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The Leaders

Rallying a community for the future

Dec 7, 2020

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.


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 and wisdom lie within every business decision. Welcome to the Leaders by Ivey podcast, where we discover hidden narratives in unlock key learnings for our own leadership and career journeys, hello, everyone, I’m Sharon, Hodgson dean of the Ivey Business school, I’m excited to be hosting the final episode of season two of the Leaders by Ivey podcast. My guest today is my friend and colleague, Alan Shepard, President of Western University. We covered so many important topics like community resilience during the pandemic, driving life, long learning, and the value of partnerships to achieve red 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 to remind you. It was in March of two thousand and nineteen, and it was before either of us actually officially started our rules 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, an already strong institution had great opportunities 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 to be an even more influential institution, national and internationally, and to really go for it, and I liked that environment. I thought there was a great opportunity for me and for you, for all of us- and now we find ourselves in quite a different situation- were eighteen months into our respective ten years and were eight months into a global pandemic. Has anything about your hopes and dreams for the university changed and any strength that you had have seen in the school that, maybe you didn't know when you first came here, but really shone 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 be 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 comedy about being ready for a challenge. If I hadn't seen that I’d be worried because I think the resilience has been shown and the and the ambition and the dry for quality and for influence and impact is just very strong in the western community- and I think those are really important ingredients for a really bright future. I think it’s; I think it's been difficult in everyone. What I’ve, when I’ve been really struck by as the kindness actually the way in which the community is rally des a community, and I mean the students for sure the faculty, but also the staff of the university there, the back bone of the place 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 a western success in our students. Success on our faculty success and that's really been so gratifying to see that and participate on 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 Deans yourself and 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 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 face to face, and what does that look like? It poses a lot more complication to be just easier to say, nope, we're all fit we're all in line see you see you in a year from now that didn't feel right to me. I 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, ed decisions that were made with the deans with the other academic leaders and other institutional leaders complex set of discussions negotiations. What will we need and what we need to depended on where he 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 air flow or the volume of exchange of air and different buildings. If you were in student health, you need know that we could run a testing center and what would that look like? In whose permission would we need if you were a (inaudible) or a staff? Member in an academic you, you need to know, and I going to teach online and we going to teach face to face. How will I be safe? What would that look like and- and we made a couple of great decisions on- was we asked the (inaudible) themselves? Do you want to teach one line or do you want to teach face to face? And unless there were like operational reasons like medicine, dentistry or so forth, we pretty much allowed people to make their own decisions, and people made great decisions for themselves, so they had family situations or whatever, and we were able to make 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 whatever from students and their families been interesting. So I heard through the summer we had the strongest summer in rom that we've ever had and the strongest fallen room that we've ever had in the history of the university, and some of that was because we're a great place 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 it might not be perfect and we have had a couple of outbreaks small up bricks. Nothing like what you've seen in the us where there are like thousands of people infected in it in any given university. Here we had a very small outbreak. They were all related to off campus stuff. They were not related to teaching a research at all, and so I would give ourselves a very high mark booth for the effort and also for the outcomes so and a for effort, but also, I would say, in a a minus for outcomes. I've heard a few complaints that the quality of online instruction is 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 or 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 didn't, 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 or are they going to open up tuitions again grant money? What should we be thinking about? Oh, 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 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 one of 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 and much larger context, which is around the relationship between the idea of a public good of a university degree. What's the role of universities in creating prosperity for Ontario 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. The students should bear more of that tuition or even environment, where your tuition is cut and capped, but your grant from the government doesn't compensate for that. So actually 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 we're waiting on this decision from the government and, although we say is excellence, is expensive like if, if you want to high quality operation, it's hard to do it on the cheap. You mentioned both teaching and research. In 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 of the expense of 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 was think of research as solving problems that the world needs to have solved and making new ideas and new things so and what I’m hearing, both nationally across Canada and internationally from other people in my rule 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 to women profs, because we know that when all the kids stay home, the women props are in the front lines of caring for their children and so 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 what I would say going forward is I try never to trade off research versus teaching. I 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 as an academic leader is. It is teaching it's inspired by research, so the prof is working on some set of questions. They may be intellectual, why, 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 like the new stuff, the cutting edge, the where's it all going- and I think that's the kind of thing at a place 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 an the vaccine development be a perfect example. We're doing a lot of that work right here in western, so at any time you have a chance to engage stents 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 the show we've pivoted moving things online is hard, it's hard, it's really hard, and 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 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 were seeing our 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 as 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, and 