Interview with the Associate Vice President – Student and Academic Services

Interview with the Associate Vice President – Student and Academic Services

Dr. Alain May is the Associate Vice President of Student and Academic Services for Athabasca University. She was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule so that The Voice Magazine could bring you this interview. This week, we look at her background, how she became the Associate Vice President, and what that means.

You’ve earned a BSc in Computing Science and an MBA from the University of Alberta, and later a PhD in Business (MIS) from the University of Calgary. What did these credentials teach you?
Certainly, content was an important part of what I took away from my degrees?the theory and understanding of new fields.

In my undergrad, I started in pre-med but realized, when I couldn’t stay in the dissection lab for more than ten minutes without running out to breathe, that pre-med was not for me. I didn’t know what to do at that point, a feeling which I’m sure many students can relate to. My friends told me, “You’re logical. You’ll be good at computing science.” I didn’t know much about the field at all, but took a couple of courses and enjoyed them. So, I went into the field without much knowledge of it and, therefore, content was critical to my undergraduate education.

For the MBA, I started it soon after undergraduate graduation. I anticipated that I would be involved in software design mostly for businesses. So, I felt like I needed to understand business better to be able to design software in that context.

The PhD was different. Theory was important, of course. However, what was most influential for me was that it introduced me to different philosophical perspectives. At the start of my degree, I viewed the world from a distinctly positive perspective. The PhD altered how I thought about the world.

Overall, all of the degrees also helped me learn more about setting and achieving goals. You start out knowing that getting the degree is going to take a long time. Sometimes, you don’t even trust that you can achieve that goal. I did the first year of my MBA part-time, while I was working full-time. I also had two babies during that time. Learning to stick with goals and finding ways to achieve them — even when life is happening around you — was an important part of my education.

Following that, you were a supervisor for the Technical Development Group for ACT Computer Services, and a senior product specialist for JDA Software. What skills and talents developed from these positions? How did they feed into decisions to join the academic world such as at AU?
I certainly think that the position coming right out of school helped me to learn to apply the theory and practice I’d learned at school. It was one thing to learn how to program when you only had to make it work well enough for the professor to grade your program. (Laughs) It was another for me to learn to build it for clients who needed to use the software day-in/day-out. It mattered that the program worked in a more full-featured way. It mattered that the software was easy to use. So taking all of that theory that I learned and applying it for real clients was an important part of what I learned in that first job.

Learning how to apply the theory and practice in different contexts was also important. In the Technical Development Group at ACT, I developed decision support systems. At JDA Software, I worked on an enterprise system for retail. I didn’t go into either role with experience in those contexts so learning those environments was really important.

Also, learning to work as part of a team; that wasn’t an important part of what we did in our university program at that time. So, learning to work as part of a team, and later learning to lead teams as I went through my career, were important skills to develop.

These roles were critical in my decision to go into academic life. I developed software for 13 or 14 years. I worked in large software projects with good, strong developers and implementers. Even so, we had these projects that failed at some point. Everybody started out with good intentions and good skills but there was something holding us back from delivering in the way that we really wanted to. And so I was really interested in why. That was a big part of the reason that I decided to seek my PhD.

You have been part of the AU community since January 2006 through a broad suite of positions. What tasks and responsibilities come with those? And how does one target these positions to acquire them?
It’s an interesting question. The professorial role is teaching, research, and service. So, teaching at AU is about creating quality courses, being that frontline person who works with students in an ongoing way in some courses, in others, working with the tutors and academic experts to make sure there is strong academic support. My area was Management Information Systems in the Faculty of Business. Research at AU is about 40% of your time.

Also, there’s service. Universities are collegial governance institutions. So, your participation in committees, in the life of the university, is really important. All three are important parts of the professorial role.

I took on the roles of associate dean and MBA program director after my research and study leave in 2013. As the associate dean, an important responsibility was working on AACSB accreditation for the Faculty of Business. The program director role was about working with the program faculty and the dean to set academic direction for the program as well as working with program students.

