Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability. It was conducted after the installation of Dr. Fassina as the President of AU.
Dr. Neil Fassina is the 8th President of Athabasca University (AU). 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.
His first interview with the The Voice Magazine was conducted in late 2016, before he was officially president. Part 1 and part 2 of that interview are both available in our archives. This second session was conducted in late May, 2017 as the 8th president of AU. This time, Scott Jacobsen explores how his views have evolved as hes gained more experience with AU.
Last time, we opened with the discussion about personal background. To start session 2, how have things been for you adapting to the installation, to the institution, and charting a course with AU?
President Neil Fassina: Wow thats an incredibly heavy question. The short answer is fantastic. It has been an incredible learning journey for me. I cant recall whether or not we chatted the last time about it. But as I came into Athabasca University, I had a strong sense of the pieces in play and the community that was there. But to have the opportunity over the last 7 ½ months or so to truly get to know the individuals that are parts of this community, the passion they carry.
The knowledge they have, some of the expertise that they bring to the table. It has been exceptional. It is a lot of learning, a lot going on, but it has left me with a sense of a very bright and positive future for us.
What seems like the main lesson in the last 7 or 7 ½ months for you?
Wow again, really good question, part of the key lesson learned is that for some time there has been an external as well as, arguably, an internal focus on some of the challenges that the university is currently facing. It is not to set those challenges aside. They are real. We will face them. We will tackle them. One of the main lessons is shifting the way we talk about ourselves. Despite the challenges that we are facing, we have so much immense good going on in this university, in our learner community, in our research domain.
We have an immense reputation as a leader in open and accessible distance learning. We need to tell that story. We need to embrace what we do incredibly well. We need to embrace what we do incredibly well. We need to be able to let the world know that we do it incredibly well. It is shifting the way we talk about ourselves, to become much stronger in being personal brand ambassadors. The challenges of the university are outweighed by the positive that is here and the opportunity that is here.
With those opportunities before us, and with the advantages that we do have, what was one that you knew beforehand?
Let me give an example around technology, one of the acknowledged challenges that we do have is the need to renew, and frankly accelerate, our technology. Whether or not we are talking about the hardware that underlies things or some of the academic computing elements, while it is a challenge before us, it is turning it around into an opportunity. Athabasca University has an opportunity to take a leadership role in the province and beyond with the goal to renew the technology.
If were doing so in the lens of a solution, then we may be able to partner with others within the Alberta system to create an even stronger technology backbone. So, it becomes turning what others might see as an uphill battle around technology renewal into a chance to take a leadership role. From the students perspective, it enables us to move that much quicker in terms of renewing technology were doing this as a system.
So, were more able to stay at the front end of where the learning opportunities are. You can do that in house. As an example, we have some of the worlds leaders in distance learning. We have one of the leading experts in learning analytics. So, we could move forward with a systems solution on the technology renewal and, at the same time, to be able to leverage the knowledge sets of some of our talented staff.
We then can create that much more progressive movement on reforming the technology environment for higher education. When looking at it from the lens of a challenge, we need to make investments. But when you flip it around and say, “How can we take a leadership role?”, there are a lot of pieces already in place. It is just a function of bringing those pieces together to make it happen.
You talked about how you would “hit the ground listening” coming into the institutions community. How has this approach to leadership been an asset?
Universities, overall, are incredibly interesting systems with a multitude of different stakeholder groups, different perspectives, and different opinions. The way that a university comes together with all of those different stakeholder groups, to individual faculty members, to staff, the way we can bring all of those various perspectives together is to create the most effective path forward for the university that seems to meet the needs of those stakeholder simultaneously.
The only way we can do that is by listening. Unless we understand the perspectives and the rationale behind perspectives, and the interest that underlines someones perspective, then it is difficult to integrate those perspectives and move forward as a unified university with a singular goal. My approach to leadership is one of listening and integrating. It is important for AU. It is a highly integrated and complex system overall.
I think much of the opportunity that sits before the university and our future rests with the people who are a part of our future. I believe the ability and approach to listening and going from there will serve Athabasca University positively as we move forward.
Now, with more familiarity with the AU community, what are some of the up-to-date concerns for the administration, the faculty, and the students?
Lets start with the learners, the students: if I had to put a thumb on some of the primary concerns, our learners are looking for confidence in the university. Not only today, but into the future; not only stability, but its goal. They are looking for a consistent and high quality learning experience and a reliable learning experience in terms of reliable technology. They are looking to integrate their learning on their own terms, at their own pace, to serve their own learning goals.
If I consider that as the starting point, that helps frame some of the primary pieces for the university, the faculty and the staff. From the faculty and staff perspective, it is an exciting place to work and deliver on the commitments that we make to our learners as well as the commitments we have to meeting our research mandate and supporting each other. Again, it is the need for a direction that we can all hang our hats on and push toward, the need for a plan of action to get there, and a need for the development of community and that culture to enable us to get there. I would echo that there are concerns within faculty and staff, as with learners, which is to make sure our technology is on the front edge of learning pedagogy and educational technology, and is of the highest quality and experience – whether the learning is going through the recruitment or the learning process.
From the universitys perspective, the issues remain fairly consistent. It is enabling that learning and research mandate, and the strong sense of community that we have, and embracing the passion of all of our faculty and staff. It is, “How can we effectively organize and direct the resources to make that happen?” We remain cognizant that we, from a financial perspective, are underfunded relative to our peers and continue to advocate for those additional resources.
So, we can effectively deliver. That we are focused on technology renewal, so we can re-establish our role as a leader in educational technology and innovative pedagogy. The university wants to make sure it is highly connected to the communities that it serves. That we recognize that we have a very strong role in many communities, including the town of Athabasca, and wanting to make sure were not only committed to those communities, but to strengthening those communities and being part of a broader partnership as well.
Then making sure that we put the challenges that we currently face behind us and seizing the opportunities before us, to continue to enable that learning and that research mandate that we have as a comprehensive academic and research institution.
Next week, we continue this interview with a more in-depth look at some of the technologies and other responses that Dr. Fassina envisions AU using to address some of these concerns.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the AUSU VPFA. He works with various organizations, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.