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Queen's University

In Conversation with Provost Alan Harrison

September 21, 2011

Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison arrived on campus August 1. Over the weeks, he's become better acquainted with our campus and the community that comes together here every day, working toward a common goal – quality undergraduate and graduate teaching and learning.

Queen's Communications caught up with Provost Harrison this week and asked him a few questions about his role, and his plans for guiding the university through the ever-changing post secondary education landscape.  Here's what he told us...

Why did you decide to come to Queen's?

I have a long career in post-secondary education that stretches back 35 years in Canada, and several years in England before that. My wife and I are living in Kingston for the second time in our lives; our Canadian experience has gone full circle.

Thirty-five years ago when we came to Canada with our son, we spent the first year in Kingston where I was working as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Economics, the same department where I hold a professorship now. In fact there are a few people now who were there when I was here the last time.

When asked if I was interested in being considered for the position of provost at Queen's, I'd finished a five-year term at the University of Calgary as Provost, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. But there was a small number of universities in the country that interested me, from the point of view of doing the same job again, and Queen's was at the top of that list. The reason is simple: I'd spent the year here before, and the University was always a point of comparison for everywhere that I went subsequently.

What do you see as the role of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic)?

My role is to support the principal in what he does, by driving the operational execution of everything underpinning the university's strategic direction.

The notion is that the principal is increasingly an external role for the university, but more importantly it's a strategic role. You can have great plans, but there are many great plans that reside on a shelf and gather dust. It's really in the execution that we know the university is moving forward. And again it comes back to the academic mission, ensuring that it's being properly fulfilled. I will also act as the principal's delegate if he was for any reason not able to attend a meeting or go to an event, and of course when he is out of the country.

As Vice-Principal (Academic) I'm the chief academic officer, which means essentially taking responsibility for everything that touches students' lives whilst they're at the University, whether that's in the classroom, whether it's co-curricular, or extra-curricular; so I work with the other vice-principals, deans, the people responsible for student support, learning support etc.

Overlaid on the Vice-Principal (Academic) role is the Provost position, which is ultimately responsible for all operational decisions within the University, and for the University's budget.

Let me just explain what I mean by responsibility for the budget. The distinction I make is between this year's money and next year's money. This year's money is finance, next year's money is budget, because budget is about allocation, finance is about spending. So the job of finance is to ensure that we spend it where we said we would, and budget is to determine, for next year and subsequent years, how the resources will be spent.

How does your office support all this?

By supporting the interactions I have with the other vice-principals.

There's almost no decision that can be taken that doesn't have cross-portfolio implications; understanding those implications, and ensuring they're duly considered and appreciated is part of the provost role. So the job of my office is to interact with other vice-principal portfolios.

Also, of course, keeping in close touch with the deans and other academic administrators to ensure we're all essentially pulling in the same direction. It's really about appreciating and taking account of cross-portfolio implications. My office helps ensure that all of our actions are coordinated in pursuit of our academic mission.

How will you provide leadership on implementation of the academic plan once approved by Senate?

Here is another example where execution is going to be key.

A plan comes with lofty ideals, but we have to turn that into actions that will actually achieve those ideals. And I say "we" because I am not going to do that alone. There are lots of people who work with me – not just the vice-principals but particularly the deans, staff in Student Affairs, the Registrar, the Librarian, everybody. So the way I will try to make sure that we execute appropriately is to work in tandem with all of those people, make sure we know what it is we are trying to do, and pull forward together to make this a better place for students, researchers - for everybody who engages in inquiry at Queen's.

What do you see as your greatest challenges?

The challenge these days in universities is always about balancing money against what we are trying to do for students. It's no different here than anywhere else in Canada or, frankly, around the world as far as I am concerned.

My biggest challenge will be, certainly, to ensure our budget is balanced - but at the same time, to keep in mind that we are here for a reason. Balancing the budget is fine and all well and good. But what is it that we are really trying to do? We are trying to deliver a high quality education for our students. That's upper most in my mind.

What do you see as your role in promoting diversity and equity on campus?

Effective September 1, the Equity Office and the Human Rights Office both report to the Office of the Provost. I support this move. The role of these offices is certainly, in part, raising appreciation of issues of diversity while supporting people who have concerns about the university and making sure that those are quickly and appropriately addressed. My role will be to ensure those offices are appropriately supported.

There's an educational consideration, too, that extends beyond my interaction with the Equity Office and the Human Rights Office to the whole curriculum issue; the curriculum itself is probably the single most important way we can reach out to our students and enable them to try and understand the increasingly globalized nature of the world we live in. Much of that will happen in the classroom, but it also happens outside the classroom. So it's really, once again, about recognizing our goal to introduce people to issues associated with diversity and equity and providing opportunities for them to engage with and appreciate these issues.

How will you be keeping the community informed in your role as Provost?

Well, I believe very strongly that one should always share information, so there will be frequent written and verbal communication to the Queen's community. In my first year particularly I intend to get out and meet as many people as possible. Not just share with them what I think needs to be done, and what I've heard others tell me, but also hear from them and test other people's ideas against what they have to say.

So it'll be more than just information-sharing, although I do think that's important, it will also be consultation. Bearing in mind, of course, that although I was here 35 years ago for a year, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and there many people here now with a lot more Queen's experience who can help me to do my job.

What do you hope we will have accomplished as a community by next year?

By next year I hope we will  have presented the Board of Trustees Finance Committee with a balanced budget as that committee requested. And more importantly, that that hasn't precluded us from making the first steps in the execution of the Academic Plan and making this a better university for all who work and study here.

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