Peter MacKinnon’s remarkable run

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Peter MacKinnon, offering a nod to his fond Grey Cup 2015 memories. Pictured at a farewell lunch in his honor at AU's Edmonton office [photo credit: Curtis Wright, Sept. 21, 2016]

As we prepare to welcome aboard our new president after the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, we at AU Newsroom would be remiss not to publish a fond farewell to Peter MacKinnon who so resolutely raised the bar during these past couple of years as our university’s interim president.

We couldn’t have hoped for a more remarkable run.

Track record of success

MacKinnon, a lawyer and legal academic, took the helm of AU on July 1, 2014, at a tenuous time when the search to secure a permanent presidency had fallen short. Only two years prior he had completed his role serving the University of Saskatchewan as its eighth president, and prior to that, as its eighth dean of law.

An Officer of the Order of Canada, a recipient of the Canadian Bar Association Distinguished Service Award in Saskatchewan, and an honorary degree recipient from multiple Canadian universities, the accolades and awards Peter has been granted are too many to name outright.

Athabasca University was fortunate to have Peter MacKinnon in the drivers’ seat — even if the car was more akin to a two-year rental. He has proven to be a leader who has demonstrated the utmost in excellence, experience, wisdom and diplomacy. He has been a steadying force for our institution, responsible for setting the stage for, in the words of Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt “a long, bright future ahead.”

Because of MacKinnon, Athabasca University is moving toward its next level of success as Canada’s only open online university, serving Canadians and learners worldwide. MacKinnon made significant inroads in the creation of a culture that is more transparent. Many in the AU community will attest there is a new culture of open communication around big issues, with the wider university, than had been previously known.

Lasting Legacy

One of those significant inroads was MacKinnon’s role in forming the President’s Task Force on Sustainability, along with Athabasca University’s Board of Governors. That report, in effect, “put AU’s issues on the record,” says Pamela Walsh, vice-president of Advancement.

She asserts that when MacKinnon became interim president, one of his goals was to “achieve clarity around the issues and to ensure that the issues were brought to government in a very deliberate way so that they couldn’t be ignored.”

Because of MacKinnon, Athabasca University is moving toward its next level of success as Canada’s only open online university, serving Canadians and learners worldwide.

In a recent low-key farewell speech at the Faculty of Business’ Edmonton headquarters, MacKinnon stated that, very quickly into his role, he concluded he would need to fulfill “two overarching goals.”

“One was to do everything I could … to create the enabling conditions for a successful presidential search,” he explained, adding that the next task would be to pave the road to sustainability. He noted that within his early months of the presidency, he had decided it would be vital to “really zero in on the issue of sustainability so as to bring it out of the realm of conjecture and anecdote and put the issue on the record.”

“Because when an issue is on the record, or a set of issues, people feel a much more compelling need to do something about them, rather than to simply watch to see what happens. That was the only purpose behind the President’s Task Force on Sustainability,” he said.

At that same gathering, Faculty of Business Dean Deborah Hurst praised MacKinnon, personally, for his leadership and numerous faculty “takeaways.”

“You took us on, and immediately dug in to decipher the issues, and to share your wisdom and your experience,” said Hurst.

“And, remarkably, you’ve always had time, it seems, to not only spend with us in groups, but also individually. And [you] challenged us to start seeing things differently. And diffusing difficult situations and moving things forward and through.”

peterconvocationgownUnique Mission

When MacKinnon took to the podium at AU’s June convocation, he remarked how nearly two years prior, at his first AU convocation (his 140th –plus at a post-secondary institution) he was “struck” by the uniqueness of our institution.

“It stands out because it focuses upon you, our students, our graduates, and especially upon your stories,” said MacKinnon.

“Those stories, and there are many of them, are quite wonderful,” he reiterated at the Faculty of Business farewell gathering.

“When an issue is on the record, or a set of issues, people feel a much more compelling need to do something about them, rather than to simply watch to see what happens – That was the only purpose behind the President’s Task Force on Sustainability. ~ President Peter MacKinnon, Athabasca University

He was fond of citing a statistic indicating that 78 per cent of AU students report that without the opportunities afforded by this institution, “they would not have been able to access university education, or they would have experienced great difficulty in doing so.”

“Think about that,” MacKinnon posited.

“Could any other university in Alberta or Canada make that claim? I doubt it.”

At the Faculty of Business event, MacKinnon revisited that gem.

“That statistic delineates the mission of the university — making possible what others might see as impossible — just a wonderful, honorable, noble mission — a unique mission, worth celebrating … and I’m enormously proud to have been a part of it, even for a relatively short period of time.”

Colleagues unanimously recall MacKinnon’s terrific sense of humour — a wry wit — and his humility. That was evidenced last year when MacKinnon, a passionate Saskatchewan Roughrider fan, was insistent on holding and mugging for the camera with the 2015 Grey Cup when it had passed through AU’s Edmonton offices following the local Eskimo’s win.

Walsh gives a nod to MacKinnon’s  “incredibly humanistic” nature, and his inherent knack for putting people first.

“He sees the good in everybody. And he is quick to give credit where credit belongs,” she says.

“I believe that we have learned from him. And we’ll always remember Peter as being incredibly engaging, incredibly interesting, and interested — in whatever topic that you wanted to bring up.”

Faculty members will warmly recall MacKinnon’s commitment to hosting quarterly “Conversations with the President” for all staff members as an open-forum, teleconferenced event throughout AU’s four business centres.

“Over the last two years I have appreciated the increased openness of communication that Peter brought to AU,” says Amanda Boon, senior academic advisor in AU’s Calgary office.

“I liked the opportunity for information sharing and interdepartmental collaboration that the Conversations with the President offered.”

You took us on, and immediately dug in to decipher the issues, and to share your wisdom and your experience. ~ Deborah Hurst, dean, Faculty of Business, addressing Peter MacKinnon in a farewell tribute speech.

For the People

Another stand-out MacKinnon trait is his concern about the welfare of people.

“No matter who passed by his office – he made the time for them. He always provided anecdotes about his experiences, many of them were also very humorous, and they were really helpful in putting things in perspective,” says Walsh.

Emma Lowry, Student Support and Advising Specialist at the RAIC Centre for Architecture, says she couldn’t agree more.

“I appreciated that he made an effort to engage and listen to staff at all levels,” she says.

Jamie Gibson, Senior Academic Advisor, Learner Support Services remarked, “Peter always made you feel like he genuinely appreciated your contributions to the University, no matter how big or small.”

Sandwich shop gets second chance with MacKinnon’s support

When a popular mom-and-pop-type café in downtown Athabasca recently was forced to close its doors due to the poor economy, MacKinnon, who was known to frequent the shop at breakfast or lunch, was one of the first to encourage the owner to try and make a go of it on campus instead. As of this week, Meg’s 2 Scoop Ice Cream Shoppe is open for business in the Athabasca University cafeteria.

As an academic, MacKinnon has written numerous publications including his most recent published by the University of Toronto Press University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective. Currently, he is working on his next book which will focus on post-secondary education and ethical issues in Canada, including, among others, the Dalhousie University dental student faculty fiasco.

For his part, MacKinnon said that while he may be departing AU’s open airwaves, he’s just a few mouse clicks away from providing any future consult if requested.

“Now that I’m getting ready to leave Athabasca University, it has become not only part of my head, but part of my heart. And I’ll always be interested in doing everything that I can to advance its interests – without, of course, interfering.

“And I won’t. But I will be ready to help. Because this is a university that is worth the effort, the assistance, and the commitment that you all have for it.”

A lasting legacy, indeed. Thank you, Peter.










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