Find a way
Meet Western’s new President, Alan Shepard
Alan Shepard took office as Western’s President & Vice-Chancellor on July 1, after serving as President & Vice-Chancellor of Concordia University in Montreal. Here, he sits down with Alumni Gazette Executive Editor Marcia Steyaert, BA’96, to talk about the power of education, the challenges and opportunities facing universities and the critical role alumni play in Western’s future.
What interested you in being Western’s 11th President? Why now?
I knew the quality of the academic work going on here – the research and the teaching. And the incredible student experience that Western offers reminded me of my time as an undergrad at a U.S. liberal arts college. Living on campus was a transformational, profound experience for me. Western also has a similar profile to my graduate school alma mater, the University of Virginia (UVA), which is a few hours outside of Washington, D.C., just as Western is a few hours outside of Toronto. Western, like UVA, is a world-class institution. Both have distinguished histories and bright futures. This opportunity to join Western came at a great moment in my career, having completed seven successful years at Concordia. I was ready for a new challenge and thought Western was the ideal one for me.
What have your first few months been like at Western?
So far, it has been great. I’ve received a very warm, friendly welcome from all corners. My initial impressions about quality and exceptional experience have all been confirmed. The facilities are fantastic, and the campus is beautiful. I really like London and, honestly, I feel at home already. I grew up in the American Midwest and London feels like home.
Are you seeing some immediate opportunities?
Under President (Amit) Chakma, the University made great strides internationally – in terms of the number of international students, but also in terms of partnerships and research opportunities. I’d like us to continue that trajectory. Growing Western’s reputation and profile, both nationally and internationally, is important to the future of the university, and to our graduates, and our alumni network can help us do this. One of the great treasures of an institution like Western is its alumni network. I’d like to work to maximize the value of this network for the benefit of our alumni, but also for our current students. The idea is when you join Western you become part of this large, influential family that can provide lifelong opportunities extending beyond your days on campus. In terms of health care, Western has a great medical school affiliated with major teaching hospitals and research hospitals and I think we can be more than the sum of our parts when we work together. With the variety of disciplines at Western, it is important everyone feel a part of where the university is going. All Faculties are part of the Western story, and we’re at our best when we work together and leverage our interdisciplinary strengths.
What will the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ mean for universities? For Western?
We are in the midst of a digital revolution and the rapid changes we are experiencing can be daunting. These are deep and uncharted waters, and universities are needed now more than ever. And it’s a great time to be a student! Such a dynamic moment – lots of opportunities. Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change how we deliver education. Typically, universities have delivered a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model and I think AI will make the learning experience more personalized. For example, technology is going to make it possible for an instructor to help each student proceed at a different pace, based on their skills and experience, rather than everyone proceeding in lockstep. One of the paradoxes for me is much of the technological change we are confronting has been invented by universities, whether it’s machines, computers, cell phones, surgical devices. At the same time, universities are known as conservative institutions where change is slow. I think universities will have to move faster than they do today and that will be one of the great tensions – how do we preserve the past and present it to the next generation but keep up with these rapid changes?
What are other big challenges facing universities today?
It is fascinating when you go to a meeting of university presidents in Europe, China or elsewhere in North America – we are all facing many of the same fundamental issues. Access to education matters a great deal to me. I am the first in my family to go to university. Every day I come to work I think how powerful universities are in terms of the transformational impact they can have, not only for the students here today, but for their children and grandchildren. Education can change the trajectory for an entire family for generations to come. It builds people and it builds the country.
Are universities playing a different role now than they did even five, 10 years ago in terms of making their graduates career-ready?
I think there is an artificial notion that in the old days universities didn’t prepare students for careers, and now they’re suddenly supposed to. All the way back to the Middle Ages we prepared people for professions like divinity, law and medicine. Universities have always helped students be career ready. However, what we mean by ‘career-ready’ is shifting. It’s about providing more learning opportunities that take place outside the classroom. Students and their families are hungry for experiential learning; I understand that. Western has a lot of these opportunities today, and will offer even more in the future.
What is Western’s role in the future of the City of London? Why is “local” important to universities trying to be the very best nationally and internationally?
