A farewell interview with Dr. Paul Davenport

Retired Western News Editor Jim Anderson recently sat down with retiring President and Vice-Chancellor Paul Davenport to discuss his 15 years at the helm of the university.

Paul Davenport: As we begin, Jim, let me say it is very appropriate that you are interviewing me as I prepare to leave Western. You were the first to interview me when I came to the university 15 years ago. We were both a lot younger then and a lot has happened since that time.



WN: What do you see as your principal accomplishments?


Davenport: What we have achieved at Western we have achieved as a community and no single person can take particular credit.


First and foremost was the number one challenge put by the presidential search committee of 1993 and that was to increase our entering grades. Western’s undergraduate entering grades had fallen below the provincial average by 1993-94 and the board and the community were very concerned about that. We don’t think of Western as a below average university so faculty and staff, working together, took a number of initiatives.


We merged some faculties, created exciting new undergraduate programs, made our curriculum more flexible and allowed for more choice and creativity among undergraduate students and maintained the exemplary teaching that has always characterized Western.


Gradually, particularly in my second and third terms, our entering grades moved up well above the provincial average to the point where we now have among the highest entering grades in the country.


Another accomplishment is that we have done well in research. A second challenge put by the presidential search committee in 1993 was that we did not rank well in large collaborative research grant competitions like the National Centres of Excellence and the largest such competition now, the Canada Foundation for Innovation. We would rank seventh in the country in cumulative grants. In the last competition we were number five.


So our faculty and the staff who support them are doing a terrific job in attracting external research funding. The total research funding has gone up by something like 300 per cent since 1994 so it has been a good period for Western in research.


We’ve seen significant increases in student numbers because of improved retention as our entering grades went up. Our undergraduate enrolment is up about 20 per cent since 1994. That has happened despite the fact that for nearly a decade we have had a fixed target for undergraduate first year enrolment of 4,350. On the graduate side, overall graduate numbers are up by 90 per cent. Indeed our PhD numbers have more than doubled and are set to double again over the next 10 years.


So it has been a great time at Western for expanding graduate studies. We are getting wonderful graduate students and our faculty are doing a great job in supervising them.


Now, the thing that has been most wonderful for me has been our ability to hire additional faculty and staff. My previous experience in administration had been in Quebec and Alberta at a time when we were managing difficult budgets and our employment numbers were not expanding rapidly and in some cases falling. When I arrived in 1994, we were in the midst of a 10-year decline in employment at Western so it was a very difficult time. Then around 1997 that turned around.


Since 1997, our numbers of full-time faculty and full-time staff have each gone up by over 300. You can feel the contribution that these increased numbers make to the quality of our education and to the range of what we can do.

In fact, I was told recently by our Institutional Planning and Budget Office that of some 1,290 full-time faculty at Western, something like two-thirds, have been hired since 1994. So there has been an extraordinary renewal of the faculty and an increase in the total of full-time faculty and staff. And that feels good.



WN: What are your most memorable moments over the past 15 years?


Davenport: That’s so hard to say. I take away a great feeling every time I go to a awards ceremony for faculty, staff and students. They are certainly very uplifting. I’ve been to some magical musical concerts and drama events on campus that I’ll never forget. I’ve been to some very exciting athletic events. The alumni I have met, both in Canada and overseas, invariably inspire me. So I like to say I have the best job in Canada and it is because of the people I meet on a daily basis and they leave me with countless memorable experiences.



WN: Were there any major disappointments or things you were not able to achieve?


Davenport: If I look at our three strategic plans, there is certainly a good deal of unfinished business. Right from that first strategic plan we had aspirations to increase our undergraduate intake of Aboriginal students, Canadian students from outside Ontario and international students. We have made some progress in all those areas but not nearly enough.


The aspiration has been repeated in each of our subsequent two strategic plans. We have a growingly diverse campus, largely because of the diversity in the Greater Toronto Area where we get so many of our students, but we do have work to do in that undergraduate area.


