Interview with Dr. Peter MacKinnon – AU’s Interim President

A Wonderful Mission

Interview with Dr. Peter MacKinnon – AU’s Interim President

Dr. Peter MacKinnon is the interim president of Athabasca University. With a new NDP government and the recent report about AU’s financial vulnerability, you can imagine he’s a fairly busy guy. Fortunately for The Voice Magazine, Bethany Tynes managed to get a few minutes with him to conduct this interview.

Dr. MacKinnon, you have an incredible list of career achievements ? would you be able to tell students how you first came to be involved with Athabasca University?
In early 2014, the university had just gone through a search process for a full-term president, and that process was not successful. The board asked me to come to Athabasca as an interim president, and, you know, what really intrigued me about the possibility was the mission of the university as an open university and an online university, but particularly as an open university, it basically said to people “look, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your background, university education is possible at Athabasca!” That appealed to me, so I took the job.

Is there anything in particular that you hope to accomplish as AU’s Interim President?
Well, naturally, your first focus is to bring about the conditions that will enable a successful search for the next full-term president. So whatever it is that compromised the search the first time, you want to make sure That’s addressed. Naturally at a time like this when there are enrollment challenges or other issues, you want to do what you can to help the university. It’s a very important and unique institution and you want to do what you can to help the university, so That’s really how I see my job.

Are you able to comment on whether there is a presidential search currently underway?
Well I think that certainly a key feature of the sustainability report, for me at least, and I think for the institution, is to get clarity around the circumstances of the university to make progress?particularly with Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, the ministry responsible for universities and colleges, and to gain sufficient clarity around the stability and the future of the university?to allow the search to go forward. I think we’re partly there. The picture is, as yet, incomplete. I think we’re making progress and having the kinds of conversations that we need to have. The university board is responsible for conducting the search, but I think we’re making progress in creating conditions in which the board can continue the search and identify the next full-term president.

You also briefly mentioned the task force report, and it put forward four main options (refocusing to serve Albertans first, emphasizing efficiencies, federation with another institution, or affiliations with other organizations). Are there any of these that strike you as being particularly good news for AU students?
Well, I think that there’s plenty of good news for students. And those options aren’t intended to be definitive, final, and exhaustive, but you want to have a disciplined conversation around the future of the university. There are all kinds of rumours, there’s all kinds of speculation, there are all kinds of anecdotal comments about what the future holds, but the task force report was intended to provoke the beginning of a disciplined conversation around the future of the university. And that conversation doesn’t just take place within the university; it does take place with government, and potentially with others. But I think there are a lot of things in those options. A careful reading of them?and I think one of the problems is that these reports are not always read before they’re commented upon?but, obviously effectiveness and efficiencies, and we’re at work on those, but can we do better there? There are limits, of course, but can we do better there?

You know, I think that Alberta and Canada should be more ambitious about the prospects for open, online education. You see that one of the appendices attached to the task force report talks a bit about the Open University in the United Kingdom and about Open Universities Australia. I think Alberta could put forward a more ambitious face to Canada, and Canada to the world, for online, open education. I’d like to see that. I think that it would be great for Athabasca University because we’d be a natural leader there. I think there’s tremendous potential, and I hope that we can see progress.

You mentioned working with government; has the recent change of government in Alberta had any impact on this work or the university’s future?
It’s early to tell, It’s early to tell. We have had some encouraging signs of interest and concern, so yes. In terms of the ministry, we continue to work primarily through the public servants in the ministry, and those conversations have started and are, I think, good conversations. So we’ll see as time goes by. I would be optimistic about the possibilities of the conversations going forward.

You mentioned working with public service; have you had the opportunity to meet with Minister Sigurdson yet?
I’ve got a request in to meet with her. As you can imagine, the list of requested meetings is a long list, but I have requested a meeting and I have renewed the request, and I’m hopeful that sometime ? who knows, maybe in late July or sometime in August, that there will be the opportunity to sit down with the Minister personally and brief her on the situation. Other people at the university no doubt have opportunities to talk with her as well, and certainly we encourage conversations on the part of all who have channels of communication into the government to utilize them constructively and to urge attention to our circumstances.