I reject the idea we have to choose – that if we are international we can’t also be locally engaged. London isn’t an island – it also needs to continue to engage internationally in order to attract major businesses, jobs, tourism. But the local community… they are the people that support you, they are there for you, their tax dollars help make this place go. Internationally, Western has made a lot of progress. That is really important and we must keep going in that direction, but at the same time we must always work locally. I am excited to work with Londoners, and learn more about how they support us and how we support London.
One of Western’s priorities right now is entrepreneurship. Why is it such an important part of the student experience?
It goes back to the question of how higher education is being transformed. One of the shifts has to do with how we see students. Instead of vessels that need to be filled with knowledge, they are agents in their own destiny. Many of the world’s greatest ideas come from young people. Universities can provide the coaching and some structure to help students take their ideas and build something new. Even if a student isn’t ultimately going to be an entrepreneur, just having an entrepreneurial experience can help them see the world, and themselves, differently.
What role can Western alumni play in the university’s future success?
Our alumni are our greatest ambassadors. But they can also be our critics, and that’s a good thing. They can help us stay on a good path. Alumni may have ideas for where the university should go and they are always welcome to contact me. I answer my own email, and it may take me a few days, but I’ll always respond. I’m preparing for a President’s Alumni Tour where I’ll be visiting 15 cities around the world to meet with alumni over the coming months. They’re the fabric of the Western story and our connections with them will help make the university stronger.
What do you do to relax?
Well, being a university president is a 24/7 job. I always joke with my team I only turn off my phone if I’m on a plane. I do like to cook, read, garden, watch movies, hang out with my family. In Montreal, I became an avid Habs fan. Can I say that here? My family is very outdoorsy, so there’s lots of hiking, biking, travelling around. I’ve also come to enjoy growing vegetables and herbs. And like many of us, I enjoy theatre, music, art. But being at home, making my own pesto, and then having friends over for dinner – that’s the best.
What are you reading?
I try to regularly read The Times Literary Supplement. I like that it gives you digestible-sized book reviews in everything from science, architecture and health to the humanities. It’s a sampler of what’s going on across all disciplines. I also try to read The Economist when I can. I love biographies and just finished one about American President John Adams that captures his relationship with his wife and their almost daily correspondence with each other. I try to imagine what it was like to live when they did and how some of the fundamental issues of their lives aren’t that different from our own today.
Any real-life heroes?
One was a graduate school teacher, professor Irvin Ehrenpreis. I loved the way he taught his students. He took us seriously, he took our ideas seriously. He was a hard ass, he was old school. He scared the slackers, but I loved him and the way he engaged us. He was a great mentor and coach and saw potential in people before they saw it in themselves. The other was Beth Cunz, a registered nurse I reported to when I worked in health care early in my career. Beth wasn’t focused on hierarchy, just the environment and the team and providing excellent patient care. I loved working for her because no matter what role you played, or what level you were at, she made you feel special and that you were an important part of the team.
What’s your personal philosophy about life?
I actually have it right here on my whiteboard – ‘Find a Way’. That mantra has served me, and the institutions I’ve led, well over the years. As a university leader, I want to say to the campus community – you have ideas and we’re going to help you access university resources to move your projects forward or pursue your new ideas. I’m the kind of person who says, “That’s an interesting problem, let’s figure it out,” or “That’s a great opportunity, let’s go for it.”
About Alan Shepard
Roots: Born in the United States, Alan first came to Canada as a visiting researcher at the University of Toronto in 1994. He is now a dual-citizen and has lived in Canada permanently since 2002.
Family: Alan and his partner, Stephen Powell, are parents of two sons, now 18 and 19.
Education: PhD’90 (English) from the University of Virginia; BA’83 (English) from St. Olaf College, Minnesota; Visiting Student at Cambridge University (1982).
Past roles: President, Concordia University (2012 to 2019); Provost and Vice-President (Academic), Ryerson University (2007 to 2012); various senior academic leadership roles at the University of Guelph, TCU in Texas, and the University of Virginia.
Board service: London Economic Development Corporation; Canadian Research Knowledge Network; Universities Canada; Stratford Festival; and the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.
Photography for story by Frank Neufeld
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Alumni Gazette