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Vol 40  No 7
December 13, 2007




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Memorial turns another page

Of Meisen’s MUN
by Ivan Muzychka

"I think the future of this university and this province is very bright. I wish both of them my very best and, as I take up new challenges in Alberta, I will be in the fortunate position to look also at some partnership opportunities with this province. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see some of these partnerships benefit Memorial University and to return from time to time to this province."

Dr. Axel Meisen Nov. 15, 2007

It is a dull overcast day and Dr. Axel Meisen is heading into the West Block of the Confederation Building. He is about to meet with Joan Burke, the minister of Education. It is his last formal meeting with the minister who has just been reelected and reappointed to the education portfolio. The meeting has been set up so the president of Memorial University of Newfoundland can formally present his annual report to the government. The university is a $300 million enterprise, a significant portion of which is funded through a government grant.

As the meeting progresses, Dr. Meisen guides the minister through his annual report. He has done this many times before, and while the basic elements of the report are unchanged – stories about research, teaching and Memorial’s role in the community, charts and graphs and financial information – Dr. Meisen takes great care to explain the report’s highlights to the minister who listens attentively. If there is one thing Dr. Meisen knows and is eager to talk about, it is Memorial University. Sharing a corner of a boardroom table with the minister, he presents the overview in his usual style: he is precise, thorough, purposeful and clearly dedicated to one overriding goal: to demonstrate to the minister that the province’s university continues to be in good shape. It serves students well, regardless of where they come from, it contributes strongly to the cultural, social and economic well being of the province and is financially sound.

At the end of the meeting Dr. Meisen notes that this will be his last formal meeting with Minister Burke for this purpose, and she is quick to thank him for his contributions over the years. She takes an extra moment to praise his efforts and one gets the sense that despite their discussions over a sensitive governance issue relating to Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, the two have a mutual professional respect and a common goal in the success of Memorial University.

The president leaves the minister’s office and gets back to the impossibly jam-packed schedule he keeps as the president of Memorial. It is a position he will hold until Dec. 31, 2007. After that, he’s moving on to take up new challenges with the Alberta Research Council.

Dr. Meisen with Scott Hand

"Before I came here, Memorial was known to me as a good university and a university that was about to embark on significant change. I thought I could be a part of those changes, become a catalyst for these changes and, in some respects, to become a leader of those changes."

Axel Meisen became Memorial’s seventh president on Sept. 1, 1999. Over the years, the style evidenced in his last meeting with the minister of education is a snapshot of how he managed Memorial, an institution of some 18,000 students, 1,500 faculty and over 2,500 staff. His leadership style is a mixture of common sense and calm pragmatism, with a generous sensitivity to the dynamics and possibilities of an institution of higher learning and its diverse members. He is passionate about the job and has been wholeheartedly committed to the university since he started.

He came to Memorial on the threshold of a period of prosperity for the province. Government support for the university was rising and has steadily risen during his term. Such support has allowed the university to grow and develop in new ways. Dr. Meisen arrived just as a successful capital campaign, chaired by Memorial

Chancellor John Crosbie and steered under the presidency of Dr. Arthur May, was wrapping up. In its wake, and with funds raised from it, a number of new facilities were opened, including residences in Corner Brook, a new Field House and a new University Centre in St. John’s. Other major physical developments, unrelated to the Opportunities Funds, were the creation of the Inco Innovation Centre, the construction of Petro-Canada Hall and the complete renovation of the Harlow Campus in England.

Dr. Meisen was a dedicated president who not only fostered growth, but spearheaded new and major initiatives such as the Oil and Gas Development Partnership, an initiative aimed at enhancing Memorial’s role in the oil and gas industry. Under Dr. Meisen’s leadership, the university now plays a greater role in the oil and gas industry and the university has a research chair dedicated to oil and gas research (funded by Husky Energy) and an advanced visualization laboratory. There are also a number of new faculty engaged in research related to the oil and gas sector and new courses and programs. As the oil industry grows, the university will now be better positioned to assist in that growth.

"The other part that attracted me greatly was the fact that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador had brought into production its first oil and there was a possibility of additional petroleum projects, and I could see that those projects by themselves would be challenging. They would be challenging for the university but would also lay the foundation for much greater prosperity of the province and that’s something that attracted me."

The hard working president – he has hardly logged a solid two-week vacation in eight years and regularly works 12-15 hour days — also looked to expand the university’s academic programs, recruit more students and increase the research funding flowing into the university. There was success: research funding has grown to about $90 million, up from $35 million when he took office; last year the university recruited a higher percentage of students from Newfoundland and Labrador over the previous year, a feat when one considers the demographic shifts that have actually lowered the number of eligible high school students in the province.

Dr. Meisen with Jean Chretien and John Crosbie

One of his keen interests has also been the culture and working environment of the university. Even in disputatious times he strove to maintain a good working relationship with all employee groups, including labour unions, to lower the temperature on perennial debates between unionized employees and management. Toward the end of his term he was asked by a reporter about what he thought would be one his greatest accomplishments, he noted that if the work environment was more respectful and better for employees, he would be happy to have that as a legacy. It was undoubtedly his personal interest in the area that led to the university’s Board of Regents to adopt a formal respectful work place policy in May of 2007.

