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Universities Canada VP reflects on 33 years of change in higher-ed

A Q&A with Christine Tausig Ford, who is retiring after more than three decades working on behalf of Canada’s universities.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 01 2016

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Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) retired on Feb. 1 after 33 years of service to the organization. Ms. Tausig Ford started out as a staff writer at University Affairs and later became editor of the magazine before moving up to higher managerial roles, including director of publications and communications, corporate secretary and finally VP and chief operating officer. She recently spoke with University Affairs editor Léo Charbonneau about what’s changed, and what hasn’t, at universities over the past three decades.

University Affairs: How have universities changed over the time you’ve been at Universities Canada?

Ms. Tausig Ford: Universities’ fundamental mission – teaching, research, community engagement – hasn’t changed. They’re still places of discovery, places that educate students and transform lives, places where smart people get together to think about issues that matter. But in some ways they’ve changed tremendously. Universities are more closely connected to their communities. Faculty are more engaged in research and work with state-of-the-art research infrastructure. The educational experience for students has changed, too. More than half of today’s students have a hands-on learning experience – such as co-ops or internships, service learning, or research projects. And universities are home to incubators and accelerators that help give students the entrepreneurial skills they’re looking for. Expectations for universities have changed as well.

UA: How so?

Ms. Tausig Ford: People are much more aware today of the value and relevance of universities. I joined Universities Canada (then AUCC) in 1979, and in the 1980s I don’t think there was the same understanding in the public and in government of universities’ contributions to their communities and to Canada as a whole. There’s a new understanding that we need universities much more than ever and that a university education is critical to Canadians’ futures, to give them the kinds of skills and abilities and outlook that they need to thrive in a quickly changing world. I think as well the expectations of universities have changed. There’s an expectation that they will pay attention to issues that matter to Canadians, to contribute to making our society more equal and fairer and all around better.

I think as well there’s a greater interest in the work that universities do, and that is driven in part by the media and also by a greater expectation of accountability. Canadians invest in higher education both personally and through their governments, and so they have a stake in what happens in universities.

UA: So are the challenges facing universities today different than in past years?

Ms. Tausig Ford: Yes, there is growing pressure on universities to demonstrate their relevance. There’s greater pressure on university presidents, certainly; there’s greater pressure on university boards. And there’s greater pressure on students. We see that particularly in the rise of mental-health issues on campus. More students are going to university; university has become more important in terms of getting a job; and parental expectations on students appear to have grown as well. That’s not to say these weren’t issue when I was at university. I was the first in my family to go to university, and for me it certainly was a different world than I was used to and there were pressures that came with that. But the pressure today, particularly for grad students, I think is of an entirely different order.

UA: You mentioned the pressure on university presidents. Have the expectations on them increased?

Ms. Tausig Ford: I think they have. One indication of that is the study that University of Alberta president David Turpin has done on the length of presidential terms, which have become significantly shorter. Back in the 1970s, one could become president for 20 years, but that is rarely the case today. There are greater expectations from students, from politicians, from society – and from boards of universities, which play a much stronger role today.

UA: Has the role of university president changed?

Ms. Tausig Ford: It has expanded significantly. I remember speaking to a university president who that afternoon was preparing to go to the funeral of a long-time faculty member, and she talked about the pastoral role of the president in addition to all of the other many expectations. University presidents need today to be motivators, they need to be authentic leaders, they need to have a business sense, they need to be fund-raisers, and that fundraising pressure has become much, much greater on universities. They need to be people who can walk the balance between the long-term expectations on universities and the expectations for short-term results. They need to be people who can pull rabbits out of a hat. So yes, there’s far greater pressures on university presidents, and we see that in the number of presidential terms that are shorter and in the number of presidential terms that have been cut short for whatever reason.

UA: How has the work of Universities Canada changed over the past three decades?

Ms. Tausig Ford: To start with, we no longer have to take a deep breath when we say our name – the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada – and we no longer have to explain who we are. Our name now explains who we are and what we do. So that is a change.

