AU Newsroom editor and writer Heidi Staseson recently caught up with Athabasca University’s new president, Neil Fassina, for a detailed Q&A — on everything from his sock drawer and Netflix picks, to enrolling in AU and tips for achieving respect in the workplace.
AU: Who are your favourite authors and do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
NF: On the fiction side, Bryce Courtenay is my favourite author. The Power of One is probably my all-time favourite novel. I enjoy both genres. I enjoy the history of non-fiction. I also enjoy reading about the industry; I have a ton of fun reading about post-secondary education.
AU: What post-secondary trends intrigue you at the moment?
NF: I love listening to the perspectives of people who are trying to think just a little bit differently, i.e. how do we better reach the learners? How do we better undertake what we’re trying to accomplish? Without starting with certain assumptions about post-secondary that have been considered before. I may not agree with a single thing they say, but at least they get me out of the box and thinking.
AU: Is there a particular ‘out-of-the-box’ topic?
NF: I’m enjoying reading about how technology can help to enable post-secondary education. So, how do we bring technology to bear on post-secondary in ways that we haven’t yet thought about? How do we bring information to the learner? Or, simply, how do we do our jobs better and structure our institutions and communicate within them? We’re into a digital age — how do we best take advantage of all that the digital age creates?
Rockin’ in the Free World
AU: How do you get the latest music?
NF: Just hook me up and let me listen. I use a combination of iTunes, YouTube streams and Google Play.
AU: What’s on your playlist?
NF: Anything that has a substantial beat to it. On the one hand, electronic dance, on the other side, stuff along the lines of Metallica — everything from heavy to electronic. If you go into my earlier years, it’s things like Technotronic and C+C Music Factory. And then everything from 50’s-style such as Jerry Lewis, Chuck Berry, all the way up to The Tragically Hip. And on the hip-hop side, Eminem more than anything else.
AU: So are you a child of the eighties or the nineties?
NF: Most certainly a child of the eighties. I’m a fold ‘n roll kind of guy.
AU: Fold ‘n roll?
NF: You know, the jeans — you fold the cuff and roll it up – fold n roll! And the Doc Martens are there, too.
AU: How do you like to unwind?
NF: My ideal evening is to just crash and go a little mindless for a bit — spend some time with my wife and just be able to decompress at the end of every day. That’s often done with a walk, it’s often done with a little Netflix.
AU: Any specific series on Netflix?
NF: House of Cards is always a good one; Orange is the New Black; and a series called Justified. The ability to follow a series is always fun.
AU: How old are your kids?
NF: Eight and nine. Our nine-year-old is a girl and our eight-year-old is a boy.
AU: And you didn’t have to move right? So they’re not being uprooted?
NF: You bet; we’re in the same neighbourhood in Sturgeon County.
AU: Lots of green space? Do you do many nature types of activities?
NF: We try to. The neighbourhood is actually just a big circle. It’s a common thing that all of the grownups go out on walks around it. It’s a fairly young neighbourhood so we joke that it’s like two kids’ “biker gangs” making their way around the ‘hood — one of boys, one of girls — and they just float from yard-to-yard, house-to-house. So you’ll have your entire neighbourhood in your backyard for an hour. It’s very much a constant block party.
In terms of getting outdoors, we do a ton of skiing in the winter. In the summer we escape to a place in Northern Ontario. And that’s pure outdoors – that’s why we go there.
AU: Would you send your kids to AU or give them choice?
NF: Absolutely. We’re a digitally enhanced university so, to me, we’re a thing of the future. I would absolutely imagine AU being a part of my kids’ future. But I won’t force them. They have to choose their paths and I want to support them in the paths they choose.
We’re into a digital age — how do we best take advantage of all that the digital age creates?
Terms of endearment
AU: Who are your heroes in real life?
NF: That’s a really interesting question in that I try not to find just one. I tend to try to find elements of people across the board. The only hero that I can think of, if you will, is my wife Krista. She’s the ultimate human being. Other than continually looking up to her – I continually try to find hero aspects in everyone. On some level, everyone is a hero.
AU: What is one quality of your wife that you really admire?
NF: Among the many, patience with me would be one. But her tenacity, and the go-gettedness; there’s nothing that she’s going to back down from. She’ll figure out her path through anything.
Back to basics
AU: How do you plan on helping the image or reputation of AU?
NF: To me, it’s a function of bringing the pieces that we have that are strengths and opportunities together — to bring AU back to the forefront. Let’s make sure that we’re focusing on what we want to be in the future. And let’s make sure that we’re making decisions — whether they be around sustainability or opportunity — that are consistent with what we want to be in the future. It’s not so much a function of fixing; rather, I think it’s more a function of making sure we’re all working in the same direction, focused on the same goal, and making decisions accordingly.
