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Next AUCC president brings diverse skills to the job

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JAN 26 2009

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada has chosen its next president from the international development community. Paul Davidson, currently executive director of World University Service of Canada, will begin a five-year term as president of AUCC on May 11. He succeeds Claire Morris, who has led AUCC since March 2004 and is retiring.

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the work that AUCC has done over the years, and the chance to play a leadership role in this organization is a great career opportunity,” said Mr. Davidson. “But more important, it gives me the chance to advance issues that are really important to me, in the sense of the role of universities in a knowledge economy, the role of universities in fostering a healthy civic society … and providing opportunities for young Canadians.”

Mr. Davidson, 45, said he is looking forward to working with university executive heads and AUCC staff to see where the association is strong and where it needs to develop new strategies.

“AUCC was very successful in positioning the universities as part of the knowledge economy, [and] the whole research agenda. But what’s the next agenda? What’s the next big step forward for Canada’s universities?” Institutions, he said, “do need to change, they need to grow, they need to challenge themselves.”

During his tenure at WUSC, Mr. Davidson increased student, faculty and administration participation in its programs, doubled the number of international students studying at Canadian campuses through WUSC, doubled revenues, and doubled the size of the organization’s acclaimed Student Refugee Program. He also led the creation of Uniterra, a volunteer program in developing countries delivered with the Montreal-based NGO Centre for International Studies and Co-operation.

Tom Traves, chair of AUCC’s board of directors and president of Dalhousie University, said Mr. Davidson “understands advocacy and has a remarkable talent to gain public and government attention to issues and causes. His passion, creative vision and motivation will serve higher education well.”

Prior to joining WUSC in 2002, Mr. Davidson served as vice-president of Stoddart Publishing, as executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers and as vice-president of the lobbying firm S. A. Murray Consulting in Toronto. Before that, he was legislative adviser to Robert Nixon, then treasurer and deputy premier of the Ontario Liberal government.

Mr. Davidson said he’s never had a career path in mind. However, “each experience I have had has really helped inform the next step,” right back to his time as a legislative intern at Queen’s Park more than 20 years ago.

As an intern, he first worked with MPP Richard Johnston (who later became president of Centennial College) and then served under MPP Peter Adams, a former university professor who later entered federal politics where he chaired the government’s higher education caucus.

As a Toronto lobbyist, Mr. Davidson led the effort to introduce Sunday shopping in Ontario, working on behalf of several major retail firms. In a time of deep recession, they were able to convince the Bob Rae government to allow shopping for the four Sundays before Christmas. “We were then able to present to the government a cheque representing the value of the retail sales tax for those four Sundays. It was quite phenomenal.”

In the end, it took just nine months from when the retailers first engaged the government until wide-open Sunday shopping became a reality. “We learned a lot of really important lessons about how to achieve what you want from government,” he said.

As head of the publishers association, Mr. Davidson also learned some lessons about leading “a large, diverse membership-driven organization.” It was a time of significant challenges for the publishing industry and there was a need “to pull people together with a bigger, broader vision and a clear advocacy message.”

Finally, his time at WUSC “has given me some understanding of the university community” and shown him “the tremendous work that’s being done on Canadian campuses.”

That’s a message worth repeating, he said, adding that many Canadians take the higher education system for granted: “We need to remind the broad Canadian community that great things are happening at Canadian universities.”

Mr. Davidson holds a BA in politics and history from Trent University and an MA in history from Queen’s University. He is married to Elly Vandenberg and they have three sons, aged 13, 11 and 9.

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