The University of Winnipeg is the largest cohort of human activity in the downtown, with 15,000 students, faculty, staff and members of the community engaged on campus.
"There's a critical mass of people here doing everything from studying to become scientists to putting on performances and attending basketball games. As a centre-of-the-city university, we are an activity hub with an economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars," says Lloyd Axworthy, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.
The campus's central location has ensured its leadership in community engagement. It is an outspoken advocate on the importance of the inner city and its role in helping Winnipeg to reset and redefine itself as a diverse, multicultural city of opportunity.
"This area is central to the definition of Winnipeg, because if we're going to be a global player, we need a smart, knowledgeable base in the downtown to make it work," Axworthy says. "Good things are happening. With our growing aboriginal community and the significant number of newcomers arriving from overseas, there is a tremendous opportunity to create a place where this exciting new cultural mix can be recognized, find an identity and given expression."
To support its evolving role in the community, the university has undergone a major expansion and redevelopment, which Axworthy says is an anchor for Winnipeg's renewal.
"As taxpayers and citizens, we see it as necessary to help bring an international lens on what's happening in Winnipeg," he says. "As the ancient Greeks wrote, 'First we shape our cities, then they shape us.'"
Q: What started the ball rolling on the university's impressive expansion in recent years?
A: One of the monumental goals set out for me when I arrived in May 2004 was eliminating the disconnect between our satellite facilities. The university had gone through several growth spurts prior to my appointment and to accommodate the expansion, it had leased properties from Selkirk Avenue to Transcona. My mandate was to consolidate these fragmented facilities into one downtown campus so that we could bring people together, enhance our programs and provide a higher level of service to them. I'm pleased to say that we've nearly completed that task, along with making a $150-million investment in capital projects -- among them, restoring Convocation Hall, installing a new fitness centre, building residences for students and their families, and constructing the Buhler Centre and the new Richardson College for the Environment & Science Complex, the largest, most state-of-the-art campus of its kind in Canada right now.
We're on the verge of opening up the AnX in the former Greyhound Bus terminal, complete with a bookstore, medical clinic and Canad Inns restaurant. The next step will be to focus on upgrading the existing campus, ensuring all our facilities are up to contemporary environmental and energy standards. The pieces are coming together.
Q: Other than infrastructure, in what other ways have you endeavoured to be innovative?
A: We have spent a great deal of time talking to people in the neighbourhood, which is going through a real demographic transformation, as well as to the downtown business community. It was clear we had to make changes in order to accommodate the student body that we are expecting over the coming decade. Among our efforts has been our focus on attracting aboriginal students by offering new course sessions, a department of indigenous studies, a new master's degree on development in indigenous communities and creating an aboriginal support centre. We probably have the highest ratio of aboriginal students in the country and I believe this is because we've established a basis of trust, care and openness. Through our courses, our community programs, even through little things like removing the fences that used to surround our campus green space, we're sending a message that everyone is welcome. The U of W is not an island in the community, we're part of it.
Q: Can you give an example of how the university benefits from changes made for the greater good of the community?
A: Like most university cafeterias, ours was not known for its gourmet dining, nor was the standard menu meeting the needs of our diverse campus population. In 2009, we decided to make a change. We partnered with SEED Winnipeg to set up a company called Diversity Food Services Inc. with the mandate of using locally sourced foods and organic ingredients, while ensuring commitment to fair-trade practices and affordable menu options. The final directive was hiring people from the community, not just giving them jobs on a casual basis, but providing meaningful training on everything from butchering to accounting to customer service. The kicker? Sales of our new food systems increased $1 million over the previous year. Diversity Food Services now manages three campus cafeterias, is opening a new location in the Richardson complex and also has a flourishing catering business. We have hired 70 people from the inner city and are now working on an employee-ownership share program. It's just one example of what we can do when we take a chance to make a change. Sometimes we fall flat on our face, but often, we find more success than we ever imagined.
Q: What unique benefits and challenges does the university face in recruitment and retention?
A: We are fortunate that the people who work here share our values of providing quality education in this diversely populated area of the city. We don't view ourselves as an institution that only serves the elite, but we do uphold a commitment to purpose. In turn, this instills loyalty. A fair number of faculty and staff are alumni, including myself. They may have gained experience elsewhere, but they come back to the University of Winnipeg because it gave them a great start to their career and because they like the culture here. One of the biggest issues we're up against is that we are a regulated industry. We're told what we can raise by tuition and we're subject to government grants that are based solely on historical increments instead of metrics. As a result, it's a constant challenge for universities to stay competitive on salaries and the level of benefits and opportunities for development we can offer.
Q: How does this struggle to remain competitive affect your people practices?
A: By far, the most difficult issue I've faced as president is meeting the annual operations budget, of which 70 per cent is personnel, salaries and benefits. Our core business is education -- professors teaching students -- but protecting this means that other things must shrink or consolidate. This year, we're planning on a $4-million vacancy management reduction by exercising better timing of all new and replacement hiring. Naturally, this puts extra pressure on faculty and staff who have to pick up part of that workload until we sort things through and we are mindful of the potential problems this can create in terms of additional stress and sick leave or other productivity issues.
Q: Are there any leadership books that have recently inspired you?
A: I read A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, the subtitle of which is Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. It's about the new paradigm in our culture of learning and how to integrate innovation in the educational environment. I was intrigued by how the application of digital and social media can be better understood and utilized by a 120-year-old institution such as ours. We must ensure our communication strategy is more than just sending out a message. We need to engage the audience and involve them in what we are doing in a very real way.
Q: What leadership advice have you received that continues to anchor your work today?
A: Have a plan. In other words, don't be merely a transactional leader. Having a blueprint will allow you to set a direction. Not only will you know where you need to be three years from now, you can make solid decisions to support the long-term goal. When you're a cabinet minister, which I was for 15 years, you learn there's no time to dawdle when decisions must be made. Sometimes it's instinctive; sometimes you're able to gather information beforehand; but the ability to make decisions is essential to leadership. Secondly, after the consultations and fact gathering, don't repeat the process and go in circles -- make the decision and move forward.
-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.