UVic looks inward to name next president

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UVic will see its seventh president in office this summer: long-time law professor Jamie Cassels. Cassels begins his five-year term on July 1, 2013, when he succeeds the current president, David Turpin, who is stepping down after 13 years at the post.

“The very first thing I’m going to do is a lot of consulting, because even though I’ve been here for a long time and I do know the institution fairly well, I think it’s critical that people feel that they have a voice and that I’ve heard their hopes and aspirations for the university,” says Cassels. “For me, it’s critical to establish that common understanding so that everyone is singing from the same songbook.”

Cassels joined UVic’s Faculty of Law in 1981 and since then has been the dean of law and associate dean of law. He spent nearly a decade as vice-president academic and provost (VPAC) between 2001 and 2010.

“He’s been [at UVic] for a while, which I think is really important,” says Emily Rogers, UVic Students’ Society (UVSS) chairperson and undergraduate student representative on the presidential search committee. “I think in a time of economic uncertainty and in a time of environmental uncertainty, it’s important that a person already has a working relationship with the university and can hit the ground running.”

For his work as an educator, Cassels has been the recipient of several prominent awards, including the Canadian Association of Law Teachers Award for Academic Excellence and the 3M National Teaching Fellowship — the highest award for university teaching offered in Canada. His research areas include environmental law, law of India and civil litigation, among others.

“He exhibited a strong vision for the university, and he had excellent both academic and administrative credentials,” says Susan Mehinagic, chair of the Board of Governors and head of the presidential search committee. “Jamie was academic provost for 10 years and, despite that, was still very well respected and liked on campus. The VPAC has to make a lot of unpopular decisions, so if you can skate out of that after 10 years still with people’s respect and trust, you’ve done pretty well. It does show some extraordinary people skills to pull that off.”

As VPAC, Cassels worked closely with Turpin to lead the direction of UVic’s integrated planning and was responsible for managing almost 80 per cent of the university’s annual operating budget. During his term, UVic expanded its undergraduate, graduate and indigenous programs, and almost half of UVic’s current faculty members were hired.

The 20-member presidential search committee spent seven months consulting and deliberating. It announced Cassels as the successful candidate at a conference on Dec. 20. The committee was made up of members of the Board of Governors, faculty, and representatives from the senate, the UVSS, the Graduate Student Society (GSS) and the alumni association.

The presidential search committee gathered input on key criteria for the search from consultations with people in the university and the community. These criteria included leadership and listening skills, an understanding of the domestic and international university sectors and a demonstration of a strong vision for the university. Mehinagic says the committee highlighted each candidate’s ability to quickly adapt to the collegial culture of UVic in both its domestic and international contexts.

“Jamie understands the culture of UVic, but at the same time, he understands that the times are changing,” says Mehinagic, noting Cassels’ awareness that the economy and the campus culture has changed since he was in administration and that this will require a different type of decision-making.

While Turpin serves out his last semester as UVic president, Cassels continues to teach and will start opening communications with the government, affiliated organizations and other Canadian universities, as well as within UVic.

Cassels plans to continue UVic’s commitment to civic engagement: to consult beyond the confines of campus and to improve the ways in which the university adds value to the wider community.

Rogers points to the strength of Cassels’ commitment to working with students, noting his work with indigenous students. Cassels assisted in the development of programs, scholarships and recruiting programs for indigenous students. During his term as VPAC, indigenous student enrolment at UVic increased from fewer than 100 students to roughly 700, says Cassels.

“I think that universities are really well placed to be a part of the effort to achieve reconciliation with First Nations and to create opportunities for indigenous students,” says Cassels.

Cassels is also concerned with improving the student experience through direct, hands-on learning that engages students in research conducted on campus. In 2009, he established a research-based learning program that offers direct research experience to third- and fourth-year students. The program, which was eventually named after him, involved the participation of almost 100 students this year.

“It’s important to me as a part of a broader effort that this university makes to try to make sure that students really reap the benefits of the fact that this university is a research powerhouse,” says Cassels. “The fact that we are educating students should make our research more exciting and, similarly, the fact that we’re doing amazing, world-class research should make students’ experiences more exciting.”

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