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   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

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March 10, 2005
 Insight

 

Dr. Axel Meisen

Memorial president reflects
on past and looks forward

On the three-year renewal of his term as president, Axel Meisen reflects on the challenges and rewards of his position


It is a typically busy day when I drop by to interview Dr. Axel Meisen, Memorial University’s seventh president. Usually I am in his office to sit in on one of the numerous media interviews that he does as part of his job. Today, however, I am there to interview Dr. Meisen and to get a glimpse of his view of the future.

Since Dr. Meisen arrived at Memorial in 1999, the university has recorded a number of significant successes. A new oil and gas development partnership was launched, with Memorial establishing itself as a top university in oil and gas studies and research. New programs have been created, including a master’s program in oil and gas studies, a master’s program in music, a doctoral program in education and a diploma program in police studies. Over the past five years, research funding from external agencies has more than doubled – rising from $30 million to $74 million - and Dr. Meisen is sure that Memorial’s annual research funding can reach $100 million per year by 2010. Student enrolments have also risen (from 15,500 to 17,700) and the university is expanding its marketing efforts both inside and outside the province. In addition, Dr. Meisen has championed the expansion and renovation of the Harlow Campus facilities and program. On the West Coast, he has overseen the creation of the outstanding Bonne Bay Marine Station and the construction of first-rate residences on the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College campus in Corner Brook. The Office of Student Services has created award-winning support programs for students and a new student centre, the Smallwood Centre has replaced the outdated Thomson Student Centre. The Field House was constructed and incorporated into The Works, a new recreational complex that is widely used by members of the university and outside community. It is the site of the Sea-Hawks teams and the location of a new wellness program for university employees.

Dr. Meisen, Scott Hand, and Roger Grimes
Dr. Meisen with Inco head Scott Hand and then-premier Roger Grimes at the announcement of the Inco Innovation Centre.

Dr. Meisen is now anticipating the opening of the Inco Innovation Centre, a $20 million research facility, and the Petro-Canada Hall, an extension to the School of Music, on the St. John’s campus.

While this listing of accomplishments and the numbers tell of a successful first five years, Dr. Meisen characteristically shifts the focus to the less obvious changes. He is tempermentally driven to delve deeper into things, and he soon moves his attention to the “less visible” but equally important changes.

“There are the much more subtle changes on our campuses, changes that relate to the human environment,” he says in a measured tone. “My own sense is that our internal and external working relationships are significantly improved, and people treat each other with respect. Some of the hard cleavages that I understand used to exist are less evident. That is not to say that everything is rosy, but the environment has improved. This is not only the result of what I am doing; many people have contributed to these changes.”

Campus relations may be more relaxed today but this climate is the result of a diligent and conscious effort. There were rough patches. Soon after he became president, Memorial endured a faculty strike, the university’s first. Still, Dr. Meisen and his team, with help from the provincial government, were able to strike a deal that saw faculty salaries move towards the national average for comprehensive universities. Recent agreements with the faculty association continued this trend and Dr. Meisen thinks that this will help with the recruitment and retention of faculty at Memorial. Significant advances have also been made for staff salaries, which he considers to be of equal importance.

Memorial University looms large in the social, economic and cultural life of the province that gave it life. Becoming the leader of Memorial necessarily entails becoming a Newfoundlander and Labradorian of sorts. As I talk with Dr. Meisen, a chemical engineer, I cannot resist wondering aloud how he feels about the move to the province from Vancouver where he had spent the last 30 years, both in the University of British Columbia and in the business world.

“I feel that I am part of this province even though I was not born here,” he said. “Partly because of my position and partly because of my personal interests, I have had the good fortune to meet many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, not just in official settings, but also in personal settings. It has been fascinating and satisfying to become part of the well-woven social fabric that exists in this province to a greater extent than in other parts of Canada. I lived in Vancouver where most people, at least those associated with the university, appear to be the equivalent of what we call “CFAs” (come from aways). Fortunately, I have lived and worked in many cultural settings in the world, in Southeast Asia and South America; I was born and raised in Europe. I think all of that has helped me to feel at home here.”

Clearly, the social, cultural and economic life of this province are bound together with Memorial, a point not lost on a president who tries to speak with as many community groups as his schedule will allow.

“Even though I am not a ‘townie’ in that I am from away and have an equal affection for and interest in people from all regions of our province, some people characterize me as a townie, which I find strange. To counter this, I spend a significant amount of time in smaller communities in Newfoundland and in Labrador, and I listen to people’s concerns and aspirations. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are very personable people and it is the personal dimension of relationships that is very, very important. I have found that I can deal with complex situations better in person than in writing or by telephone.”