UA: A change you championed …

Ms. Tausig Ford: Yes, and it’s one I’m really proud of. But, going back to when I joined Universities Canada, then the AUCC, we were going through a bit of an existential crisis. We were changing from an organization that had represented the whole of the university in the sense that we had students and faculty on our board. It was a very diverse membership organization that in some ways wasn’t really working.

UA: I don’t think a lot of people know about that history. 

Ms. Tausig Ford: Yes, that transition in our history. In the early years after I joined, we had just gone through that. But there were still a lot of questions about who we were and who we served and what our job was. Those questions led to a lot of discussions about how to structure the membership. We have since become a much more focused organization and we understand much more clearly what we do. In the early years, while we did talk to governments, we did not see ourselves as an advocacy organization. That understanding of our important role in Ottawa as a representative for Canada’s universities at the federal level came slowly.

Another aspect that has grown in recent years is our service to the membership. We are there to serve university presidents, to help them to do a better job. We had done professional programs for university presidents for a number of years, but they’ve become much more focused. We’ve introduced a number of workshops for presidents and senior university leaders, such as the one coming up in March on revitalizing the liberal arts. We’ve done others on leading university senate, on governance, and on how to take advantage of digital technologies in learning and research. All of these kinds of things were new for us.

UA: So a key role of Universities Canada is to support university presidents?

Ms. Tausig Ford: We’ve always been an organization that allowed presidents to come together and talk about issues that matter on their campuses. But I think we understand that now in a much broader sense to include issues that matter to them as people, to their success, to their ability to thrive in the new environment that they face. We’ve just launched, for example, a university women’s leadership network, which is again something I’m proud to have championed, to help increase the number of women serving as university presidents and in senior leadership roles at universities. It’s a very important initiative, and it’s one that is new to Universities Canada.

UA: Any final thoughts?

Ms. Tausig Ford: I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about my career – when you’ve been in one place for more than three decades you tend to do that as you look at retirement. I went back to my first job here, which was staff writer at University Affairs. Those were different days, certainly. We used to lay out copy by running it through a wax machine and putting it on layout grids. If you had too many words, you used an X-Acto knife to cut them out. Things have change tremendously.

Yet, at the same time, I looked at the first issue of University Affairs with my byline in it, and the stories I wrote were about issues that are still crucial for universities today. There was one on copyright, and there was even a section on fair dealing and why it’s important for universities; one on academic freedom; one about the importance of having international students at Canadian universities; and one on women’s leadership and women faculty. At the time, it said 14 percent of faculty were women. It also talked about how women were paid less than men, so some things haven’t changed. Interestingly, the average salary for professors at the time – the figures were for 1977-78 – was about $28,000 for men and $23,000 for women. So, yes, some things have changed.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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  1. susan bloch-nevitte / February 2, 2016 at 12:03

    All the best to you, Christine! Now that you have some time, come visit HEQCO!!!!!!

  2. Debbie Murray / February 2, 2016 at 14:20

    As a former colleague who worked with Christine, I was keen to read and contemplate her thoughts on many years of service and leadership. I had to smile when I thought about my own experiences as a journalist cutting a laying type with an exacto knife and wax. Christine’s dedication and commitment to universities and the association were steadfast but also perceptive. It is a testament to her work and that of universities and the association that universities have evolved and remained relevant and essential.
    Congratulations Christine on a stellar career!
    Debbie Murray

  3. Mark Hazlett / February 3, 2016 at 13:11

    Congratulations on your retirement Christine. You have been a true educational leader in Canada and will be missed. Cheers, Mark and all your friends @ CCAE

  4. Ross Paul / February 3, 2016 at 16:20

    Congratulations Christine on 33 years of remarkable dedicated and influential service. You have been a constant positive force for the advancement of Canadian universities and, as a long-serving university president, I know very well how important your leadership and support have been to more than a generation of university leaders. Canada and higher education may have changed significantly over that period but the critical importance of sharing challenges, successes and perspectives through Universities Canada will be more important than ever to the identity, integrity and prosperity of the country we love so much. You leave the organization much improved from the one you started with and we are all the better for it.

    Ross Paul
    Vancouver

  5. Gisèle Yasmeen / February 3, 2016 at 19:49

    Congratulations Christine – great interview and article! Wishing you all the best for this next phase in your life and career.

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