Another area where we have work to do is in our overall research ranking. Our strategic research plan says that we should rank fifth in the country in competitive research grants per professor in three major areas — the SSHRC area, the NSERC area and the CIHR. We haven’t achieved that yet. We’ve tended to stay in a range of sixth or seventh to ninth or tenth and it would be great to see those numbers move up.



WN: When you look back at a decade and a half of leadership here, what are your strongest impressions of the various constituencies in the university community and their contributions to Western’s mission?


Davenport: I would begin with our outstanding faculty. When I arrived here I could feel immediately that the faculty had a commitment to teaching and to their undergraduate students, which is sometimes not the case at distinguished research universities like Western. Our professors were different and they are to this day. They have a real commitment to their students.


We adopted as our mission statement to provide the best student experience among the research-intensive universities of Canada and of course we have been number one among the large research-intensive universities in the Globe and Mail survey for all seven years of the survey. A large part of that performance is due to the commitment that our faculty have to our students and students talk to me about it all the time.


On the staff side, our staff contribute in countless ways to that best student experience. When you look at those categories that are largely driven by staff in the Globe and Mail survey, things like the quality of our residences and other support services, we do very, very well because of the committed work of our staff.


Our students make a great contribution. I believe we have the best student government in the country. They take a positive view of university affairs. They seek to build that student experience while working with the university administration. They have made an enormous contribution to our high rankings.


And finally, the alumni, who have been so generous with their time as volunteers, helping us to spread the word about Western and also acting as mentors to our students, finding jobs for them. They have just been great and of course they have been very generous.


We have the largest Homecoming and our alumni are unusually committed – they are Purple and Proud. And of course they have been the major factor in the over $600 million that we’ve raised in private gifts since 1994.



WN: What do you consider to be Western’s most important assets?


Davenport: Western’s most important assets are its people – our dedicated faculty, staff, students and alumni. They have built this university over generations into a great international institution and I know they will continue to build it in the future under the leadership of Dr. Amit Chakma.



WN: What is your opinion of your successor, Dr. Amit Chakma? Any advice or tips you’d like to pass on to him about being President at Western?


Davenport: The sitting president takes no role whatever in the selection of the successor, however, I can honestly say that I was thrilled when Amit Chakma’s name was announced shortly before Christmas.


I know him to be an outstanding researcher and scholar and a committed visionary administrative leader. He will be a superb president for Western and our community is lucky that he has accepted this position. He is also a very collegial person. He works well with people. He is sensitive to their feelings. He knows how to bring them around to a common vision. I am sure he will be a great success at Western.


Dr. Chakma has given a number of speeches that I have attended and in each case he has put a special emphasis on the international standing and reputation of Western. I think that is a wonderful priority going forward. We need to extend our national reputation overseas and Dr. Chakma is the kind of visionary leader who can do that.



WN: Of course, the obvious question is what comes next for Paul Davenport?


Davenport: Josette and I will be retiring to her hometown of Tours, France. We recently bought an apartment in Tours and will be moving there in July.

I will come back to Western in the fall to teach my course on Paris During the Impressionist Period and in fact I will double the size of the course and teach half of it in London and half in Toronto.


I also intend to do a good deal of writing, both on my course but also on universities. I will be getting involved in the debates in France with regard to the reform of French universities. I am also interested in writing on university administration.


During the last decade, I have come to know the extraordinary work that Western is doing in Rwanda and the people that we are working with. I’ve let Ted Hewitt know that if I can contribute as a volunteer in the future to that work, I would be delighted to do so.



WN: Are there any special farewell comments you’d like to make to the community through Western News?


Davenport: I would like to thank our faculty, staff, students and alumni for 15 wonderful years.


When I arrived here in 1994, virtually no one knew me as anything but the president of the University of Alberta and that creates a fair degree of tension, particularly when the university is going through hard times, as we were. Those mid-90s were a dreadfully difficult period for Western and yet right from the start the community supported me, encouraged me and got involved in that first strategic plan.

Over time, we have accomplished some wonderful things together. So I will miss my friends here, each and every one. I wish them every success in the future.




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