Q&A with the provost

June 23, 2015

(Originally appeared in M Alumni News—Summer 2015)

John Corlett realizes that provost just can’t compete with police officer, firefighter or zookeeper when it comes to the “what I want to be when I grow up” list, but he thinks a few more kids just might be convinced to consider it if they saw the job the way he does.

“For me, it’s a coaching job—a really fun coaching job,” says John, which makes sense given that his doctorate is in Kinesiology and that he is a professor of Physical Education at the university. “I see my role as provost and vice-president academic as bringing the best academic players to the team, helping each player develop as much as possible and devising strategies that take advantage of their strengths. It’s a great job, but it’s not always easy.”

We sat down with John to get his perspective on the value of our alumni’s MacEwan credentials, teaching, degrees and what gives him hope during difficult times. Here are his answers.

What’s the best part about being provost?

Universities are about great people doing great things, but they’re also about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The breadth, depth, diversity and complexity of people who work at a university and who come to study at a university is amazing. The conversations you can have, the interesting things you find out about people—often hidden skills in sports, music, art, or any number of things outside someone’s academic specialty—make it a privilege to come to work every day.

What’s your biggest challenge?

The very first budget cut, 7.5 per cent that MacEwan experienced in March 2013, happened on my fourth day here. Since then, our management team, led by the president, has been rather consumed with responding to government, legislative and budgetary obligations—all the things that come with running a $250-million-a-year operation.

I think it’s remarkable that these cuts haven’t completely obliterated the academic development of the university. There are times when it would be nice to not have to think about the money—to be able to fully concentrate on the students, the faculty, the staff that drive our academic mission.

What do the changes at MacEwan—the move to being a university and new degrees—have for alumni?

My job is to facilitate change in a way that makes our alumni’s diplomas and degrees more valuable than they were when they earned them. The reputation MacEwan has built as it transitioned from a transfer institution to developing its own degrees, and now as it moves towards degree-granting institution status within the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, only benefits graduates from other times and eras.

If you’re the university’s academic coach, who’s on your team?

On a day-to-day basis, I work with the deans, the executive directors of the academic support areas and research, but as the provost, I actually have about 19,000 bosses every day when I come to work—our students. I teach one semester every year because teaching is my first love, and as an administrator, I’ve never let myself forget that students are the reason we’re here.

What does a move to degrees mean for diploma programs?

Building on tradition is really important, as long as you’re not shackled to your history. Moving toward degrees doesn’t mean abandoning the things we do incredibly well. The diploma programs that characterized MacEwan for a long time are, in most cases, strong and thriving. We aren’t going to throw out diplomas on the assumption that only the degree is valuable—we will offer both.

What we are doing now is finding pathways that will ladder diploma-level credentials into degrees. It’s not a strategy all of the new teaching universities in Alberta and B.C. have taken. Sometimes diplomas have been lost in the shuffle, but not here. It’s really important that alumni understand that what they did, perhaps when there were no degrees at MacEwan, is just as valuable as it has ever been. And we intend to make sure that we are building on that tradition—without being historically bound to do things the way we have in the past.

What’s on the horizon with new degrees? How will they be different than other degrees out there?

When you hear criticism that governments and citizens sometimes have about universities—that there is duplication of degree programs—we don’t want them to be talking about MacEwan, and I don’t think they are.

There is a unique flavour to our degrees because we’re building on the strength of our history with diplomas—two years of intense, very practical, career-focused education—and merging it with a really strong theoretical background. It’s exactly what we have done with our music degree, which came from a music diploma, and is unique in its contemporary pop/jazz focus.

What about the focus on teaching? Will that change as MacEwan grows into its role as a university?

To be frank, I would say that in the last 50 years, universities in Canada and the U.S., lost their way with respect to the meaning of a university professor’s role. It became far more about individual and group scholarship and far less about the students.

When there are criticisms of the way in which we fund universities, the way those funds are spent and the return on investment, they’re not talking about MacEwan—at least they shouldn’t be. Our faculty carry demanding teaching loads and they do it extremely well and in extremely good spirits. The quality of teaching here is exceptional—uniformly. Our challenge is finding a balance between the time spent teaching, conducting research and creative activity, and providing service to their professions, disciplines, the university itself and the broader community.

Will the focus on research at MacEwan increase?

Offering small class opportunities where students genuinely benefit from their professors’ expertise and experience is what we’re all about, and what we’re going to stay about. But I would be remiss if I didn’t make the point that the quality and quantity of research, scholarly and creative work done here—whether in physics or music, is exceptional. In part, that’s because we include our students in research from day one. It’s truly impressive what undergraduates can do when they’re given a chance.

My first refereed journal article was my undergraduate thesis and it was one of the best papers I was ever involved in. For me, it’s a matter of how faculty choose to conduct their scholarly careers, not whether they can do that and still teach. I think choosing between teaching and research is a false dichotomy—we’re proving every day that it’s possible for teaching, research and creative activity to happen together.

What helps you stay optimistic during difficult times?

I’m optimistic about the vision we have. Our commitment to students. Our commitment to undergraduate education. It’s been a difficult time for post-secondary education, but I’m optimistic that the wellspring of good spirit here has not been dampened.

Returning to the coaching analogy, there’s no substitute in a team for having players who understand that it’s far easier to achieve together than it is as a group of self-dedicated soloists pretending to be a team. That’s not MacEwan. I think that’s what will see us through.

When the dust settles on oil prices, budgets, elections, ministerial changes and cabinet shuffles, MacEwan will be positioned in the centre of the urban area, in the province’s capitol, growing, thriving and doing exactly what it does really well. There’s no doubt in my mind.

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