November 19th, 2009
Welcome Mr. President! Yesterday the Board of Regents announced the name of the next CEO of this university. On July 1, 2010, R. Gary Kachanoski will be the 12th president – acting and not acting – of Memorial. It’s been an uneasy couple of years here without a permanent appointment, and there’s no need to rehearse all the travails following the departure of President Axel Meisen in the fall of 2007. But now that we know where the buck will be stopping for a while, it’s time to welcome the future together.
My first question was, what’s the R stand for, and why do people keep their first name initial if they don’t want to be called Ralph or Rodney? I remember the moment when E. Anne Proulx dropped her E. It was 1997 and she was here at Memorial and told me not to introduce her as E. I think it stood for Edwina and anyone who has ever met Annie will know she is no Edwina. But I digress…
My second question was, who is he? A glance at Kachanoski’s résumé shows that although a natural scientist (soil biology) he has a broad range of interests and enthusiasms, extending into music, the arts, and sports, and so there is a lot of relief that we are not getting a one-trick pony for a president. Even if the pony had a really neat trick, it’s absolutely crucial for a comprehensive university like Memorial to have a leader who gets all aspects of our curriculum, and who appreciates, not just pays lip service to, the diversity of our institutional life. Kachanoski, whose name will not fall trippingly on the tongue of most Newfoundlanders, seems to be right person at the right time. And he is married to an artist and print maker, obviously a sign of good taste and a creative imagination.
That many of us did not know who he was is a sign of both the immense size of this country and the strange way academic traffic patterns evolve. As soon as his name was made public, my colleagues in western Canada wrote to tell me how well they have enjoyed working with Kachanoski in one form or another, and what an inspired choice for president he is. Needless to say, that’s lovely to hear, and very reassuring. But having been born in Manitoba, raised in Saskatchewan, and having worked almost exclusively west of Kenora, Kachanoski is a less familiar name to those of us who are located where the wind comes sweeping down the sea. I imagine in no time at all both he and we will become adjusted to each other, and Kachanoski will become identified as an eastern Canadian surname. Okay, maybe in more time than that.
I couldn’t help thinking what it might be like to be stepping not only into the university you are being asked to steer but into a province you have never visited before. I have heard a lot of comments in the last 24 hours about how similar Saskatchewan (where Kachanoski grew up) or Alberta (where he has been for his most recent work) were so much like Newfoundland: you know, farmers = fishers and all that. But, honestly, these things are fundamentally not like each other. My house is older than the province of Alberta by many years. It’s hard to figure out what this complex and sometimes maddening, old place is without a program, and, even then, no program would be truly adequate. You’ve just got to be here to get it and its oceanic layers of history and subtext.
Does a president get to live a real life? Well, that somewhat depends on who s/he is, of course. You could probably deceive yourself into thinking you were living a real one, but, in fact, your experience is largely being filtered through staged events, high-level meetings, a schedule designed by committee, very little ‘free’ time, and an uneasy sense that time is rushing by and you are regrettably not in control of your own diary. What opportunity to get to understand Newfoundland when all of that is happening for and to you?
One wishes the new guy a lot of luck in figuring out where he is and what it all means. A presidency, especially for someone new to the office and university, is a work in progress. On a final note, I have to say It is particularly reassuring to know that Kachanoski was once a dean of graduate studies. I like that in a guy. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Thanks to mckaysavage for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.