Looking ahead
Not one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Meisen is looking ahead to new goals. What does he see in Memorial’s future? “I think the university will maintain its commitment to excellent teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels while becoming more research intensive,” he says, referring to the upward track of the university’s external research funding and growing graduate student enrolment. “The research we will undertake will focus on the problems and opportunities of our province, with particular emphasis on those that have global significance. Research and development, in which I include the creative arts and advanced professional practice, are the ‘industry’ of the future.”

Dr. Axel Meisen and Dr. John Lau
Dr. Meisen and honorary graduate Dr. John Lau.

“Research and development undertaken at Memorial University will become an attractor for people from other parts of Canada and other parts of the world. There are many who would want to come to this province to build a career in research,” Dr. Meisen explained. “I think Memorial is one of the best portals into the province. When students come to Memorial University, they stay for several years and have ample time to adjust. They have an opportunity to understand this place, they make friends and some even marry Newfoundlanders and Laradorians. I therefore see the university as not only shaping the future economy of the province, but also growing the population of the province.”

Dr. Meisen routinely arrives early at his office and leaves late, sometimes very late. Add to this a busy travel schedule (he is one of the university’s and the province’s busiest ambassadors) and you have the recipe for an incredible time crunch.

“The one big challenge I face on a daily basis is to find enough time to do the things that must be done, and balance that with what should be done,” he noted. “There is an enormous amount of work that is important but routine and that needs to be dealt with. If I am not careful, it can fill the entire day. I find it sometimes does not leave time to think about the other things that are even more important.”

Other challenges centre on one of Dr. Meisen’s main concerns: people. “More subtly, one of my challenges is to continue to strive for personal engagement with people,” he said. “People want to know that you do care about them as people, not just as colleagues, experts or students. People expect this from me and people are really important to me.”

Dr. Axel Meisen

Clearly, Dr. Meisen enjoys his job. When asked why he has so much passion and energy for the effort, he notes that he derives an inherent satisfaction in doing things well.

“I have a sense of duty and it gives me pleasure to do a job well. While it may not be 100 per cent perfect – there is always room for improvement – I like to know that with any given situation or project, we took it as far as we could have.”

He plainly admits that he prefers innovation and creativity over routine, a fact that sometimes causes tension with those around him. “I am especially satisfied if I find some new approach or new idea,” he says. “I am almost never content to do the same thing in the same way. I believe that if we are highly creative and innovative, Memorial can make for itself a place amongst the very best universities in the world.”

Memorial’s critical role
His renewal term holds its share of challenges. The provincial government is getting ready to release a white paper on post-secondary education. Dr. Meisen is hoping that the government will provide the university with some certainty on its budget, translating into more effective planning for Memorial. He is also looking to the white paper for some clarity on university tuition as a public policy issue. Beyond the white paper, internal budgeting issues always present challenges. In addition, there are issues related to regional provision of university programs and services (west coast and central Newfoundland, Labrador) which are continuously being addressed but which, he says, will take more ingenuity to solve.

But as he looks to the future, Dr. Meisen’s confidence and optimism for both the university and for the province shine through. “Newfoundland and Labrador will always exist as a vibrant and unique centre of industry and culture,” he says, countering those who sometimes see the province’s prospects in dimmer lights. And he is certain that Memorial will continue to play an important role in the life of the people of this province.

“We are committed to meeting the aspirations of the people of this province, as individuals and as communities,” is how he summarizes it. “If we strive to do that, then I think we are doing well. Meeting the aspirations of the people will keep us moving in the right direction. Recently, Judge James Igloliorte, an alumnus and honorary graduate, said to me that, ‘Memorial gave me opportunities that could I not even have dreamt about. Not just because it made me study and learn, but because of the people I came in contact with.’”

Dr. Meisen agrees that Memorial University is a great place to study and a place where friendships are formed and nurtured.

“Infrastructure and money for teaching and research are important, but they result from a commitment to excellence, creativity, community and friendship. This is what we at Memorial University stand for and this is how I would like us to act. If I can convey to the people both inside and outside the university that this is the true Memorial – and not just a polished image – then I will have done a good job.”

With the interview over, I begin to leave as Dr. Meisen walks back to his computer to check new e-mails and to the hectic job of steering the ship of Memorial to new and exciting places.