fix it, and to change it, and I cannot, either because I have to look at the big picture and in the big picture it isn’t a priority, or it’s a specific faculty member’s concern, and not really the campus’ concern, or even a unit’s concern, and not the campus’ concern. And I find that very difficult because it’s legitimate, and genuine, but my job can’t be running and fixing every concern, and plus there are a lot of different views on campus. No matter what anyone thinks, the university is a very complex place to manage. No matter what you do, you’re going to have supporters, and you’re going to have non-supporters. From building a sign, to investing in student services, international student support, I have people who support both those things, and I have people who are against both those things. They’re two perfect examples.

It must be difficult trying to please everybody on campus.

VT: Well, you can’t. You can’t please everyone. And some people that you aren’t able to please get very angry, and get upset, and that is bothersome. I don’t want my faculty and staff upset. I want them to want to come to work, I want them to enjoy their job, I want them to thrive in this environment, so that would be the thing – where I can’t fix what they would like me to do.

 

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