The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

In his final year, Peter MacKinnon bids farewell to the university he transformed

By in Features/News
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eter MacKinnon always shakes your hand the same way. Rather than extending his arm straight forward, he bends it to the side and swoops into the shake with gusto. This practiced manoeuvre is meant to put you at ease, an old friend enthusiastically greeting you.

In other ways, however, MacKinnon’s body language can be awkward. He has a tendency to hunch over any podium he speaks at. He pulls at his bottom lip and at his neck when lost in thought. He sometimes slouches deep into his chair with his arms crossed, looking almost like a boy denied his dessert.

But that’s not to say the president is uncomfortable around people. Even though his job regularly requires more than 60 hours per week, he didn’t hesitate to humiliate himself by dancing with Howler, the school mascot, in front of thousands of new students during Welcome Week. (Yes, there is video of this crime against good taste.)

Perhaps because of his steadfast good cheer and energetic promotion of the school — he is never far from a University of Saskatchewan lapel pin — MacKinnon is universally liked among the university’s administration and people often comment on his sense of humour. James Pepler, a former students’ union president who now works in admin, says MacKinnon has been jokingly bowing to him for several years whenever they run into one another. Even before important visitors, MacKinnon doesn’t hesitate to bend at the waist in a deep, solemn bow to someone less than half his age.

MacKinnon announced his retirement in March and at the first meeting of the presidential search committee tasked with finding his replacement, there was no shortage of people singing his praises.

“We want God or a clone of Peter MacKinnon,” was the conclusion reached at the end of meeting by the chair of the committee. One got the sense that it wasn’t entirely a joke.

Now 63, MacKinnon is in his 13th and final year as the president of the U of S. He was the dean of law for 10 years prior to his presidency and was a professor in the college for over 20 years before that.

“He and I started at the College of Law on the same day. It would have been July 1, 1975,” said Daniel Ish, himself a former dean of law and faculty member. “That was Peter’s first teaching job.”

Ish is now the chief adjudicator in the federal government’s residential schools settlement.

MacKinnon was “always thoughtful and not prone to excesses in any way. A bit stubborn and he could get a little bit angry at times, but not as much as most people.”

The two men struck up a friendship, especially over their love of baseball. Ish says MacKinnon was a big sports fan, although he did once sustain an injury during a game.

“Poor guy got beaned on the head one time and knocked him cold.”

During his time at the College of Law, MacKinnon built a reputation as a humble and honest person, always willing to help faculty and students. Ish says that although MacKinnon never bragged, stories would surface about the dean picking up a visiting professor from the train station at 3 a.m. or helping a student financially by signing him a personal cheque for $300.

MacKinnon served as dean of law for a decade before being appointed president in 1998. His first five-year term started in July of 1999.

“I think the university 12 years ago was at a crossroads,” MacKinnon said in an interview earlier this month. “The postsecondary environment was becoming more competitive. It’s not a question of whether you like competition or not. That’s a statement of fact. It was becoming more competitive and the signs of that were everywhere to be seen.”

The big change had come a few years earlier when Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his Finance Minister Paul Martin started slashing budgets in an effort to reduce the government’s towering deficit.

“Funding was coming in different ways to the university. It no longer came largely through a block transfer from the federal government combined with provincial operating moneys,” MacKinnon explained. Instead, there was a new system of “highly competitive research programs, which is the federal government’s primary interest in post-secondary education — it’s on the research side.”

MacKinnon realized that in order for the U of S to survive in this competitive new landscape, it would have to chase research funding. For example, the school lobbied hard for the Canadian Light Source, beating out other universities in the process. Other big-ticket projects like the $140-million International Vaccine Centre and the $280-million expansion of health sciences would follow.

In total, there has been about $1 billion worth of infrastructure spending since MacKinnon took over in 1999. Yet, only a sliver of that money has gone toward things like residences. The bulk of the spending has been in research and the sciences.

The university 12 years ago was at a crossroads. The postsecondary environment was becoming more competitive.

Peter MacKinnon, U of S President

The U of S is rare among institutions for having a merged college of arts and sciences. However, it sometimes seems like a merger in name only. The fine arts and humanities have not seen anywhere close to the funding the sciences have under MacKinnon.

The Clarion Project — a proposed centre that would house the art and art history, music and drama departments — was approved in 2008 but as of this spring, no fundraising had been done for the project.

MacKinnon stressed repeatedly that the university was one of the country’s 15 medical doctoral schools — the U15 — and he is proud of the role he played in turning the U of S into a research-intensive institution. According to him, there was no choice but to take the university in this direction.