In the Associate Vice President (AVP) role, I am a member of the executive team with overall responsibility for student and academic services. I have a variety of teams: Office of the Registrar, Learner Support Services, Centre for Learning Accreditation, Library and Scholarly Resources, Student and Academic Services Web Unit, AU Press, and Learning Services Tutorial. We have also added Learning Resources, which wasn’t initially in the portfolio. The responsibility in this unit is the distribution of learning resources to students. That covers the first part of the question.

The second one is interesting to me. I have to say that I’m not sure I necessarily targeted these positions in the way that maybe you mean. In my career, I have tended to follow my interests. So, for example, if we look at the accreditation piece, when I first came into the institution in 2006, there was a call in the Faculty of Business for somebody to join the accreditation committee. I thought to myself, “Wow! This would be a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the faculty because the accreditation committee has to look at many aspects of the faculty – learning objectives and outcomes, how we serve students, our faculty and faculty processes, our programs and courses, etc.” So, this would be a great opportunity for me to get that broad vision of the institution and this faculty that I’ve joined. I followed that interest, and it became something that I was really committed to. I appreciated the accreditation’s focus on quality, and felt like it was going to serve us well in the faculty. Out of that came the associate dean accreditation position. It wasn’t that I went out necessarily targeting administration, but followed my interest and passion for that idea and out of that grew opportunities.

The AVP role that I’m currently in is a very similar thing. Through the various roles I’ve had -program director at the MBA, the associate dean role, and in my work with students as a professor ? I became interested in, and had a passion for, student service. The connection of that to how well students can achieve their desired outcomes in online education was clear to me. So when the opportunity for an AVP of Student and Academic Services presented itself, I felt like it really connected with my interests in the institution, and I felt like I had something to contribute there. Again, I wouldn’t have said that I thought to myself years ago, “Hey! I am going to be the AVP in Student and Academic Services.” Rather, I followed my passion and interests.

That seems different than the standard narrative given to undergraduates. That seems to be: “You get your first two years. You get your associates. Do another two years, and you get your bachelors. Then apply for graduate school, and get grants. Then your masters. From there, you can get your PhD. Finally, you can apply for positions at this point as an adjunct, and so on, likely with low pay. After some time, if You’re lucky, you may get a tenure-track position.” At each stage, for at least a decade of formal post-secondary education, you have a narrative built around targeted acquisition of professional positions for a particular career path. But That’s different than what you’ve done.
Yea! I don’t know that I would hold myself up as the model people should follow, but it worked for me. There’s of course also something about making some decisions along the way to seek new opportunities and new challenges. I did go do my MBA. I did go do my PhD. I took opportunities that presented themselves. I think all of those are important. But, I wouldn’t say that I ever had that five- or ten-year plan that said this is exactly what my path is going to be. I followed interests, passions, and skill-sets.

What relates them in personal and professional interest ? or is it a necessity of the career path?
It is about personal and professional interest, and I would also say that what relates them for me is an interest and passion in quality education and experience for students.

AU serves a really important role in the educational marketplace, and trying to find ways to help students in getting a quality educational experience is important. If I had to say there is a common factor among all of those roles, it is that for me.

What is the most important experience, on a personal level in a professional context, for you in each of these professional stations?
There are many. For me, it is working with students who really underscore why I do what I do. It’s the student who didn’t thrive in a traditional institution, but then came to AU to get her degree after having been away from education for a while. And AU worked for her. She ended up in a great job in her chosen field because this context worked for her in ways that a traditional institution didn’t.

And another particularly noteworthy one for me is a student who finished his last assignment in the hospital just before he died. Even when he found out that he had cancer, he decided his education was important to him. So, he chose to continue. Those are the stories that make me say, “This is why I do what I do.” Because we make a difference for students.

It happens in smaller, less big headline ways, too. There is the student you work with who didn’t get something at first, just didn’t understand and, somehow in your conversation with the student, they get it. They finally understand it. Or, the student who signed up for your management information systems course knowing in his or her heart of hearts that it was never going to be a course that they were interested in, and then realized, “Wow, this is why this is important.”

It is those big noteworthy, big headline, stories, but also those little ones working with them. Those are the experiences that most strike me.

Athabasca University. (2015, May 11). Dr. Alain May: Associate Vice President, Student and Academic Services.
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LinkedIn. (2016). Alain May.
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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AUSU Councillor. He works with various organizations, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.