Education Featured

Getting to know David Turpin, the U of A’s new president

// University of Alberta
// University of Alberta

“Please,” says the affable voice coming over the telephone. “Call me David.”

David Turpin, the newly installed University of Alberta president, sets the tone for our telephone interview and quickly establishes who, had we been dancing, would have been leading. Before I’m able to ask him a question, he asks me where I’m from. Hearing that I’m a graduate of the U of A’s political science department, he mentions his son has just started a degree there.

“He’s loving it,” he tells me, sounding more proud father than university head-honcho. “And he’s over the moon with his instructors this summer and just thinking it’s the greatest thing.”

Undergraduates might be heartened by the presidential offspring among them. Turpin once said that he and his colleagues, faced with their own children attending their institution, gained a very different appreciation for it.

“It allows you to see it through some other eyes,” he told the Saanich Times.

He asks me, as smoothly as Astaire, if he might just talk a bit about education, before we get into any questions.

He mentions students. He mentions students housing. He mentions faculty. He mentions community.

“Universities are all about people,” he says. “They are about talented students, motivated faculty and incredible support staff really working to build a better community, and to come up with ideas and innovations that improve the quality of life for people not only in Edmonton but around the world.”

He talks about recruitment.

“About half of our faculty are over the age of 50, so we know we’re going to be moving into a period of significant retirement,” he notes. “How are we going to recruit and retain the best in the world? That is a key question that we’re going to be looking to answer in the months ahead.”

He talks about financial resources and the responsibility of government. He mentions students’ financial contributions and that of donors, and that’s when I snap out of the dance and manage to squeeze in my first question: one in regards to the university’s cozy relationship with industry and concerns about ever-increasing corporate sponsorship. How much is too much?

Turpin explains that the private sector—like government and society at large—are beneficiaries of what universities produce and that they have an obligation to be benefactors of the means of production. He doesn’t, of course, use that particular term, but he is quick to point out that academic freedom isn’t a casualty of corporate influence.

“Every single faculty member has the freedom to carry out research in whatever area they so choose, and to report on it in whatever way they like,” he says. “No one is forced to take resources from anyone.”

What about industry’s inclination to donate to those faculties and programs from which they can expect to receive a direct financial benefit? Turpin says the responsibility falls to senior leadership to “ensure that those areas that may not be attracting external resources as well as others are still supported.”

Turpin seems a little reluctant to talk about how, four days prior to May’s provincial election, Doug Goss, chairman of the U of A’s Board of Governors, participated in a news conference where he and four other CEOs urged Edmontonians not to vote for the NDP, with one of them going so far as to suggest that companies would stop making donations to charities and the Stollery Children’s Hospital if the NDP was elected. This generated a social-media backlash and had the president of the Academic Staff Association and others calling for his resignation. He says that if Goss had asked him, “I would have advised him that … he probably shouldn’t have been actively speaking in the media just prior to a particular election.”

“The university is powered by volunteers,” he says. That includes the Board of Governors. “We don’t say to these volunteers, ‘Leave your personal thoughts at the door if you want to come to the University of Alberta.’ We’re not going to be telling them what they can and cannot do in their private lives.”

Inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1998 for his work in plant biology, Turpin expresses gratitude to the first department head who hired him for pushing him to believe that, “I should be accomplishing things of a quality that I never imagined I could.” Now considered one of the top plant physiologists and biochemists in the world, Turnpin also expresses a deep appreciation for the arts.

“Every great university on this planet is based on the liberal arts tradition,” he notes. “The core is liberal arts and sciences. If those areas don’t happen to be drawing the level of external philanthropic support that others may be, it’s incumbent upon people in my office to be sure they are being supported in other ways.

“The challenge for senior leaders is to take the message to government and to talk about how important investment in post-secondary education is,” he continues. “This is an investment in the next generation. It’s [an] investment in our future social, cultural and economic prosperity, and one of the roles of the university president is to get out and talk about that and to ensure that our elected officials fully appreciate how important universities are for the development of our society.”

Turpin recalls that when he was 15 years old, well before he envisioned an academic career, he was influenced by a scuba-diving instructor “who took me under his wing and treated me like an adult and moved me into a community of responsibility and leadership that I could never have imagined.” He’s determined to pay that back.

Inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2010 for his contributions to education as a scholar, scientist and administrator, as well as for his community service with United Way of Greater Victoria and Leadership Victoria and awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Turpin is focused on the series of mentors he’s had along the way.

“They really opened incredible doors and opportunities for me,” he says, exceedingly grateful to be on his way to following in their footsteps.  


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