Do you anticipate any changes to the post-secondary funding model, or specifically to AU’s funding, under the new government?
Well, do I anticipate? I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I think that is part of the picture. A careful reading of the task force report would inform readers that this university is quite unique in terms of its funding circumstances, and it has not worked to its advantage. Thirty years ago, more than 80% of the university’s operating cost was supported by government, now It’s around 30% – obviously something has been happening to our funding. That’s the lowest of all public institutions as a percentage of operating cost, the lowest of all public institutions, and lower than two of the five independent institutions. Some of that reflects the demographics, with the out of province students, but my heavens, It’s a very, very challenging set of circumstances in which to work, believe me.

One of the options in the report was, essentially, to find efficiencies within the university. The university has done quite a bit of belt-tightening over the past few years ? for example, after the 2013 budget cuts, 113 positions were eliminated, and when the etext rollout was originally presented to the board, it projected an annual savings of $1 million. How realistic is it that sufficient efficiencies can be found to offset the financial challenges the university faces?
I think That’s a great question. Again, we say in the report, we acknowledge that we have, in fact, engaged in incrementalism a lot, and we may be reaching its limits, but at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore all the possibilities, and if we can identify other efficiencies in some of our process that will advance sustainability, great. But there are limits, as you point out, and we asked the question of whether we are getting close to those limits with all that has gone on over the last few years.

Are there any particular areas where you might see a potential for future efficiencies?
You know, I think I’m going to wait for the reports on that. We have asked the deans to lead on the academic side of our processes; we’ve got deans in whom we’ve got great confidence, and we want them to lead, in which, on the academic side, in the programs we offer, in the courses that we offer, in the student services that we have, to help us identify the possibilities. I wouldn’t want to anticipate what those might be in advance. But we know that over time, some of our courses become dated. Over time, some of our programs need to be adjusted. Have we exhausted the possibilities and the potential there? That remains to be seen and we’ll look forward to the leadership of our deans on that.

In terms of the more business side of the organization, I think we’ll probably rely on some external assistance to help us, because, sometimes, fresh eyes can see what we don’t see. So these processes are underway, and I’m hopeful that they will yield whatever results are out there, but I wouldn’t want to judge what those could be in advance.

And were there any options in the report that you feel could be challenging to AU students, or to certain pockets of students? I know the out of province students would obviously be concerned about refocusing to serve Albertans first?
Right. And by the way, I think that would diminish our university. I think the report was clear about that.

So, shifting away from the report, there have been rumours swirling around over the years about the potential for AU to create a distance-based law school. As you are a lawyer and law professor, do you think that that would ever be possible, or something that AU would be able to look at?
I think It’s a really intriguing possibility, and we have made some progress already. There are AU faculty members that have been doing some excellent background work on the possibility and it has been greeted positively by General Faculties Council and by the Board, and they are continuing to develop the possibility into a full proposal I believe. I think It’s an interesting one, and I think as well that It’s one that will require some collaboration between Athabasca and one of the campus-based law schools in Alberta, with U of A or U of C, because there are some things for which we would want our students on site, so a collaborative, blended model, I think would make a lot of sense. It’s a possibility, It’s moving forward, and we’re excited about the potential.

Is there anything else you think students should know about the future of AU?
What I emphasize over and over again is that Athabasca University’s great strength ? its wonderful, unique strength ? is its openness. The reality is that Athabasca University makes available education to students who would otherwise find it very difficult or impossible to access. That is a wonderful mission and it is an increasingly important mission; It’s important to Alberta and to Canada. Athabasca University has been a pioneer and I believe can continue to be a leader in that sphere. And that makes it a tremendously important Albertan and Canadian institution. That’s what I believe, and I believe it passionately.

Bethany Tynes completed her MA in Integrated Studies through AU, and is a Canadian politics junkie.