There were tough times too. A number of serious public issues boiled over during his tenure, even though many of them had their genesis before he became president. Two issues – the case of Wanda Young, the social work student who won her case against the university in the Supreme Court of Canada, and the research integrity issue involving Dr. Ranjit Chandra, both received national media attention. In both cases, Dr. Meisen led the university through the steps required to address the issues. In these cases and elsewhere, his approach was to communicate proactively; while the university’s position was sometimes at odds with the findings of courts and with some elements of the university and the public, the president was firm in his belief that communicating on the matter at least gave audiences the benefit of having all the information.

Dr. Meisen will also be remembered as the Memorial president who engaged with his community more than any previous president. He traveled extensively, and not always to far away places, although his work in garnering Memorial a more global reputation necessitated that kind travel as well. As president, he took a personal interest in the Harlow campus and helped reinvigorate it. He always believed that Memorial needed to continue to build its connections to the world.

Dr. Meisen with students during Celebrate Memorial.

"A key global pressure on a university like ours is just to become known and to be known what it stands for. There are so many universities around the world that are competing for the attention of students, donors, employers and governments at all sorts of levels and with a wide range of funding agencies. To make Memorial University much better known outside the province and much better understood is a key pressure that I had to respond to and I responded to it gladly. I did extensive travel and promotion of the university outside the province and indeed outside the country."

In addition to business centres in Asia and Europe, Dr. Meisen could also be found traveling to the smallest Newfoundland and Labrador communities, a part of the province that held an especially place in the president’s mind. He met with community leaders, municipalities and chambers of commerce and anyone, really, who would want to hear him discourse about what Memorial was doing and, more importantly for him, could do for communities around the province.

"Broadly speaking, the people in the Avalon Peninsula region have different expectations from the university than people in rural Newfoundland in Labrador. To try and fit them all together into one mould was, in my view, not a useful mental construct. The people of Labrador feel under-represented in institutions on the island of Newfoundland. It was really necessary for me to understand their aspirations and needs and how to respond to them. We developed a strategy which we call ‘Labrador and Points North Strategy’ wherein we made a commitment, as part of our overall commitment to the province, to help with the development of Labrador. This means providing education and research services to the people in Labrador."

Dr. Meisen with Joan Burke

Occasionally criticized for his connections to business, the president was an active member of the local business community and he regularly addressed the Rotary Club and Board of Trade and the oil and gas community. He has strong personal and professional ties with Husky Energy which eventually led to the Husky Chair in Oil and Gas Research. He was three times named CEO of the Year by Atlantic Business Magazine.

However, his successes span across all aspects of the university. He has a strong interest in all areas of the university and equally enjoyed spending time with colleagues, students and outside experts in the fields of the health sciences, arts and humanities. He was a particularly strong follower and supporter of the developments in the School of Music. He believes that the history and culture that has shaped our university are amongst its most valuable attributes. As president, he was able to visit Beaumont Hamel twice and frequently retold the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment to visitors to the university. In his view, the Faculty of Education is particularly central to the future of our province and has made extraordinary progress in supporting the development not only our young people, but increasingly our adult population.

He was never known to decline media interviews and perhaps did over 1,000 of them while he was president. It never mattered to him whether it was an international news agency asking him about Memorial’s work in aquaculture and cod stock research, or if it was a student wanting to know why the university was accepting money from a corporation; he always had the same patient style that said: “Let me tell you the facts as I know them and perhaps you will see the issue from my perspective but if you don’t that’s OK too. I am interested to learn your point of view” He sincerely saw the interactions with the media as yet another opportunity to tell someone something about the university he has come to care about so much.

Dr. Axel Meisen is leaving Memorial and not surprisingly he is not taking a break. He finishes here in December 2007 and starts in January 2008, in what appears to be just as challenging a position. Undoubtedly, Dr. Meisen has made an indelible mark on Memorial University; but then, Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial have also made an impression on him. Neither will forget the other.

"My term was going to be up at the end of August 2008. As I was approaching the end of my presidency, I was interested in looking at some other opportunities and one very good opportunity came along at the Alberta Research Council... It is a new position called the Chair in Foresight. The foresight process will have me forecast research needs and opportunities, develop programs and partnerships to address these needs and opportunities and then turn them over to others to execute. I am very interested in returning to the province. Barbara and I have made very good friends in the province, we love this place. We can see ourselves returning here and possibly retiring here. This province has so much to offer; it appeals to me not only intellectually but also very emotionally. We are delighted to be here and like many Newfoundlanders who are leaving, we are thinking of returning."

To listen to an extended interview with Dr. Meisen, see Memorial’s podcast page at



  • Axel Meisen, Memorial University’s seventh president, begins his term on Sept. 1, 1999.


  • Oil and Gas Development Partnership launched
  • University Centre opened


  • Axel Meisen opens campus to passengers stranded in wake of Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington


  • New student residences opened at Sir Wilfred
    Grenfell College
  • Harlow Campus reopened after extensive renovations upgrades
  • Field House opened


  • Graduate student enrolment exceeds 2,000 mark
  • Husky Energy Chair in Oil and Gas Research created with $3 million in support from Husky Energy


  • The Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development The Harris Centre) launched


  • Inco Innovation Centre opened
  • Petro-Canada Hall opened
  • Landmark Graphics Visualization Laboratory opened


  • External research funding exceeds $90 million


  • Five Pillars - Strategic Plan launched
  • Respectful Workplace Policy Adopted by the
    Board of Regents


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