Interview with Dr. Frits Pannekoek – AU’s new president

Interview with Dr. Frits Pannekoek – AU’s new president

Pictured: Dr. Frits Pannekoek and his wife Christine.

On the morning before Convocation began, I had the opportunity to interview our new AU President, Dr. Frits Pannekoek. Although the university was a hub of activity, we managed to find a quiet spot inside the president’s office. I had met him previously, but this was my first opportunity for a one-to-one conversation and to really get to know him. I found the experience very enjoyable.

I had seen Dr. Pannekoek in action the previous day when he chaired AU’s Academic Council, and I was impressed by his willingness to let people have their say in what could have been a potentially difficult situation. Although he initially comes across as a rather quiet, laid-back sort of person, I got the impression at AUAC that he is no pushover and will do whatever is necessary to get the job done right. I really liked what I had seen so far, and after our hour-long talk, my estimation of him and his collaborative management style has increased.

I’ve reproduced much of the conversation verbatim, in the hope that readers will get a sense of Frits’ relaxed conversational style. Here’s what he had to say:

How did you end up at Athabasca University?

Well, I’ve known about Athabasca for about 25 years, since I’ve been a tutor at the university, and I’ve developed one of the courses too, Native Studies 370. I’ve always been an admirer of Athabasca, and when the presidency came up it was a natural choice.

Is there an interesting anecdote that stands out from your tutoring days?

There’s a student I had who used to come to the local grocery store in the country for her tutorial. She was a single mother, and I still remember one instance where she called me from the corner grocery story, with her kids all around her. I remember thinking, “my goodness — the dedication of students is absolutely incredible!” I also had another student whose husband set up a study place for her in the granary, with a phone line and a light bulb, and that’s where she was studying from. I thought, “Well! The dedication of these students for learning!” — and then having Athabasca University there for them. These two incidents will always, always be with me.

I’ve also had really elderly students, one gentleman in a Western Canadian history course had lived through it all! So I really loved talking to him. He taught me!

So it was a mutual learning experience?

Yes, that’s why I like the word “learning” rather than the word “teaching” because learning means it is an iterative process. You are learning from the students as they are learning from you and you always grow by listening. Teaching suggests “I know. You learn.” I always say “we are all teachers and we are all learners”
I like that. “You grow by listening”

I do believe that. Of course my wife says she wishes I would listen more! (laughter) Especially in our society were we tend to place importance on the voice. Its hard to sit back and listen. In some societies silence is a learning opportunity.

Do you plan to continue to tutor?


Same subjects?

Oh yeah. Until they complain that I’m not as available as I should be! (laughs)

You come from a traditional background at the University of Calgary. How do you think that will translate into what you are doing here?

No, I actually come from a VERY un-traditional background. I was at the U of C for six years, but before that I worked with government. So I think I’m very unconventional. I started my career with Parks Canada as Chief of Historical Resources, then going to the Head of the Department of Archives of the Province of Alberta, then to the Director of Information Resources at the Archives Library and University of Calgary Press, then moving to this [see official bio and press release for more information]. So it’s not a traditional career path at all, I don’t think.

So you weren’t at the University of Calgary all that long compared to what you did elsewhere?

Well, six years there, and 1969-1998 (19 years) with the Government of Alberta. That was where I got to know… well I guess you could describe me in all those jobs as not a “bureaucrat” but a “culturecrat.” The culture environment is what I’m keen on, understanding culture, managing cultural environments, helping them reach their potential.

How do you think that aspect of it will play into your role here at AU? Do you have a special plan to use your interests?

No. People have asked me a lot — what is your vision for Athabasca University? That’s presumptuous, because the vision is held by the institution as a whole, working together. So, I hope the skill that I bring is getting people to work together developing that common vision, working with the community, government, others at the university, to be the champion of the vision. If I can help the organization sharpen that vision, that’s what my job is. And of course I’m interested in e-learning, online learning, the new digital environments and all that stuff.

The cultural part — do you think there is a role for your cultural background, expanding the offerings AU has?

I’m interested in culture, native and indigenous studies, but I’m also interested in the sciences. They are all related. What I really like about AU is the interdisciplinary approach in so many areas. The way its set up in various centres, they are really quite interesting in the way people work together.

You don’t have any strong leanings one way or another?

No, I’m just as interested in the learning issues of science as I am in heritage and culture. There’s my interests, and then there’s the institution’s interests.

I’m interested… I know the university has been developing a fine arts program…?

