Last Monday I got the chance to sit down with Trent University’s incoming president, Dr. Leo Groarke.

Groarke is currently the University of Windsor’s Provost and Vice-President Academic and previously served as Principal and Vice President of Laurier’s satellite campus in Brantford, Ontario.

He is educated in philosophy and studied at the University of Calgary, Simon Fraser University, The University of Helsinki and finally the University of Western Ontario.

When I arranged this interview I was initially only allotted half an hour. That quickly doubled, however, as Groarke discussed administration, community and the challenges that face Trent.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

LEO_GROARKEWhat is it about Trent University that made you want to come here as president?

One of the things that attracts me to Trent is the fact that it is a smaller university. I do believe that small universities have something special to offer, especially to undergraduate students. They’re more personal, more intimate and there is more access to faculty.

I like Trent’s interdisciplinary and, though there are some challenges, a university that is based on the liberal arts and sciences is appealing to me. I want to be in a place where I can champion liberal arts and sciences in the midst of all the challenges that universities face these days.

You are a student of the humanities and are educated as a philosopher. How has your education shaped your approach to administration?

I genuinely think of administration as applied philosophy. I am someone who has an interest in the philosophy of education and being an administrator means having both the opportunity and the challenge of trying to realize the values of my philosophy of education.

I mean, it is interesting that when one does real administration one finds things are usually much more complex and much more difficult than one imagines when one is just in an armchair thinking about education. There are political forces that come into play that have a profound effect on education.

Essentially, though, I’d say that being an administrator is a chance to be an applied philosopher of education. I see it as very much in keeping with my academic background.

You’re coming from the University of Windsor and before that you worked at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. Both of these institutions are centrally located in their respective cities. How important would you say it is for universities to integrate themselves in their local communities?

It is essential. However, what this means will be different for different circumstances. University is a place to come for reflection, but it is also a place where reflection should be integrated into the local community in some way.

I have no doubt that Trent needs to be very proactive and engaged in the local community, there is no question about it.

Trent University currently has a downtown college, Catherine Parr Traill College, and used to have another downtown college, Peter Robinson, which closed in 2001. Now, you say that it is necessary for Trent to be engaged with the community, do you think that requires an increased physical presence in the downtown?

First thing is that it would be presumptuous of me, coming from a career at other institutions, to have a very set-in-stone opinion about what should happen or not happen in the Peterborough downtown.

What I’ve seen so far is that there are a couple of controversial issues at Trent and one of these is the university’s relationship to Peterborough’s downtown—let’s not forget that there is a downtown in Oshawa too. The other touchy subject is the college system.

I have discovered that these two issues are a source of great controversy and different people have radically opposed opinions. So I’m not prepared at this moment to jump into the middle of that and say what’s the right opinion, but I will say a couple of things.

The first is that the decisions made by this university need to be driven first and foremost by what works for students. The key question is: how do we make Trent a vibrant university that works for its students and faculty? This is a more important question than whether or not we go downtown. If we do decide to go downtown it needs to be because it makes sense from the point of view of the students and faculty.

The second thing I will say is that we have to do things that make financial sense. The university, if its going to provide students with the education that we want, has to adhere to a business plan that works. So, to the extent that we would do things downtown, there first has to be a solid business plan.

You have obviously gained a lot of experience building Laurier’s campus in downtown Brantford. How is that experience going shape your perspective on Trent’s engagement with the downtown?

The thing about Brantford is that it was a completely different experience. There wasn’t another campus that had been established at the north end of the city, we went in completely new. Obviously you can’t move all of Trent to downtown Peterborough.

So I am sure that my experience working in communities and downtowns will be helpful in looking at opportunities and possibilities, but I can’t say at this point where that might lead.

For the past decade or so Trent has plateaued in terms of enrolment. This has had a significant impact on the university’s budgetary situation. What ideas do you have for growing the university? Or, conversely, does the university actually need to grow?

Enrolment is key to having a successful university. So Trent is going to have to find ways to attract the students it needs to keep the university successful.

