From Intellectual leader to CEO

The evolution of university presidents and how Quest may not be that different after all.
By James Blumhagen

The third floor of the library building at Quest University Canada is packed. It is carefully decorated with green and silver banners stretched across the open atrium, littered with a sea of plastic white chairs uniformly placed in rows and columns. They face a stage with a podium, chairs, and a standing table placed on top, in an otherwise vast empty space. Behind the stage stretches a large, wide-spanning window, filled with scenes of fog and rain blocking the now iconic and picturesque Tantalus Mountain Range from view. The numerous photo ops of the day will surely be ruined.

At 11:00 am on August 29, 2015, 178 nervous students from the incoming class of 2019 file onto the third floor of the library and sit in the plastic white chairs, awaiting their Convocation ceremony—the ceremony that would officially welcome them to the Quest community. 

The nervous incoming class, their families, and their friends sit patiently, facing the stage. The University Faculty look back at them from their seats on the stage, just as nervous and just as patient. A mixture of second, third, and fourth year students, alumni, staff, and curious visitors, sit and stand in the back, patiently and nervously. There aren’t enough seats for all of them. A room of people waiting not only for the incoming student’s official welcome into the Quest community, but awaiting the final presidential address from Quest’s third and longest-serving President and Vice Chancellor, Dr. David J. Helfand, and the first presidential address of the fourth President and Vice Chancellor of Quest University Canada, Dr. Peter A. J. Englert.                      

“I am excited and greatly honoured to serve as the fourth President of Quest University Canada. I thank the Board of Governors for this opportunity to lead Canada’s first and only independent, not-for-profit, secular, post-secondary institution as we continue to fulfill our charge. That mandate, of course, is to provide Quest University Canada’s enlightened and innovative liberal arts education to our students, who will become our leaders of tomorrow,” opens Englert. He acknowledges faculty and staff, and thanks the Squamish Nation. He thanks Dr. David Strangway, the visionary and founder of Quest, and Dr. David J. Helfand, the now ex-President of Quest. Englert’s elegantly laid-out speech concludes by thanking two people in particular: “Dr. Stewart Blusson and his lovely wife and soul mate, Marilyn.” 

Dr. Blusson, co-founder of the Ekati Diamond mine located 310 km northeast of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, is Quest’s chief benefactor and an avid philanthropist for post-secondary institutions. In 2002, Dr. Blusson and his wife donated much needed startup funds, $32 million, and have made several subsequent donations since.

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Dr. Stewart Blusson and his wife Marilyn, Quest’s chief benefactors. Photo Credit: Kendrick Dettmers

As Englert’s speech ended, one thing became clear: his role at Quest was to raise money. He wouldn’t just be the President of Quest University Canada, he would become the CEO.      

The role of a university president has changed rapidly over the past century, evolving from an intellectual leader of society and the academic powerhouse of the university into that of a CEO: a position that is now more than ever politicized and precarious. 

Quest University Canada, whose mission statement defines it as an  “innovative, integrated, and international” private liberal arts university, in Squamish, BC, prides itself on being different, with a focus on “excellence in undergraduate education.” Quest claims that it is cultivating a culture and community of knowledge; however, Quest’s recent installation of a president whose main role is to ensure the financial sustainability of the University aligns Quest more closely with the goals of every other post-secondary institution. A goal that many, if not all, university presidents share in the 21st century. Money. It brings forward the question, is Quest really that different after all?

This changing role of Quest’s President leaves many of the other, more traditional duties of a university president behind, the same roles which Helfand says were his main focuses. That is, the day-to-day management of an institution, leading of academic innovation­—both publicly and institutionally—and less emphasis on fundraising and more emphasis on supporting the inner mechanics of the institution. In other words, creating the well-oiled machine rather than funding it.

A University is Born

Founded in 2002 by former University of British Columbia President Dr. David Strangway, Quest opened its doors on September 3, 2007 with an inaugural class of 73 students. Offering a four-year program, all Quest students graduate with a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, and operate under several unique and radical academic programs. The block plan and the ‘Question’ program, combined with small, interactive, seminar-style classes that encourage mass participation, make Quest stand out as an alternative to the traditional university model.

Quest’s first year of operation saw four different presidents. Strangway resigned two weeks into the first academic year, replaced by Thomas L. Wood, who was later fired by the Board of Directors. He was replaced, through a collaboration with CIBT Education Group, by Interim-President Dean Duperron, the President of Sprott-Shaw Community Colleges—a collection of for-profit institutions known for their catchy late-night TV and radio jingles in BC:  

“Sprott-Shaw Community College! Since nine-teen-oh-three!”

The Sunday night before the first Cornerstone class of the year in September 2008, Helfand arrived back on campus. 

“The place was in chaos,” said Helfand. “The Board had been fired, the President had been fired, and they had brought in this clown from Sprott-Shaw.” 

Helfand was thrust into the position of mediator.

