Meet the Provost
Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison arrived on campus August 1. Since then he has been busy reacquainting himself with the campus and with issues facing the Queen’s community. The Review recently sat down with Harrison to chat with him about his role, his priorities, and his plans for guiding the University in these challenging times.
Meet the Provost, Alan Harrison
Why did you decide to come to Queen’s?
“I’ve had a long career in postsecondary education that stretches back 35 years in Canada, and several years in England before that. My wife and I are living in Kingston for the second time in our lives; our Canadian experience has gone full circle.
“Thirty-five years ago when we came to Canada with our son, we spent the first year in Kingston where I was working as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Economics, the same department where I now hold a professorship. In fact, there are still a few people now who were there when I was here the last time.
“When I was asked if I was interested in being considered for the position of provost at Queen’s, I’d just finished a five-year term at the University of Calgary as provost, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. But there was a small number of universities in the country that interested me, from the point of view of doing the same job again. Queen’s was at the top of that list. The reason is simple: I’d spent the year here before, and the University was always a point of comparison for everywhere that I went subsequently.”
What does the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) do at Queen’s?
“My role is to support the Principal in what he does, by driving the operational execution of everything underpinning the University’s strategic direction. The notion is that the Principal is increasingly an external role for the University, but more importantly, my role is a strategic one. You can have great plans but many great plans end up on a shelf gathering dust. It’s really in the execution that we know the University is moving forward. And again, it comes back to the academic mission, to ensuring that it’s being properly fulfilled. I also act as the Principal’s delegate if for any reason he’s unable to attend a meeting or go to an event, and of course when he is out of the country.
“As Vice-Principal (Academic) I’m the chief academic officer, which means essentially taking responsibility for everything that touches students’ lives while they’re at the University – whether that’s in the classroom, whether it’s co-curricular, or extra-curricular. So I work with the other vice-principals, deans, the people responsible for student support, learning support etc. Overlaid on the Vice-Principal (Academic) role is the Provost position, which is ultimately responsible for all operational decisions within the University, and for the University’s budget. Let me just explain what I mean by responsibility for the budget.
The distinction I make is between this year’s money and next year’s money. This year’s money is finance; next year’s money is budget, because budget is about allocation. Finance is about spending. So my job as a financial officer is to ensure that we spend money where we said we would, while my role as a budget officer is to determine, for next year and subsequent years, how resources will be spent.
How does your office support all this?
“By supporting the interactions I’ve undertaken with the other vice-principals. There’s almost no decision that can be taken that doesn’t have cross-portfolio implications. Understanding those implications, and ensuring they’re duly considered and appreciated is part of the Provost’s role. So it’s my job to interact with other vice-principal portfolios. Also, of course, I keep in close touch with the deans and other academic administrators to ensure we’re all essentially pulling in the same direction. It’s really about appreciating and taking account of cross-portfolio implications.
“My office helps to ensure that all of our actions are coordinated in pursuit of our academic mission.”
How will you provide leadership when it comes to implementing the academic plan that has recently been approved by Senate?
“Here’s another example where execution is going to be key. A plan comes with lofty ideals, but we have to act in ways that will actually achieve those ideals. And I say we because I’m not going to do that alone. There are lots of people who work with me – not just the vice-principals, but particularly the deans, staff in Student Affairs, the Registrar, the Librarian . . . everybody. The way I’ll try to make sure that we execute appropriately is to work in tandem with all of those people, make sure we know what it is we’re trying to do, and pull forward together to make this a better place for students, researchers, for everybody who engages in inquiry at Queen’s.
What do you see as your greatest challenges?
“The challenge these days in universities is always about balancing money against what we’re trying to do for students. It’s no different here than it is anywhere else in Canada – or frankly, around the world – as far as I’m concerned. My biggest challenge will be to ensure that our budget is balanced. But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that we’re all here for a reason. Balancing the budget is well and good. But what is it that we’re really trying to do? We’re trying to deliver a high-quality education to our students. That’s uppermost in my mind.”
In my first year in particular, I intend to get out and meet as many people as possible, not just share with them what I think needs to be done and what I’ve heard others tell me, but also to hear from them and test other people’s ideas against what they have to say.
I understand you have a role in promoting diversity and equity on campus. Can you please explain what it is?
“Effective September 1, the Equity Office and the Human Rights Office began reporting to the Office of the Provost. I support this move.
“The role of these two offices is partly about raising appreciation of issues of diversity while supporting people who have concerns about the University and making sure that those are quickly and appropriately addressed. My role will be to ensure those offices are appropriately supported.
“There’s an educational consideration, too, one that extends beyond my interaction with the Equity Office and the Human Rights Office to the whole curriculum issue. The curriculum itself is probably the single most important way we can reach out to our students and enable them to try and understand the increasingly globalized nature of our world. Much of that will happen in the classroom, but it also happens outside the classroom. So it’s really, once again, about recognizing our goal to introduce people to issues associated with diversity and equity and providing opportunities for them to engage with and appreciate these issues.”
How will you be keeping the community informed in your role as Provost?
“I believe very strongly that one should always share information, so I’ll be directing frequent written and verbal communication to the Queen’s community. In my first year in particular, I intend to get out and meet as many people as possible, not just share with them what I think needs to be done and what I’ve heard others tell me, but also to hear from them and test other people’s ideas against what they have to say. I’ll be doing more than just information sharing – although I do think that’s important – I’ll also be consultation. Bearing in mind, of course, that although I was here 35 years ago for a year, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. There many people here with a lot more Queen’s experience that I have and they can help me to do my job”.
What do you hope we will have accomplished as a community by next year?
“By next year I hope we’ll have presented the Board of Trustees Finance Committee with a balanced budget as that committee requested. And more importantly that that hasn’t precluded us from making the first steps in the execution of the Academic Plan and making this a better university for all who work and study at Queen’s.”