For the Government of Ontario, one of their big issues right now is how to provide post-secondary education to students in Toronto. In fact, if you look across Canada now, in most areas the demographics are against universities. For example, if you go down east—St. Francis Xavier University, Acadia University, Mount Allison University—these universities are challenged because they have a shrinking population from which to draw students from.

There are only three places in Canada where the university-aged population is growing: Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. Trent University, especially Trent Oshawa, is very well located to be a university of choice for students in Toronto. Certainly I’m thinking that Toronto students should see Trent as a destination and we should strive to make sure that they see it that way.

I suspect that in order to secure the necessary enrolment we might have to do some program development. You have to have programming that addresses the goals and needs and aspirations of students and parents. So perhaps there needs to be some program development to ensure that enrolment stays robust.

You mentioned that one of the things that attracted you to Trent was its identity as a small university. Trent has historically had a reputation for having small class sizes and specializing in disciplines that do not attract as many students as, for example, some of the social sciences. How do you plan on balancing this university’s identity with its current economic reality?

Good question. First of all, we will have to live in a way that is possible given our economic realities. But class size is a function of a whole lot of things and we are just going to have to be creative. For example, a university can decide to have some larger classes purposely so that it frees room to have some smaller classes.

I don’t have any answers off the top of my head because for one thing I don’t know enough about the operational details here. But I think we should be striving to give students experiential learning and small class sizes to whatever extent possible given the economic realities we have to deal with.

old school groarkeOne concept being discussed at Trent right now is program prioritization. What are your views on this subject and how it should be conducted in a university like Trent?

I have written about program prioritization and I think that there are serious issues with many program prioritization exercises. But I want to be careful because some review of the priorities of an institution is reasonable.

Data is a good thing and we have to be honest about the costs of various kinds of programming. We do have to take a hard look, especially when there are budget challenges, at what programs are key to the university and what programs are not.

So although I am open and sympathetic to the reviewing of programs, the Dixon model (in which you rank all programs and then cut off the ones at the bottom) is something that I’m not in favour of. In fact I think that this model has done a lot of damage to Canadian universities.

If you look at a number of universities in Canada that have done these exercises, the Dixon model has created a very conflictual environment that has done real damage to the institutions.

Now, when you’re in a situation where you have to make tough decisions possibly you might have to cut some programs, but you first need to gather as much information as possible. Despite this, the idea that you can rank programs in the same way that you rank football teams is, in my opinion, not ok.

I’m curious about your thoughts on Trent University’s new Strategic Mandate Agreement. Are there any particular sections of that document that you feel strongly about, either positively or negatively?

I have not been involved in the details of the SMA because that process is going to be completed by the end of March and I begin as president the second week of July. But if I have a concern it is that we want an SMA that leaves lots of room for Trent to develop and evolve in the future.

I do think that Trent’s challenge in the future is to take all the good things about the university’s past and figure out how we can transpose them to a different situation. This is a very radical time for universities; it is a time of dramatic, radical change. Some people even predict that universities might not survive for all sorts of reasons. There are technological changes with course delivery, there are budget challenges everywhere you look, and pension challenges…

So we need to take the tradition that is Trent and find a way that we can remain true to those traditional values and apply them to new circumstances. In order to do that, the SMA needs to give us room to figure out how we can do these things in the future. So my only concern is that I hope that the SMA does not constrain us too much as we move forward and try to make Trent a successful and sustainable university.

A lot of the SMA talk has been based upon a wider discussion of “differentiation” advanced by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. What are your thoughts on this concept and how do you think Trent University’s fits into the government’s differentiation framework?

I would say the word “differentiation” is a slippery word. Some people would say that the move towards differentiation was initially a move that was motivated by fiscal concerns and it was a move to distinguish between teaching universities and research universities.

Some of the major research universities in Canada were behind differentiation because they wanted to differentiate the university system so that they would be considered research universities and other universities would be considered teaching universities.