Yes, I’m strongly supportive of that. I think the university in the new learning age is incredibly well positioned to be more successful, hugely successful, and with the Middle States accreditation [watch for a story on AU’s accreditation in the upcoming AUSU newsletter], we have huge opportunities ahead — what those opportunities are we have yet to discover. Do we know how we are going to capitalize on them yet? Not entirely. It will mean a lot for American students who might want to enrol in Athabasca — once you are accredited, you are validated by the American system.

Do you think there will be any negative effects of accreditation to the students in this country?

I can’t think of any. It will open up access to a Canadian institution and educational system which is highly regarded everywhere in the world.

The university has had an incredible amount of change at the executive level. Students probably aren’t all that aware of that change, but I know it will have an impact within the university. I’m curious whether you have any thoughts on how students might be affected?

It shouldn’t impact students. We are all interested in building better programs, more meaningful programs and more meaningful relationships with students. All the people on the executive want that and are really committed to that. So I think if there is change, change at the university is gradual. Universities have been very robust institutions, among the longest-living institutions on the planet. That’s because they are deliberate systems, based on people’s cumulative knowledge and skills, experiences. You can’t walk in and radically change a place. Each university has a culture of its own. As you probably noticed at Academic Council (referring to the meeting the previous day), you just don’t walk in and say, “Well we are now changing this, we’re presenting you with Robert’s Rules of Order!” (laughter). That’s a medieval word! You have to figure out that people want open discussion and value it. I certainly value it, and that’s a good thing. Particularly from students — I don’t think we hear as much from students as I might want to.

Do you think there’s a way to improve that?

That’s an issue with the distance and open university. How do you manage to engage everyone? And some of the instruments of engagement — i.e. email, tend to be… when you are talking, you get the energy and you can see facial expressions and all that stuff. With email, some of the words can be misconstrued, become harsh words when not intended as harsh. Some people think you just need to be a lot more skilled that way. Well, yeah… but it’s not the same as face to face, so maybe we will need to get involved through the Internet in more virtual interactions, more visual.

I’d love to have a camera in my office so everyone could see and “meet” me! It’s coming, within five years I believe we will have that kind of face-to-face virtual interaction, and I think that will make a HUGE difference.

I agree, I’ve heard from students that they really like that — when they can actually see their tutor.

Yes, you can also look at them when they say this word, what they really mean, because their face has a different connotation. A lot of words in English can mean five or six different things, depending on how they are said.

I’ll admit that in all the years I’ve been tutoring I’ve only met three or four of my students. But I would have really liked to have had more of that facial interaction, we would have had a better communication. Not to say things were bad, but the new environment will change.

I’m not going to ask questions about the future of the university, because I don’t think that’s fair to you right now…

(smiles) Well… I really believe… I believe in the collegial environment, I believe in the new technology, I believe that Athabasca is the most ideally-positioned university, probably in North America, to take advantage of the new technology. It’s very influential; the way it deals with information and knowledge is absolutely outstanding. So can you shape the new university? Well, yeah you can. Can you say that shape is now predetermined? No, because it is being reshaped. The process of arriving, the voyage of discovery, is as important as getting there in the end (laughs). Building on the excitement of discovery — which is what universities are all about!

What about freedom of speech? How do you feel that plays in?

I’m in favour of freedom of speech! Respectful freedom. Why wouldn’t everyone believe in that?

Surprisingly, at many universities – they say they allow it, but a lot of times students don’t get the sense that they are allowed to actually say what they believe…

Well students can say what they believe but then they also have to be prepared to engage in a discourse of criticism. And that works both ways as well. If someone writes, for example, a very emotional, unfounded discourse on a subject which needs a lot more evidence, you say “well, that’s really interesting and I don’t disagree with your perspective, but this particular subject needs hard evidence to support it.” Maybe tempered language would be more appropriate for this person. So, yeah, I believe students can say what they want, but just like everybody, say what you want in a respectful way. Everyone in the university has to say things in a respectful way and ask, “what can I learn from this exchange?” — that includes students, tutors, administrators, and so on.

Can you tell me a little bit about your family?

(laughs) Well, I have a wife and two boys. The boys are independent, living in Vancouver.

Are you all settled in now in the “big house” (referring to University House)?

No, no, I’m living out at a lake nearby. The house is getting fixed so we won’t be moving there until October. We will be homeless for a while! (laughs).

What was the first thing you did when you walked into this (the president’s) office and said, “this is my office!”

Well, I’d say it’s not “my” office, its everyone’s office! (laughs). It’s nice, I just have custody of it for a while. The first thing I did, actually, is put some paintings up. I didn’t want to take anything that other people were passionate about, why would you want to take away someone’s inspiration? I really love that one (gesturing) and I really love this one, and I put that one up — it was… put a little art into my life!

