Meeting the Minds – Interviewing AU’s New President, Part II


Dr. Neil Fassina is the 8th President of Athabasca University. He earned a BSc in Psychology from the University of Calgary and PhD in Management from the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. He is an active researcher in the areas around applied decision-making. He was installed in mid-January, 2017 and works to remain connected to the communities that he serves. AU is no different. This is the second part of the interview that was conducted in late 2016, prior to Dr. Fassina being officially installed as the 8th president of AU.

What are your general perspectives on education in the 21st century?
That’s a very good, very short question with a potentially long answer. If I think about the role of a university, we are a partner in the lifelong learning pathway of an individual. We serve as a partner because we’re not the only person or influential force in the learning environment. If we’re talking formal education, we’re talking everything from kindergarten to pre-school learning environments into being lifelong learners while realizing everyone will always have a lifelong desire to learn. If we consider the formal education pathway, we serve as an element of higher education that enables individuals to better themselves and their community through learning and knowledge with certain desires or endpoints in mind.

In some cases, it might be for the love of learning. It might be for self-betterment. It might be for the growth of an individual’s knowledge. In other cases, there might be much more tangible purposes. They might be coming to us to build a skill-set to be able to apply in a current environment, whether or not it be their current employment or community engagement. They are looking for tangible knowledge that they can then convert into the skill that they’re looking to build right there. Alternatively, they might be looking to us to engage in and create knowledge that they would like to apply later. There is a tangible connection between the learning and their community environment. It might be more of a delayed impact, or they are looking to shift the environment in which they are working.

To me, where the university sits, we are a group of individuals that come together to help enable that knowledge, to help bring the learning opportunities together in a structured format that will best create the learning or the knowledge the student is looking to create in their life path. A student that runs through a K-12, then immediately wants to enter a university environment finds us as an early university partner. For someone that takes a different life path, that doesn’t result in going straight to university straight out of high school, we might take on a later role in their life. Our goal is to be a partner in their lifelong learning forever. They might come to us for an initial degree. But the goal is to create a learning space, where people will want to return to us to create the knowledge again, create the new knowledge, or create a future knowledge. The role of the university is to create social, community, and economic benefit through the creation of knowledge with our learners.

Partner that with some of the research initiatives that are undertaken in a university environment, whether they be in the pure science level, or more on the basic or theoretical level, moving all of the way up into the applied spaces, where you’re solving community, business, and technology issues through innovation. You’re bringing ideas together to create new processes or new technologies to help enable the social and economic benefits of the community and the people there to create a stronger quality of life, if you will, for both of the individuals and the communities that they live in.

We are in the midst of the knowledge economy. People might be coming to AU for various positions that they are hoping to get qualified and credentialed for?to be able to take on those positions?so what role does the online university play in preparing people for the current economy?
You hit the nail on the head with the knowledge piece, as we start to move into ’Economy 4.0’ language. Once upon a time, it was vocational versus university thinking. They are blending and coming together, where your knowledge is your tool. The role of a university, like AU, is to have very strong programs. Students enter a university with the goal of strengthening a knowledge base in a specific domain?for a credential, or to enable them to enter into a different area of the economic market?whether in a place they’re currently employed or to shift to a different field. To be able to gain that knowledge and apply it, creates economic benefits for the individual and social benefits based on becoming involved in a different part of the economy.

If we look at the trajectory of AU at present, where do you hope to bring AU in the last part of 2016 and in 2017?
Great question, I will break it into the short-term and the long-term. I will bring it back to what I said about the long-term vision. What I want to be able to, and I truly believe we will, accomplish in the next 2-3 years is to be able to resolve some of the challenges before us. Frankly, it is to find the balance, which people question with sustainability. As we come to the 50th anniversary of the creation of the university, to me, the university is thirsting to be able to look at what the next opportunity is that will make the postsecondary environment look up and say, “Wow! That’s incredible.” To get there, we need to make sure the platform from which we are jumping is solid. Over the next 1-2 years, it is about making sure the platform is solid. That we have the balance to make the significant visionary leaps into what Athabasca is capable of doing.

It becomes two parallel processes. It is resolving the challenges and creating the solid platform, while at the same time involving the community in the planning process to identify, refine, and envision what that next opportunity is. It doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things we could go after. However, those two things have to happen together. If what you’re trying to do is to resolve challenges and create balance you need to be thinking about what is next, we want to make sure we’re making the right decisions for the future rather than today alone. That’s what I imagine the next year being very focused on. It is making sure the decisions are put in place that need to be there to create the strong platform and, at the same time, starting the process of figuring out what is that future vision of AU and how are we going to get there.

AU leads the country in online education. If we go to the far future, where do you hope to have provided to the AU of the future, past your own tenure?
Wow! It’s a great question. I see my role as not only being part of the current solution, but being part of that next future. I envision a very exciting future. In the first couple of years, I want to be able to have a space, where no one questions the sustainability of Athabasca. Not because it is sustainable, but because it is exceptional. If I had my druthers in the short-term (5-year margin), I would love to make it where people look at AU and say, “There’s a university that’s here to stay and always looking to what’s next.” While working with the community, it would be figuring out what that next step is. Like I said before, there are plenty of opportunities before Athabasca, especially if you consider the mission of being open, being accessible, and being flexible.

One of the challenges that we have is going to be choosing among those opportunities. Albeit, it is a very good challenge to have, but that second stage is to be part of the university that has made a significant strategic decision. It has started to undertake movements in that direction. Where the rest of the postsecondary environment says, “I wish I’d thought of that,” we have a history of that. If you look at our origins and the movement towards the distance education, or the leap that we took into online education, we have a history of the university system saying, “That’s a good idea. Now, let’s get on it.” If I, at the end of the tenure, could be part of the community that creates that excitement, man, I will leave an incredibly happy individual.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Fassina.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AUSU Councillor. He works with various organizations, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.

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