Dalhousie University Leaders
Becoming Canada's best university
Dr. Tom Traves, Dalhousie University President since 1995
Q&A with Dr. Tom Traves
What would you most like to see accomplished at the University by June 2013?
As President, I am focused now on laying strong foundations or building upon those already established, and putting in place processes which will serve Dalhousie in the long run. I’m not trying in any way to shape my successor’s agenda, but I do want to leave them a strong base to build whatever they feel is appropriate.
We need to look at our systems and find ways in which we could operate more efficiently, and put in place stronger cost control measures.
An urgent priority for me this year, which will make a big difference to Dalhousie students going forward, is working with our government partners to come up with a new funding formula that will provide more resources for Dalhousie.
My third priority is to complete our Bold Ambitions campaign and reach our target of $250 million. I’m quite confident that we’re going to get there, but it does require an extra special push at the end.
I also expect to see a lot of progress on several initiatives being led by senior colleagues in the areas of academic innovation, research, and international strategy.
What do you think are the most exciting opportunities for Dalhousie waiting just around the corner, beyond 2013?
Dalhousie has some significant areas of academic strength and our international reputation is growing. Our challenge is to be as successful as possible by being creative, innovative and exciting. I think we’re well along that path. The recent visit of the Chancellor of Germany to talk to some of our ocean scientists reflects our presence on the international stage and indicates clearly that there’s something special here. The rest of the world is beginning to take notice. Our areas of excellence and our unique features bring great strength to our reputation, and through that enhanced reputation, everyone benefits.
How will we continue to attract top talent among our faculty, staff, and students?
The competition for talent is going to be one of the next great global challenges. We face demographic challenges and operate in an increasingly competitive global economy. Our success in the future will depend not only on the talent we already have, but in our ability to attract, develop and retain new talent. We’re in a good spot, though. Growing talent is what we do. In many respects, that’s what a university is. We help develop not only the talent pool of the future, our students, and help them develop their own passions and leadership potential, but we also develop and help express the full talents of the faculty and staff who work here.
How are the factors that are shaping higher education changing?
Demographic changes are certainly very important to us and all the universities in Nova Scotia. In response to that challenge, we aim to be even more competitive in the recruitment market so that we can continue to increase our share of the graduating class coming to Dalhousie. We’ve seen this coming for a very long time, and have successfully built our capacity to recruit students from across the country and internationally over the last decade. More than 50% of our students now come to Dalhousie from somewhere other than Nova Scotia, and this proportion will continue to grow. What’s important is that we continue to appeal to those students who decide not to attend their local university but go away to school. They have a huge range of choices, but they choose Dalhousie because they see something special here.
Are there any other factors that will particularly affect us, for which we can prepare?
We also have to focus on curricular innovation. Some of our programs are somewhat different than other universities, but it’s hard to remain unique in that sense for very long because universities can copy each other within two or three years. Ultimately, it’s more important to be excellent at what you do than it is to be new and different all of the time. However, to remain competitive and attractive to students, we will need new kinds of programs. We need to keep abreast of what everybody’s doing and pick and choose among the very best ideas. So, I think it’s perfectly fine, if you will, to be an adapter, as opposed to an innovator. But if you’re going to be an adapter, you’re going to have to do it better than everybody else. So, again, the focus on excellence seems to be what’s important.
At the same time, we have to be attentive to things that have perhaps outlived their usefulness or have not proven themselves in the past and refocus on something that we think could be better. I think that’s necessary for any organization to grow and change in that way.
And yet it’s difficult at the same time to let go of certain things, take things “off the list”.
I think that’s one of the hardest challenges in any organization, because there are so many internal forces that are change resistant. People get used to doing what they’re doing. Also, they’re proud of what they’re doing and they feel good about the contribution they are making. However, of all the contribution in the university, some have to be less valuable than others; that’s just the nature of priorities and ranking. So, it is always possible to find new things to do and to redeploy ourselves collectively and organizationally to new purposes. One of the virtues of changes in leadership is that you get new people coming in and the first question they ask is “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we doing it this way?”
How can leaders help people in their teams adopt a broad view?
As leaders, we have to understand the changes that are happening around us, research the issues, and develop an analysis of how our larger environment is changing. Then, we need the communication skills to share that with our colleagues in a convincing way which helps them see that change is necessary.
