NOTE: The continuation of my article on student unions and life at the top will appear next week. Instead I wanted to share with Voice readers an experience I had last week at a very special event I was invited to.
The occasion was a celebration of Athabasca University President Dominique Abrioux’s having received the honorary degree of Doctor of The Open University, from the Open University of U.K. The event was hosted by Robert Fulton, Chair of the Athabasca University Governing Council, and the Honourable Lois Hole, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, and held in Edmonton’s elegant Hotel MacDonald. Among those invited were Governing Council members, government representatives, representatives from Alberta’s other three universities, and members of the Athabasca University community. Alberta Learning Minister Lyle Oberg was present as well – and Dr. Oberg is a key player in the development of Bill 43.
According to university insiders, the event might not have happened if Dominique had his way. In spite of having received this great honour, he would have preferred to not have any fanfare or accolades, keeping things as low key as possible. Dr. Abrioux has many qualities that I greatly admire, and one of these is humility. Another is his respect for his colleagues and the contribution they make. When I first heard about the honourary degree and offered him my congratulations, he said that he felt it was Athabasca University itself that merited the degree, not him as an individual. He made it clear to me that he felt he could not have achieved this without those around him. His colleagues prevailed upon him, pointing out that “the success of one reflects on us all,” and he finally agreed to allow the celebration. However, the invitation itself made it very clear that he did not take personal credit for the achievement, as it invited the university community and guests to “celebrate the success of Athabasca University, and its president, Dominique Abrioux, PhD, who has received the honourary degree of Doctor of The Open University”
Master of ceremonies duties were performed by CFRN television’s Valerie Oczkowski, who also happens to be an AU student, pursuing a communications degree – the same degree Premier Ralph Klein is also taking. Premier Klein was not in attendance, although he sent his congratulations, and Valerie joked that he was probably off studying somewhere. She added that she was considering calling him up to see if he would be her “Study Buddy” (referring to the popular AUSU program).
Robert Fulton gave a brief overview of Dominique’s role with Athabasca University over the past 25 years. A video montage was presented, with lots of interviews with students who testified as to the impact AU has had on their lives. The video also contained many clips of colleagues who spoke of the deep respect and admiration they hold for Dr. Abrioux.
Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole took the podium and opened with a humourous anecdote about her attendance at the weekend’s Heritage Classic outdoor hockey game in minus 20 Celsius weather. From there she spoke of the impact Dr. Abrioux has had on the development of AU, something she is well familiar with. Lt.Gov. Hole was part of Athabasca University Governing Council during the days when it was first moved to Athabasca, and she commented on how close the university came to falling apart at that time, and how different things are now at the university with Dominique as president. She then went on to talk about her favourite topic – education. Protocol dictates that the Lt.Gov. is to remain neutral on political topics, but Lois Hole is not one to stay quiet when it comes to advocating for education. In spite of the fact (or likely because of it) that Dr. Oberg was the next speaker on the forum, Lt.Gov. Hole minced no words. She emphasized the need for our government to place high priority on funding for education, beginning with kindergarten and continuing right through to post secondary. You could feel everyone in the audience quietly cheering her on as she became increasingly passionate in her advocacy, and I kept thinking, “Yes! Take that! Dr. Oberg.”
Her message was not lost on Dr. Oberg, of course, and he began his speech somewhat sheepishly – knowing that his government has been in trouble for the manner in which they have dealt with education in our province. Dr. Oberg spoke of the important role “The University of Athabasca” plays in Alberta. He then said that of all the invited guests present who had been acknowledged and welcomed, one had not been mentioned, and he wanted to recognize this person. He commented that a few years ago we would not have heard much from students that were not part of the University of Alberta or University of Calgary student unions, yet during this past year Athabasca University students had benefited from a strong advocate who had worked hard to make the student voice heard and to make a difference for students. He then introduced our very own VP External Shirley Barg – Chair of CAUS!
It was wonderful to know that Shirley’s hard work on Bill 43 was being recognized in this manner by the Alberta Minister of Learning, and it was nice to have him acknowledge that Athabasca University Students’ Union is finally being seen by the government as a force to be reckoned with. Shirley joked afterwards that he was probably just trying to get on her good side so that she will stop fighting Bill 43 – but we told her we were all very proud of her and appreciative of her hard work on behalf of students.
Dr. Abrioux then took the stage. Predictably, rather than just accepting the accolades, he used the opportunity to reinforce his appreciation for the teamwork of his colleagues and the university community as a whole. He said that he could not possibly have achieved this honour without the support of his executives, Judith Hughes and Alan Davis. He also acknowledged the university community itself, his wife, Lou, and his children, for their support. Dominique reinforced that the honour was not his alone, but Athabasca University’s, when he stated, “everyone has been overly gracious in recognizing my role in what is, in fact, Athabasca University’s tremendous achievement.”
It was a proud moment for all of us at Athabasca University. The highest accolades anyone can receive are those that come from one’s peers. For our president, Dr. Dominique Abrioux, to receive such an accolade from the Open University of the U.K. is truly an honour. Such peer recognition, from what is considered the premier open university in the world, shows that under the capable leadership of our president, Dominique Abrioux, Athabasca University has become a highly respected presence among distance and open universities throughout the world. I am very proud of this honour, I’m very proud of our university, and I’m very proud of our president. Congratulations, Dominique!
Also see in this issue: Athabasca University president shares degree honour