Presidential Interview – AU’s Interim President, Peter MacKinnon, Part III

Student Scott D. Jacobsen managed to get some time with Athabasca University’s interim president Mr. Peter MacKinnon. Scott interviewed the president over a wide set of topics, and the result is this three part interview that we’re happy to present in The Voice Magazine. This is the third part of the series, you might also enjoy the first and second parts.

Coming into 2016, what initiatives should members of the AU community expect in the spring, summer, fall, and winter seasons?
I think the initiative of a presidential search is the single most important initiative on our agenda for 2016. The committee which advises the Board of Governors on this search has been established. It is an excellent committee. It has conducted consultations already in Athabasca, in Edmonton, in Calgary, faculty staff, with unions, with others, consultations in the community of Athabasca itself. It is very important for this university to identify and to appoint an excellent president.

You engaged with appellate cases in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada. What have these kinds of experiences at the apogee of the Canadian law system taught you?
Humility, I always thought of it as important for law professors, which I was for 23 years of my life, it was important for you to be anchored ? not just in the academy and our law schools, but to be anchored in professional work too. So, I was licensed to practice law in two provinces: Ontario and Saskatchewan. I sought opportunities. There can’t be too many because you have full-time commitments, as well, to the university, which I did, but I always was on the lookout for opportunities which would broaden and deepen my understanding of law and the legal system. This included opportunities to participate in cases. One of the first things taught to an individual is humility. You discover sometimes that your best arguments, and the best answers to questions of judges, you discover on the way home from the hearing. (Laughs)

So, the experiences enriched my capacity to teach law and to research in law. It also taught me how diverse the legal world is, and one should approach it with openness and humility.

You do have a literary background, co-editing three books and writing one. (The three co-edited books were After Meech Lake, Elected Boundaries: Legislatures, Courts and Electoral Values, as well as Citizenship, Diversity and Pluralism.) Your solely authored book was University Leadership and Public Policy. In brief, in terms of themes what were some of the general ideas and arguments presented in these texts?
They were all different. After Meech Lake came out of a conference that I was involved in, and helped organize, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord back in the early 90s, so the goal there was to bring people together. It was the first major conference after the collapse of the accord. It was to bring people together to talk about “What now?” for Canada given that the Meech lake Accord has not been accepted, and, of course, the book contains contributions of many outstanding Canadians to that discussion.

The second work reflected an interest that we had at the University of Saskatchewan. Both in the department of political science and in the college of law, that we had, in democracy and the meaning of the vote, and electoral boundaries. How they are drawn, where they are drawn, what influences are at work have a very important effect on the status of the vote, and the effectiveness of the vote, and so, that was a big interest there.

Citizenship, Diversity and Pluralism was the third volume that grew out of a major conference. I was involved in it. It was from the perspective of the year close to 2,000. What does citizenship look like in a world of diversity and pluralism? What do we mean when we talk of citizenship? What are its common and unchanging attributes? What are its evolving attributes?

The fourth volume I wrote here. Looking back, when you are a university president you encounter so many fairly substantial public policy issues. Who should pay for post-secondary education? What should the relationships between universities and governments be? What should the relationships between universities and commercial influences be? How should we appoint our leaders? What should we expect of our leaders?

These are fundamental questions. They are fundamental in universities. They are fundamental public policy questions. And if you were a university president, as I was for 13 years, you have the opportunity to encounter these issues. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect on them, and to write a book. So, those were the influences at work in those publications.

You were the Dean of Law at the University of Saskatchewan for 10 years too. What tasks and responsibilities come along with being the dean as opposed to a president?
A dean is a leader of a particular faculty. You are responsible for the arrangement and the oversight of particular faculty’s academic activities. So, when I was a dean at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, I had overall responsibility for ensuring that the college’s academic programs and activities were effectively undertaken. You’re there. You’re on site. You are there with your faculty. You are there with your students. You participate in the program. Throughout my time as a dean, I taught two courses, and so you are on site, as it were, in the academic work of the college. That’s how I would describe the work of the dean.

In contrast, the president is working for the institution as a whole. You have a broader set of responsibilities. You have a more external role. The biggest difference, I would say, is that you are more distant from the day-to-day teaching and research activities that dominate your life as a professor, and even as a dean.

Your bio says that you were chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada from 2003-2005, served for five years on the Science, Technology and Innovation Council of Canada, and continues to serve on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service; the Chief Justice of Canada’s Advisory Committee to the Canadian Judicial Council; the Board of the Council of Canadian Academies; the Board of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation; the Board of the Global Institute for Food Security; the Board of Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI; and as Chair of the Honours Advisory Council in Saskatchewan” (Athabasca University, 2014). This is a very, very broad sweep of both experience and stations. In terms of the stations themselves, how does one go about acquiring these positions or these stations? Connected to that, what experience, and some of them were for many years, does each teach you?
It should first be said that all of these positions are unpaid positions. They are public service. They are opportunities to provide the service in a particular sphere on activity, and you do not apply for them so much as be open to them. Invitations come along the way. And if you judge it to be something to which you can make a contribution, it is important that you, where you can, try to do so. So, I see all of these activities to which you have referred, I see them all as public service, and I see them as being areas that my background prepared me to help in.

Lastly, you earned the Officer of the Order of Canada, a Queen’s Council, a recipient of the Canadian Bar Association Distinguished. In addition, you have honorary degrees from Dalhousie, Victoria, U of IT, Queen’s, Memorial, and Regina universities. Each of these, to have even a single honorary degree, would be enough renowned for someone to be appreciated by the community in addition to take that as a strong accomplishment. However, you have many of these in addition to others of similar or greater stature. What does each of these, in particular, mean to you? How does this affect personal perspective on the nature of both honors and responsibilities to the community?
You certainly do not do what you do to acquire honors, but they do come along from time to time. And do you appreciate them? Yes. Do you enjoy them? Yes. So, it is nice when you are recognized for doing the work that you do. That’s what they mean to me. And It’s really that. It is nice to be recognized, but do you not do the work to be recognized. But It’s nice when it comes along. And I have been fortunate in that respect.

Thank you for your time, President MacKinnon.
It’s been a pleasure, Scott.

[Athabasca U]. (2014, November 7). Peter MacKinnon – Interim President of Athabasca University.
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Athabasca University. (2014, July 3). President’s Biography.
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Athabasca University. (2015, June 1). The Future Is Now: Report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability.
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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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