Presidential Interview – AU’s Interim President, Part II

Student Scott D. Jacobsen managed to get some time with Athabasca University’s interim president Mr. Peter MacKinnon. Scott interviewed him over a wide set of topics with the president, and the result is this three part interview that we’re happy to present in The Voice Magazine. You can find the first part here.

Last year, what were some of the major events of 2015 for AU in research, celebrations, or general momentous occasions?
I always cite convocation. Convocation takes place over three days in June. Convocation is a special event at all universities. It has a particular flavor at Athabasca University, in part, because for so many it is the first time students have met faculty members and fellow students in person. They come together to celebrate over those three days. That it’s an open, online university makes a coming together particularly special.

I’ve said in many settings that, in, my academic life, I have attended well over 100 convocations. The convocations at Athabasca University are very special because they feature the individual stories of our graduates and the barriers that they had to overcome to undertake post-secondary education, and I find convocation the most memorable time of the year.

In a previous interview for the Voice, you were asked about the likelihood of a distance-based Law School (Tynes, 2015). What seems like the chances or odds of this at this point in time through AU?
Some excellent work has been done at Athabasca University, especially in terms of mapping how this could be done. We attracted some excellent support from the legal profession and within the university.

To mount a law program, you need support – not only of the university, not only of the community, but of the governance and the legal profession across the country. We are at work there too.

Insofar as AU aims to transition to a research-oriented post-secondary institution, graduate level research seems well-established with undergraduate research in continued development ? for example, research groups and laboratories, ?what initiatives seem ’down the road’ for 2016 to assist in research at AU ? especially with the international statements by Prime Minister Trudeau on the necessity for utilization by the international community of Canadian human capital or resourcefulness (The Canadian Press, 2016)?
I don’t see research and teaching as dichotomies. An essential part of the university experience is acquiring a capacity for inquiry, which is what research is all about. We expect academic personnel to be effective in teaching. However, to be effective in university-level teaching, you need to have a capacity for further inquiry, which is what research is all about. So, in any university course there should be a merger between these two ideas: being taught and further inquiry. Research is part of the life-blood of the institution for all who work in its academic activities.

Something comes to mind. The phrases “lifelong learning” or “education for lifelong learning” seems to mirror the merger of standardized learning and research-based endeavors.
I would add to that, by the way. In the context of lifelong learning, we sometimes in the university world have been captive to the language of job-ready teaching and graduates.- preparation for the world beyond the university. Sometimes, we have overdone the idea. I emphasize the language of work adaptability in lifelong learning, which may feature more than one – often several – jobs over the course of a working life. Job adaptability means an important creative capacity to adapt to different working circumstances. The university’s fundamental purpose of educating the critical faculties becomes salient.

The age of AU undergraduates in 2010-2011 at least, is around 28-29 and graduate students around 38-39. 2/3rds of which are women. In the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks 30th out of 145, and in education, we are number one in the world in terms of that same index (World Economic Forum, 2015). With Athabasca having 2/3rds of undergraduates and graduates combined as women it appears we’re reflective (more than the national or international average) of international women’s rights metrics, or gender gap rankings. How does online education affect possible attractiveness to women as opposed to men for presentation and accessibility of education?
Online education is important for all. We can reach into rural communities, into homes, into employment settings, and wherever people have interest in furthering their education. Maybe, and I emphasize the word “maybe” because I haven’t done the research that would be required, we have tapped into, in these years, a pent up demand for online education, which has seen a lot of women respond to the opportunity. Now, that is more speculation than evidence, but it is speculation that I would be interested in testing.

You were an undergraduate student, graduate student, and practitioner of law for 23 years. What advice seems relevant to undergraduate students, graduate students, and as those in, or about to head into, their professional life based upon graduation?
(Laughs) Let me respond to your question in this way, my life in university was a simpler life than the ones now. Other than in the summer, I did not have employment commitments during the school year. I did not have family commitments at the time. I remember my pathways as being relatively easy compared to today.

So, in that sense, it would be presumptuous for me to offer advice. What I would say to anyone in the world of education is to be open to the future, to the possibilities of the future, to embracing the different experiences that are afforded through education, and to take maximum advantage of the opportunities to learn, those will remain as fundamental to success in the future as they have been in the past.

You mentioned Nelson Mandela as a hero in a previous interview. Why him?
When you think about the 20th century, and you think the names that come to mind, the great names of the 20th century. What name? What person has overcome obstacles, has achieved mightily, and has done so in such a wonderful spirit of magnanimity?

So, with Nelson Mandela, a quarter of a century or more as a prisoner, struggling against deeply entrenched inequality, being instrumental in overturning that inequality, and in setting an example, not of achievement alone, but an example of humanity that I think was unsurpassed in the 20th century, and that’s why I mentioned him.

What seems like something everyone, and another thing no one, knows about you?
Without violating my own privacy from that question (laughs), I would say that my ? that’s a good question. What would nobody know about me? Probably, some of my closest friends would know this, but few would know what a devoted fan of baseball I am. I am a baseball enthusiast. I follow the game closely. And I love the game.

It was the only sport I played reasonably well as a young person. I was a poor hockey player. I was too small for football, or, at least, to play football well. And, when I was growing up, soccer was not a significant North American sport. I played baseball. I loved it. And I love it to this day, and not many people would know that.

Athabasca University. (n.d.). Facts and Statistics: Student Demographics 2010-11. Retrieved from
Tynes, B. (2015, July 31). Interview with Dr. Peter MacKinnon
AU’s Interim President. Retrieved from

World Economic Forum. (2015). Economies: Canada. Retrieved from
The Canadian Press. (2016, January 20). PM to Davos: ’Know Canadians for our resourcefulness’. Retrieved from

A native British Columbian, Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AU undergrad. He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, Lifespan Cognition Psychology Lab, and IMAGe Psychology Lab, and with the UCI Ethics Center.

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