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 to that's, your expertise is really valuable to us and I’m grateful for your role. There come to that to the strap playing in just 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 be ability to like communicate to your employer or boss the board, whatever super important numerously skills, also very important in this generation for sure certain things like learning this this language with that language in peter science, like some of the languages, stick around for a long time, but others don't, and so those are kind of their transitional skills, you can, you can kind of go in and out of them, the really interesting the real prize here. The most universities are not very good at, and I would put us in that category as the lifelong learning piece. It's got to be true that in a world, that's moving so fast where you have so many careers and jobs, and things are shifting so quickly that we also need to be able to upgrade our skills in a fairly seamless way that doesn't require us to, like you know, move our house or you know, whatever that we should be able to. You know in a fairly straightforward way, refresh our skills learn some new skills just stay intellectually alive, whatever it may be, and universities aren't very good at that. Historically, people said: oh ye have continuing education, and that meant something like when you're retired and you're bored. 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 in continue 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 education programs now at the center of the inverse 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 some day 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 an only our alumni, but also the alumni of other institutions. To and myself you know I love to go back to I love to go to law school personally, but I’m a bit long in the tooth for, 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 to 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 going to, I’m going to borrow out to or ilex athletes. That's right are welcome to yeah. That's right! That's a really good way to think of it. Stick him 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 are really a mid sized 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, but like most things, it's complicated it 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 peace is actually going 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 ma. You make life long friends, all those great things that happen to you when you're traditional age student, it's a liability in our ability to compete nationally and internationally, so in Canada, and I cross the most of North America you're rewarded for scale unless, unless you're, like cal, tax or keltic, has like a 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 rolled class in Canada, the way the government funding works in the way tuition works, you really have to have scale so university of Toronto is, I think, approaching. A hundred thousand students across three campuses in verse. Mariel in Montreal is something like eighty. Eighty five thousand students McGill is forty. Five thousand students etc. we're at around thirty five thousand students at western, and that puts us it's a robust size and we'll 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 the 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 were opportunities out there. I'd say, and I think the you get the scale wise in terms of your research productivity, your ability to like mount international programs, all the things you need resources 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? 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 pandemic ever will start thinking about strategy, so you know new presidents. Like me, you know you have a mandate and if you hope for renewal that mandate you have to have fish in the boat, you have to show that you're moving the institution forward. So I didn't want to just delay for a couple of years. I think I think that would be wise and also to go back to your very first question. I feel like the Western community wanted these strategy discussions like I’ve never worked in a place where people go like I’m ready for that discussion when I when's that going to start so I find that pretty thrilling people a I e 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 and not everybody wants to, but everybody who does want to has an opportunity to participate in some way. There is 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 defined tasks and projects as part of the strategic planning. A lot of it is listening. A lot of 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 ratatouille 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 it in an old in a very democratic way. I have a lot of faith in trust in 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 rata toy 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 to send it in the board will have the courage of the community. People will feel. Oh, I was heard my team was for a mice. Apartment was for my institute and they'll go like right and they may love some parts of it and not others. For me, it's important that it be a big picture. It won't be a blue print of like how to build the next house. It's not like that it. 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 and we will dictate to individual faculties of departments. You should do this. You should do that. What do I know like they're experts in their areas and their dominions 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 done and how can we help you ah, 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 it to be fun, think it will be for one of the interesting things that you just did recently was you made an announcement that you were 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 in the future of our strategy, just going to go back to the earlier question about university funding and what will happen with governments so across north America, more pronounced in the us than in Canada that you're seeing it now in candidate to a gradual decline in the funding of higher education, public high 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 grapple with that. So maybe it's the American and me I’m an now, a Canadian citizen. I hasten to add I d like to point that out, but midst the American and 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 and hard to accomplish. But there are ways to do it. Intellectual property, innovation is keyed. The other one is partnerships where you're working with private sector NGOs could be the world bank could be, the un could be a bank could be. You know many other kinds of partnerships, so I’ve asked our provost Sandy Ryback, who really understands very deeply and as s 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 is 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 end 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? A 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 home, we're traveling all the time and there's a certain exhilaration about seeing alumni partners whatever all over the place, but it's really coming as 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 than I’d be in New York. 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 in you now aeroplanes and trains and all the rest and more time to kind of absorb. What makes Western special and extraordinary what it think gives it such a great future and that's been fun, that's kind of in a difficult time. That's been a bonus for me to see. What's going on really up close, that's been fun! Well, Alan, it's been fantastic to have I here to day. Thank you so much Sharon, please to be here. Thank you again to President Alan Shepard 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.