You can force change through some sort of organizational clout, but this rarely works well and can take twice as long. The best changes are those that people adopt enthusiastically because they feel some sort of commitment to the value and purpose of that change. They are convinced that there’s something new out there that would be even more interesting to do than what they’re doing now. We’re surrounded by smart, capable people. Once they know what it is that they want to do, they’re going to do it well.
You’ve talked about creativity and communication. What are the most critical leadership skills that are required now and into the future? Are those different than what’s gotten us here?
I think the basic leadership skills are pretty standard and have been the same for centuries, even though they express themselves in different ways at different times. Fundamentally, to be successful, leaders have to be analytical, creative, good communicators, and they have to be trustworthy. People have to have confidence that whatever they’re saying or proposing has been thought out and that the direction they’re asking people to follow is a sensible one.
Do you think trust plays a larger, lesser, or equal role in academic leadership, compared to other environments?
Trust is hard to earn, and it plays a huge role in all leadership tasks, whether it’s in universities, the private sector, or in government. Trust can be built through demonstrated achievement, but it involves not only confidence in your ideas and capacities, but also in your personal integrity.
Anybody in a leadership role recognizes that you have a very fragile claim on people’s time, attention, and willingness to work with you. And you have to earn that claim every single day. People want to trust that your intentions and methods are honourable and for the good of the institution, and have confidence in your judgement and personal integrity. You still have to convince people on the issue at hand, but when you have trust, people are more prepared to listen.
From where have you drawn your leadership lessons?
I observe other leaders and people that I respect, and reflect on why I respect them and what makes them effective leaders. Some of that is skill: there’s a certain technique to what they do. Also, since I’m a historian and have spent a lot of time reading political and social history, I’ve come to learn some basic life and leadership lessons from how people in the past have been successful. So, it’s a combination of sources.
Interestingly, some leadership lessons are learned fairly early in life. It’s amazing how many leaders today had leadership roles when they were ten, eleven or twelve years old, whether it was as camp leader or something else. People put their trust in them to lead others, which shows that leadership skills are sometimes noticed and developed from a very early age.
When you’re getting ready to face a leadership challenge, how do you prepare?
First of all, you have to know your business and understand the issues, and have a subtle appreciation of all the possibilities. Many issues involve compromise, but you don’t want to compromise on something that’s absolutely essential to your cause and that will guarantee that you will fail.
The other thing is to try to understand the people who are against some of the things you do. Why are they against you? What motivates them? To the extent that you can understand them, you can find ways in which you could propose a compromise that will appeal to them, always being cognizant of what you think you have to hang on to and what you think you can give up. If you have a good grasp on those, then the rest is up to you to keep your composure and put your best foot forward.
How does Dalhousie demonstrate leadership in the community?
Dalhousie is tremendously engaged with our community and makes a profound difference on many levels, most obviously through ways related to the focus of our different Faculties. For example, the education that goes on in our law school and how it contributes to the legal community, or how it contributes through, say, community legal aid. The same is true for other Faculties. Through education, we help shape the debates about important issues, and in doing so, help shape the long-term future directions that people will follow.
But there’s also a whole other level by which people at the university contribute to the community, and we don’t always hear those stories. Many Dalhousie employees are volunteers in the community, taking on leadership roles at the YMCA/YWCA, in political and fundraising activities, in churches and community groups, in youth sports, etc. They’re not there officially as representatives of the university, but their engagement and leadership has a considerable impact on our community.
I was struck by the fact that this year our students’ Shinerama t-shirts said, “We built this city on Black and Gold”. It’s a nice slogan about how we contribute.
What did we learn during your presidency that you hope we don’t have to relearn when you leave?
I tend to be a very positive person. I usually see the glass as more than half full. To the extent that there are challenges, my instinct is: “Well, we can manage this.” I think there’s a confidence here, and it has been growing steadily since 1995. That confidence is partly built up through our recent achievements. When you succeed, you know that you can succeed again. But I also hope I’ve helped contribute to our growing confidence by showing the power of positive energy, which is essential for the success of any organization. It may sound obvious, but in a world of green light and red light kinds of people, most of the time we need to listen to our green light inner voices.