Florentine Strzelczyk, a seasoned administrator, acclaimed scholar and avid kayaker, is already expertly navigating the waters of her new role as Western’s new provost and vice-president (academic).
Although she officially started her position only on May 1, Strzelczyk has already spent several weeks meeting with deans and other campus leaders. She has scoured detailed binders full of numbers and policies.
And she describes Western’s physical spaces, with their mix of tradition and innovation, as a metaphor for the university’s strategy towards a brighter, bolder future.
Western News recently spoke to Strzelczyk, in a Q&A that offers insight into the woman who now helms Western’s academic and institutional development.
Western News: What is it about Western that made you say, ‘this is where I want to be?’
Florentine Strzelczyk: Western is a great university, and it has all the elements to increase its reach and impact over the next years and be recognized as one of the most outstanding universities, both in Canada and on the international stage. President Alan Shepard and the whole campus community have put forward a bold strategic vision that will enable Western to achieve its ambitious goals. The provost’s job is to translate vision into reality and I’m driven to help Western thrive and rise.
WN: This campus probably looks a lot different from the University of Calgary, where you were deputy provost, and from Memorial University of Newfoundland, where you were provost. What are your first visual impressions of Western?
Strzelczyk: Western’s campus is probably the most beautiful campus that I have been on. There’s this big nod towards tradition in the shape of the buildings, and also that fierce desire to modernize and move forward. There’s pride in history, while at the same time embracing modern elements and modern thinking. That’s part of what makes Western so successful: you want to pay attention to what brought you to this point, and take the best parts of that to move into the future.
WN: What are your first priorities?
Strzelczyk: Strategic plans are aspirational and it’s the provost’s job, together with the leaders around the table, to help turn these aspirations into reality: to think about concrete actions and tactics that will bring about measurable outcomes. And that is an important part of what I will do, together with the teams that work with me; to think about how we define what success will look like in the new strategic plan and how we measure and benchmark ourselves.
WN: Do you see the strategic plan as one big challenge, or a series of smaller challenges?
Strzelczyk: Strategic plans run over several years and it’s important that action A comes before actions B, C and D. To give an example: one of Western’s ambitions is to increase its international impact. So first, we need to decide and define which impact we want to have in the world, which countries and universities we want to work with, what kind of international students we want to attract and can serve best to achieve their goals, and how that meshes with the needs of the province and the region around London, Ont.
WN: You started as an international student yourself. How do international studies programs enhance diversity in educational institutions like Western?
Strzelczyk: Great universities exist in great cities and in great regions, and vice versa. There is an interdependency between the two. And one hallmark of a great university is that they’re able to attract talent from all over the world, and that includes faculty, staff and students. Outstanding universities have an impact and footprint outside of their region on the international stage. I think that’s crucial for Western to move forward.
I came to UBC (University of British Columbia) as an international student from Germany, by myself, with one small suitcase, to stay and study for a year. And I ended up staying in Canada and earning a PhD, making a career and wonderful life. I married a Canadian, my children were born in Canada, and I’m grateful to the Canadian university system of which I am a product. With an education from Western University, whether you stay in Canada or go back to your home country, you will be able to contribute to your community and become a lifelong ambassador for Western University and for Canadian education.
WN: You described yourself as driven. What do you do in off-hours to kick back and recharge?
Strzelczyk: I think balance is really important. I like to be outdoors. I love kayaking and backcountry hiking, cycling and swimming. To be physically active, when a lot of the work we do takes place in conference rooms and meetings, is a good thing.
I look forward to exploring the area. When we came to London for the first time during reading week, we immediately took out a membership for Pinery Provincial Park. I can imagine us going there often to kayak and hang out and swim. I come from northern Germany, that little ledge of land that leads into Scandinavia, where my hometown was 30 minutes from the Baltic Sea and 30 minutes from the North Sea, so water speaks to me.
WN: Is there anything else you would like the Western community to know about you as you start your new job?
Strzelczyk: I’m not a leader who leads change from behind the safety of her desk. I’m really keen on getting out, meeting faculty, students and staff, and visiting different facilities. I want to meet people where they are at, and I’m going to be out and about to visit the units that make up the university, to understand their stories and perspectives beyond spreadsheets and policies. I look forward to also forging connections with the community as much as I can. That’s important to me because, as I said, great universities exist in great cities and we, as a university, have to create and nurture these mutually beneficial partnerships.
This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.