Vancouver Island University’s next president has begun transitioning to her new role, as she visited campus this week for the first time since her hiring was announced.
Deborah Saucier visited the Island over the weekend and was at the Nanaimo campus Monday. The current president of Edmonton’s MacEwan University won’t officially start her new job at VIU until July, but will be “back and forth” between now and then, she said.
Saucier said she met “amazing” people at VIU this week.
“What a friendly group of people who are obviously so committed to what they do,” she said. “Everybody from the person I met who was in catering services, to the vice-presidents. Everybody is just in it for the students and the student experience and what a nice, nice environment to work in.”
Saucier said she hadn’t been looking for a new job, but couldn’t pass up a chance to come to VIU, an institution she said she’d been watching with interest since it was Malaspina University-College.
“I’d been asked to think about other opportunities and I had said no, but the opportunity at VIU was just so special that I couldn’t possibly live with myself if I had said no,” Saucier said.
MacEwan is a little bit of a larger institution than VIU, but Saucier suggested the two schools are at similar stages of growth and change, with MacEwan recently transitioning from a degree-granting college to a university.
“Many of the challenges are the same – how do you keep what’s great in a university-college culture, but morph it to be more of a university…?” she said. “How do you keep a student focus and an emphasis on students and their needs?”
One of the differences between MacEwan and VIU, said Saucier, is that the former is “co-located” with six other institutions in Edmonton, including the University of Alberta.
“Whereas VIU really has a very significant mandate for the mid Island and coastal communities, and not a number of different ways in which you have to collaborate or negotiate with other university presidents on that piece,” she said.
Saucier said she hasn’t really begun to talk about some of the coming projects at VIU, saying that generally, she wants to take the next steps of evolving and realizing some of the visions of current president Ralph Nilson and his team.
“A large number of the projects that are underway with Ralph as the lead are very, very heartening,” she said. “Projects working with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, projects related to access, some of the initiatives related to how to increase diversity and equity in the institution – all of those have me incredibly enthused.”
Saucier, who has Métis heritage, said educational institutions should have a role in reconciliation as leaders in “initiatives of social justice and change.” She would like to see increased rates of indigenous Canadians accessing post-secondary.
“If we put the supports in place to help groups who are typically not accessing post-secondary, we can ensure success and equity as a country that would like to see itself as a just and equitable country,” she said.
More higher education opportunities means more people who are better positioned for economic uncertainty, Saucier added, noting that during the last recession, those with certificates, diplomas and degrees generally felt lesser impacts than those without. Artificial intelligence and automation will also continue to have greater effects on the job market, she said.
“More access for everyone will help inoculate people, as the 21st century progresses, from unemployment and provide good-paying, high-value jobs,” she said.
There’s a transition team in place at VIU to help Saucier get oriented with the university, and she plans to be around and about, and visible on campus. She said she has a curious nature, likes connecting with people, and wants to understand “not only the realities of VIU, but the more intangible things like the culture.”
Saucier said she’s humbled and honoured to be VIU’s next president and feels strongly that Nilson has left her an incredible legacy.
“If I can live up to that and actually stretch those goals further, I will consider that a success,” she said.