“The greatest night was when these Sprott-Shaw people thought that they would bribe the students by giving them desserts,” recalled Helfand. Duperron and his team had spent $2,000 on eloquent desserts, and put them in the MPR in an attempt to “woo students,” indicated Helfand. The entire student body boycotted the event. Not a single one of them showed up. Duperron had the desserts thrown away before the night was over.

On the last Wednesday of Cornerstone, Helfand stood in front of his class. It was the day before he would need to fly back to Columbia in New York City before classes started there. Students were bouncing back and forth, engaged and lost in discussion around the long oval table, standard for any Quest classroom. A reporter from Maclean’s magazine sat in the corner, eagerly following along with the class. It wasn’t very long into the class when Bonny Randall, the Executive Assistant to the President, knocked on the door and asked Helfand to step outside.

“Bonny, I’m teaching right now and there’s this Maclean’s reporter here. I can’t leave! What the hell is going on? What could be so urgent?” Helfand said in a rush.

“The Board is on the phone and they have to talk with you right now,” Bonny urged. 

Helfand excused himself from the class, appointing the student that was sitting next to him in charge. He left for his office on the fourth floor of the academic building, grabbing the phone on his desk as he entered

“Hello?” Helfand asked.

“Hi David, we’ve decided that we only have two options. One is to close the University on Friday and the other is for you to take over as President,” Helfand recalled Dr. Michael Gibbons, the Chairperson for the Board of Governors saying.

Helfand sat there. He thought to, himself, “This is too good to let it die. It’s just stupid to let it die. Huge amounts of money have been invested in this! Seven of my colleagues have dedicated years of their lives to this and it’s just too good to let go.”

“Yeah right, but I still have to go to Columbia to teach my class,” responded Helfand to Gibbons.

“Yes, yes, that’s alright! We just need someone on an interim basis,” replied Gibbons. 

Seven years later, David Helfand was still the president of Quest University.

Helfand was left with a post-secondary institution that was in disarray; having almost shut down, the University was in a frenzy of disorganization. Students and parents would call him constantly, the University was filled with administrative redundancies, and panicked 2:00 am door knocking was commonplace. 

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Quest during construction. Photo by QUC marketing archives

Having fired the top nine administrators within his first week, Helfand had to focus much of his time managing the non-academic side of the university, allowing the faculty to focus on the academic side. Helfand surrounded himself with the people who could help him with his seemingly impossible task: Melanie Koenderman, Dean of Students, and Toran Savjord, Quest’s first Vice President. Helfand had to ensure that the philosophical aspects of the educational model remained intact and that they continued to be solidified in both theory and practice. Helfand would speak with every single employee and find out what they thought was going well and what could be improved—a rare act for a university president. Acting as an intellectual leader and guide for the faculty would prove to be crucial for Quest if it were to survive its second year of operation.

“We’ve decided that we only have two options. One is to close the University on Friday and the other is for you to take over as president”

  In the 19th century, the university president was seen as a teacher and a role model. Presidents were the academic and intellectual connoisseurs of a society, and helped to shape the faculty and academic pursuits of their institutions. It was expected that a university professor would be a highly regarded academic. They would need to not only prove their competency to their faculty, but to the public as well. Presidents were responsible for maintaining a strong academic standing and vision for the university, while operating its day-to-day functions—all of which Helfand indicates was an integral part of his role at Quest.

“In the first few years I spent a huge amount of time on the budget, trying to make it work,” said Helfand, who went on to indicate that his main priorities when first assuming his role as President were administrative management and intellectual leadership. 

In the beginning, Helfand would sit on every faculty hiring committee, and would help recruit and attract new students to Quest as much as he could. Plastering his likeness and his voice on as much Quest promotional material as possible, David became the face of Quest. He was involved in hiring processes, day-to-day management of the university, promotion, and speaking engagements, all while teaching at Quest. 

“It was more of a 19th century role,” said David. The roles of the president were “almost inverted at Quest in the first five years.”

The advent of World War II saw a dramatic shift in not only the operations of universities, but the role that the leader of those institutions played. Gone were the ideas of an isolated ivory tower of academia, and emerging were the demands and competition of the business world. Increasing populations paired with a rising demand for research saw universities increase in importance. The role of the president was to deal with administrative factors more than ever, forcing them to expand the administrative team in order to allow the president to focus on the issue that mattered the most: money. By the 1950s, the size and populations of universities had almost doubled that of the 1940s, and more universities began to appear—with the costs of running these research institutions rapidly increasing.

Helfand’s Transition

Helfand stepped onto the stage—a set of chairs and a red carpet on the right side, a “TEDxWest Vancouver” sign on the left. He walked to the center, and looked out into the crowd. 

“Universities are on the verge of an apocalyptic and terminal collapse,” was the opening statement of Helfand’s TED talk. With over 48,000 views on Youtube, this speech is one that is well-rehearsed. Thousands more have heard this speech, or something like it, at a number of events on and off Quest campus, school visits, and academic conferences.

A theatre major during his first and second year of university at Amherst College (a liberal arts college in Massachusetts) Helfand flows through his story of Quest with ease and excitement. 

“It turns out if you’re good on stage it really helps a lot in a lot of areas,” said Helfand. “My theatre training was very important.” 