AU: What are your particular goals – both as the president of AU – and in terms of your own everyday betterment?
NF: I guess you can say, as a president, my goal is longer-term. My ultimate goal is to be able to, when I leave Athabasca, see that not only are all the people that belong to the community proud of working for the university, but that it has become a university that Albertans are proud of — that it is a central element to the post-secondary system in Canada and around the world. But importantly, that no one is ever questioning the future of this university. So my goal is to be able to make the changes, but also to help support and be a part of a culture where that, in the time I’m done, no one asks ‘is it sustainable?’ — Because it’s known that it is.
AU: What does a day in the life of Neil Fassina look like?
NF: Frankly, as president, I don’t know what a day in the life is just yet. But my normal work process is: I’m up at five, usually sitting at my desk at six. The day is choc-a-block with activity — beginning with a couple of hours of desk time before meetings begin. Normally I’m in back-to-back meetings. There’s typically no pause.
If I’m lucky enough I get a workout in, on my way home — and I’m lucky that I get to do that with my spouse. Then it’s making sure that I take some time with my kids. Then, depending on the workload (there are nights when I go back to work), for the most part, I try to find that hour or hour-and-a-half to just decompress so I can get up and do it again.
AU: Are you a neat freak or are there papers all over your desk?
NF: Oh no. I’m absolutely a neat freak. Even the sock drawer.
AU: I’m assuming you’re organized at work, too. How do you structure your work life to stay that way?
NF: I am reliant on a team so that I can organize and execute on what I do. It’s not inherent in me. I mean, I tend to be a fairly organized person, but I work in partnership with the support structures within my workplace — to make sure that I’m doing things that are the most effective for the organization that I’m working for. It’s full-on team; full-court press.
AU: Do you drink coffee or tea?
NF: I drink coffee.
AU: Tim Horton’s or Starbucks?
NF: Timmy’s. But McDonald’s is actually the preference now.
AU: Dark roast or light?
NF: Medium-roast, straight black. I drink too much coffee to put stuff in it.
AU: How many cups a day?
NF: Like a normal large-sized coffee? Probably three, if not four a day.
AU: And you can sleep at night?
NF: Coffee does not slow me down at all. I’ll drink full-test coffee in the evening and it’s not going to stop my sleep.
Itchy and scratchy
AU: Movember’s coming up. Are you going to act on that? Are you going to do the logger look?
NF: Well the question becomes, I already have facial hair — so am I just going to continue to grow it? My beard gets very itchy if it’s not really short. So I’ll be honest, I don’t know — I’ll need somebody to challenge me.
AU: What’s your middle name?
AU: As a person with an academic background in human resources, what does ‘respect’ in the workplace look like for you?
NF: Respect in the workplace is about respecting the individuals that we interact with, for who they are and what they know. It is openness to understanding. One of the comments I often make is ‘listen to understand; not to respond.’ And so it’s understanding people’s perspectives. But it’s also respecting their knowledge.
AU: Any advice as to how to dismantle silos in an online office?
NF: Whoa, that’s a great question. I find that some of the pathways to dismantling silos come back, in part, to the elements of respect and understanding of what other people are able to bring to an environment and to a solution. But being purposeful in seeking what other people are able to bring to an opportunity or to a solution — whether that involves the opportunity for purposeful interaction or some other mechanism. That’s the nuance that I think is going to be important for AU to not only build on what it already does, but to find those opportunities, and those media by which to undertake those purposeful interactions.
And so it’s recognizing that as an organization, we are more than the sum or our parts. It is about understanding that we have talents, not only outwardly known based on people’s titles or role descriptions, but that there’s going to be hidden knowledge that we want to take advantage of, across the university, to be able to continue moving us forward. So it’s creating interactions to find and be able to understand, and be able to respect that information.
One of the comments I often make is ‘listen to understand; not to respond.’ And so it’s understanding people’s perspectives. But it’s also respecting their knowledge. ~ Dr. Neil Fassina, president, Athabasca University
Hear it through the grapevine
AU: What’s your guilty libation?
NF: I am, most certainly, a wine guy. I’ve got formal education in wine. Because it wasn’t available in the city I was in at the time, I did this through distance education. I am a certified Level-3 Wine and Spirit Education Trust. I lean to big heavy reds — that’s where my favourites are — but I enjoy trying anything that’s made from a grape. Not that I overindulge; but I enjoy wine for the story it tells.
AU: If I’m a student why should I enrol in AU?
NF: Because AU is going to provide you an opportunity to engage in learning regardless of where you are, how quickly you can do it, and enable you to bring the Athabasca learning into your own learning pathway and into your own community.