What other interests do you have that you think students might find intriguing about you?

Well! My family just gave me a canoe, going up North, so I intend to put on my “Pierre Trudeau jacket” and go canoeing across the lake! (hearty chuckle). I’m interested in outdoor activities, though I don’t do as much as I ought to. I’m really interested in aboriginal peoples, involved in all kinds of research projects with aboriginal communities, and I will continue to do that — I guess it sounds like I should get a life! (laughs).

You had a fair amount of involvement with Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump project? (see website)


As students we learn to express ourselves in a clear and concise manner. Can you describe yourself in three words?

(hearty laugh). No! I’ll leave that to others! (more laughter).

People will assess other people, having people describe themselves is not entirely fair. I’d rather have people come to their own assessment of me.

Something about yourself no one would ever guess by just looking at you?

(laughter). Ah… Well… I can’t paint worth a darn, I can’t sing worth a darn. I’m the world’s rottenest driver… I do have a sense of humour, although that may not come across all the time… I’ve had some say to me “you look rather dour” at times when I’m thinking… but I really do like teasing people, but in a kind way; and I really do like interacting with people, and that’s something I enjoy about this job.

I want to make sure that we share with as many people as possible, bring people together, students, faculty, community, people from other universities.

(At this point the President’s executive assistant, Ferne Kvill, entered to give us each a glass of lemonade — it was getting very warm inside!)

See that’s one of the great joys about having wonderful people like Ferne, Carol, David — I mean all the people I’ve met have been extremely confident and warm, supportive.

I know that being the president is very difficult. You can’t keep everyone happy all of the time. Some people will be unhappy, some people will be really happy. But we hope in the end that everybody will get a lot of input into decisions, collectively and collaboratively, and we move ahead. I hope that at Academic Council there was some evidence of that (laughs).

I really did admire how you handled that — I’ve been through enough of these meetings to see the underlying things and I’m interested in the psychology of it — people needed to state their position on things and I think you managed it very well…

Well, I knew it was going to happen, I knew you had to be respectful, people needed catharsis. One thing I was afraid of was that if you just follow Roberts Rules of Order absolutely strictly; then in theory, the chair is never supposed to get involved, and that is really restrictive… what I really wanted to do was make sure everyone had a voice… and that people felt they were heard… and I hope everyone felt that. Not everyone is happy all the time…

I feel like, if you have an issue, talk about it. Clear up misunderstandings. That’s the way you deal with it. You should never, never, on a point, attack a person. You can attack the issue, but never, never attack the person.

You aren’t a strict rules and regulations sort of guy?

No… rules are fine, but if they give you a rule and a law saying “you are heading north”, sometimes you might have to go a little bit west to get where you want to go. The adage I use is that “through indirections, sometimes you will get directions.” And in the academy, maybe that’s OK. Sometimes you have to explore alternatives that people put in front of you.

Is there anything else you would like students to know about yourself?

Well, I hope that they will find me approachable! That being said, if all 35,000 students who are enroled all decided they wanted to talk to me – they wouldn’t get through! (chuckle). I do want to be approachable and talk to people. I will walk, I tend to wander around, although this is rather difficult in a virtual university. You can phone people up, but if you initiate it all the time, they may feel you are “checking up on me!” You know, if you were phoning students out of the blue and say, “Hi, I’m the president, do you want to chat?”, they would say, “OK, what’s the agenda here, what have I done wrong!” (laughter). I might do that some day!

But you need to be respectful of tutors, be respectful of faculty. Open up communication but be respectful.

Although we could have continued this comfortable, enjoyable chat for quite a while, I knew that there was much to do before Convocation started, and the buzz from outside the office was starting to take on an impatient tone. So I thanked Frits for his time and concluded the interview, taking a moment to catch a picture of him and his wife.

I left the office feeling that I knew our new president just a little bit better, and that I had taken the first step toward forging a new collegial friendship. I had a real sense that he is very pleased to be part of our university and excited about what lies ahead. Only time will tell, of course, but I got the impression that our new president will be one who truly cares about students and will be willing to listen. I, for one, plan to take Frits at his word, and will certainly be approaching him with student concerns!

[editor’s note: for those who are wondering, Dr. Pannekoek’s staff tell me that his surname is properly pronounced panna-kook, with the accent on the second syllable.]

More about Dr. Frits Pannekoek:
Official bio:
AU Media release:
Get cited (publications):
Research collection:
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump website:

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