It allowed him to become one of the most engaging speakers in higher education, many students citing one of his presentations or his TEDx video on YouTube as the reason they decided to come to Quest.

Helfand saw an increasing role of PR for Quest as his presidency went on. Helfand became the face of the institution to the outside world, “both to the government authorities and to the media.” 

What he didn’t focus on enough, he says, is fundraising. 

Helfand said, “I went from literally zero fundraising” at the beginning, to a sizable amount before the end of his final year. 

“It wasn’t a priority of mine. We were desperately short of money all of the time, but unless we got the rest of it right it wasn’t going to matter,” Helfand said. The fundraising that David undertook was still much less than that of a typical university president in the 21st century, he indicates.

By the 1990s, the face of higher education administration had changed dramatically. University presidents were no longer the academic powerhouses they once were. Fundraising and PR now dominated the presidential scene. 

“Presidents, rather like political party leaders, preside over highly decentralized organized chaos,” says Ken Steele, a Canadian higher education critique and founder of Eduvation.ca.

Plummeting enrolment, undermining of academic reputations, and major fiscal problems have created several previously non-existent dynamics that these CEOs, formally known as Presidents, must now deal with. Most of the time, these career-academics-turned-administrators aren’t the most prepared for the job and now they run multi-million—and in some cases, billion—dollar organizations. Roughly 27 per cent of Canadian university presidents have failed to hold confidence in their roles in recent years, according to Ross H. Paul in his book “Leadership on Fire: The Challenging Role of The Canadian University President.” University Presidents, as of 2010, now serve on average 3.6 years in office—an incredibly low amount of time—considering that historically presidents have served on average 5-6 years in office.

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Aeiral photo of the Quest Campus. By Jordan Ross

A university president in the 21st century must balance between the race for higher rankings, increased enrollment, and institutional reputation with the concerns of students, faculty, and the Board of Governors. At the same time, they must act as the public face of their school, raising money at every opportunity they can, ensuring the continual progression and innovation of their institution, all while standing out in a world of unending choice for the modern undergraduate student.

Many post-secondary institutions have been changing their approach to finding a president to undertake this increasingly complicated world of university leadership. More business-oriented presidents are starting to appear across Canada. Most notable is that of Laurentian University’s, President Dominic Giroux, the youngest president in North America at 39 years old. Giroux received his MBA from HEC Montreal and does not have a PhD. He is a ‘Top-Forty-Under-Forty” award recipient with a “deep understanding of provincial politics and how to lobby government for funding,” says Ken Steele. This new form of leadership doesn’t always work out, however. Dr. Arvind Gupta, ex-President of UBC, served for less than a year before being mysteriously removed from his position. Internal conflicts seem to be the most probable reasoning.

Englert’s Turn

Englert wears a black dress shirt with a black sweater over top. His phone goes off every minute or so, but he ignores it politely. It is 11:30 am on a Wednesday, an hour before he has to leave to catch a flight to a networking conference. I sit in his office at a small round table. From the moment I asked my first question, “Where are you from?” I knew that Englert was all about business.

Born in the city of Cologne, in Western Germany, after the end of World War II, Peter wanted to become a patent lawyer growing up. It wasn’t until he attended college that he realized his future was in the world of academia, which was “always inventing, always doing something new.” 

Englert completed his BA, MA, and PhD in Nuclear Chemistry from the University of Cologne. In 1986, he began teaching Chemistry at San Jose State University in California. Englert quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor within six years and the Director of the Nuclear Science facility. Englert’s strong work ethic and love of learning would allow him to work all around the world, from New Zealand to Hawaii, while holding various positions from Associate Professor to Chancellor.

“The key elements of leading Quest University are not any different from leading a large public university.”

Englert is not only an accomplished academic with over 64 academic publications, 12 conference proceedings, 16 guest professorships, and several awards including three NASA Group Achievement Awards for his work on Mars exploration initiatives. He is also an accomplished administrator. Holding over 16 various administrative board, advisory council, and panel positions, Englert has brought a lifetime of knowledge and experience with him to his role of President at Quest. But he knows that being an accomplished academic isn’t the only reason why he is here.

“That’s my major job right now,” Englert says, referring to his role in gaining philanthropic support for Quest. Englert explains that “in the next several years, how effective we are and how successful we are to convince others that Quest is worth of social investment,” will be crucial to the continued success of our unique and innovative experiment in post-secondary education.

For a university that prides itself on being innovative, for being different than the standard cookie-cutter school, and for being a place that has created a culture of cultivating knowledge, Quest hasn’t seemed too different in its goals with its newly-instated president. Maybe Quest isn’t as different as so many of its students, faculty, and staff like to think. Maybe Quest’s goals and needs are the same as any other university­—the pursuit of exciting the philanthropic community to raise money that will keep Quest’s doors open another year. Englert concludes, “The key elements of leading Quest University are not any different from leading a large public university.”

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Quest Campus. From the QUC marketing archives

Cover Photo from the Quest University Canada Marketing archives. Photo By Kendrick Deters

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