Of course, as someone who is interested in smaller universities, I’m not in favour of differentiation of that sort. A university needs to be a place where both teaching and research are key components of what we do. One needs to feed the other.

So I’m not in favour of differentiation in that sense. But in Ontario, in the development of the discussion around differentiation, the conversation has moved away from that. The government has gone to universities and asked them to differentiate themselves and I don’t know of any university that has said they will differentiate themselves by just being a teaching university and not doing research.

The whole conversation has slipped from being about big research universities and small teaching universities to just what is unique about particular universities. And although I prefer that discussion to the first one I wouldn’t want Trent to be pigeon-holed in a way that means we can’t develop and evolve and do interesting things in the future.

One of the core components of Trent’s new SMA is the idea of pressuring the provincial government for a new funding formula since the existing one disadvantages this university in a number of ways. Are you prepared to champion this cause?

I am certainly prepared to ask. And if that could be done I would certainly be prepared to lead the charge. But I think it is very unlikely that the government would agree to such an arrangement.

The other universities in Ontario would launch a revolt if the government announces that there is to be some special funding formula for Trent, one that would allow Trent to have more rather than less resources. This is not something that I believe that they would welcome or accept, but I also believe it is not something that the government’s going to accept.

The government has a university funding system and it has a specific way of funding universities. It is very committed to there being some sort of overarching systematic approach to funding.

Now maybe there are some opportunities for special funding envelopes of some sort of another, which would not be a completely different funding formula. If one wants to be successful in pushing for this than one would have to push with several other like-minded universities. Should small universities have a special funding envelope for x or y or z? That, I think, is more likely to succeed.

I am absolutely willing to ask about the funding formula and I will be pushing the government to support Trent to the utmost extent. But do I think the government is prepared to change the formula? I think it’s very unlikely.

So you think Trent is stuck with funding tied to enrolment growth for the foreseeable future?

I think we’re stuck with the same funding mechanisms that govern all university budgets in Ontario, that’s what I’m saying. In general, we’re stuck with the growth treadmill.

We’re not heading into a time in which governments have a lot of money to hand out. The provincial government has a deficit and one of its determinations is to get that deficit under control. In that kind of climate it is just inevitable that there will be pressures on public institutions and universities that are brought to bear. Also if you look at the cost of universities it has been rising dramatically. It’s a difficult situation.

You mentioned earlier that there are two thorny subjects at Trent University: the downtown and the college system. I want to ask you now about the second issue. There has long been a sense among the university community that the colleges serve an important institutional purpose but are not actually living up to their potential. Do you think the college system is still relevant to this university?

I don’t know the history to speak to what the colleges were like in the past. I think that the college system, at least the way I understand it, has a certain function here that is maybe particularly important to first year students. It is about student experience and we probably need to strive to keep that viable.

I don’t know the budgetary situation of the colleges, I don’t know how colleges work academically. I would think that some semblance of the system has a role to play in the future of Trent but people have already asked me: “are you going to build a new college downtown?” and first of all that’s a whole lot of expense.

Colleges are part of the Trent tradition, but to be honest people have told me some people are romantic about the colleges and that they are not actually what they think they are. Some people have said what they provide is not that different from residence life programming at other universities. I don’t really know.

I think they probably need to play some sort of role in the future of Trent, but I couldn’t really say much more than that.

A final question. Are you motivated by an overarching vision about what you hope to accomplish during your tenure here at Trent?

I’m motivated by the thought that we are entering very challenging times for universities, and this needs to be a time where Trent, in some creative way, takes whats good from its past and reinvents itself so that it can be ready for the future.

So it is to some extent open-ended. These are difficult times for all universities in Canada. There is no university that isn’t having serious financial issues. But it is not just financial, there is also the demography which is is against universities, the changes in course delivery which are starting to be very serious and there are also the challenges from colleges and competing institutions. But I purposely want to say that my vision is, to some extent, open-ended because we’re going to have to steer Trent through this perfect storm.

My primary vision is to take Trent from the past and make it innovative and creative and able to deal with challenges that are here right now.