“That’s what I saw 12 years ago. I think that’s what anybody would have seen coming into this office,” he said. “The perspective of this office is different from many other perspectives on campus. Here you are immediately tasked with working very hard to ensure the university has the resources to do its work well. And so adjusting to a new environment and being successful in that environment was very important. Otherwise, the University of Saskatchewan would have been — and this could have happened — a smaller, diminished and weaker institution.”

“It’s a hard thing to balance,” Daniel Ish said of the president’s campaign to establish the school as a research hub. “When he was working on the synchrotron, people in the Arts Tower were critical of that.”

Bart Gazzola, who is currently the gallery coordinator at the AKA art gallery downtown, says that if arts and humanities have been neglected, it’s largely because people in those departments didn’t do their jobs. Gazzola was involved with U of S visual arts department for about 14 years, first as a student and later as a sessional lecturer.

“We can’t blame lack of vision or the decline or degradation in fine arts and humanities on Peter MacKinnon,” said Gazzola. “Other individuals were responsible for putting their vision forward… to make us an exciting centre, and they didn’t do that. So it’s not on” MacKinnon.

He pointed to the fact that in his 14 years with the arts department, there was only one faculty show. “That’s highly unusual,” he said.*

Gazzola suggested that faculty could be doing more to secure outside funding for their departments, just as their counterparts in the sciences do.

The entire idea of outside funding can rub some people the wrong way, though. Sandra Finley, an elected U of S senator and environmental activist, sees the university’s increased reliance on corporate donors as highly problematic.

“What I see is that through the years — and it’s not just at the university, it is in our society generally — is that we are moving away from the values associated with democracy to the values associated with corporate or commercial behaviour,” Finley said.

“The most obvious example that would illustrate the concerns that I have is the nuclear industry’s presence on campus.”

Finley is quick to point out that she has no personal animosity toward MacKinnon, but she says the president has still presided over an expansion of corporate power on campus.

“My challenge to the people who throw around the corporatization slogan is, ‘Tell me where in your opinion we have accepted money on terms and conditions that compromise the university.’ If I see those circumstances, I would do something about them,” MacKinnon said when asked about the subject. He appeared visibly agitated when responding to claims of corporate influence, leaning forward in his chair and speaking very deliberately.

“There’s a subtext to the corporatization label, and the subtext is that the university should not be associated with business. And frankly, that is at best unrealistic and at worst naive and destructive.”

Earlier this year, Finley and other senators formed USSWORD, a group dedicated to fighting undue corporate influence at the university. They asked Nancy Hopkins, chair of the university’s board of governors, to resign due to her ties to uranium giant Cameco. MacKinnon defended Hopkins at the time.

The president said the urge to limit research into certain fields, like nuclear research, often flows “from an anti-intellectual instinct. ‘Don’t inquire into that. We know what we need to know. We know it’s bad, and don’t tell us otherwise!’ ”

Regardless of the merits of nuclear research, it is undoubtedly true that private and corporate money have become more important than ever to universities to help supplement the funding they receive from government. Many of those relationships rely on a university president.

“Is there a danger that the institution relies too heavily on the president? I don’t think there’s any way you can get around that,” said Ron Steer, professor of chemistry at the U of S. “In this day and age, the president of a university as large as the University of Saskatchewan really is the public face of the institution.”

Steer said any successor to Peter MacKinnon will have big shoes to fill.

“I’ve been at this university as a student and faculty member since 1960. Peter is by far the best president that we’ve had while I’ve had anything to do with the institution.”

Peter MacKinnon in his office Sept. 26, 2011.
In addition to having strong ties to the larger community, MacKinnon has also contributed to greater stability at the U of S, Steer said. University budgeting used to be a messy affair in which programs and departments did not always know whether funding would be available from year to year, but MacKinnon helped change that by putting in place more long-term planning.

“There’s a lot more security in how funding is arranged,” said Steer.

MacKinnon’s term expires June 30, 2012, at which point he will be able to look out of his office window in the College Building one last time to see an institution he helped take in a fundamentally different direction in the 13 years he was at its helm.

“I would hope that I would be able to look back and say that the University of Saskatchewan has committed itself decisively to a path forward and that path forward is a determination in the university to be a highly successful, first-rate medical doctoral university,” MacKinnon said. Although he has no retirement plans other than writing a book about his time in academia — “part memoir and part policy analysis” — he is sure to be kept busy. He has led numerous advisory boards for both provincial and federal governments and was even considered for the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006.

He says he will stay in Saskatoon but try to stay out of the way of his successor, for whom he has very simple advice.

“Have fun would be part of the advice, because there’s much fun in the work. But the other advice I would have is, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Success in a marathon requires the commitment, the training, the timing. Knowing when to run fast and knowing when to jog. Pace yourself.”

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Photos: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

[box]Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased Bart Gazzola as saying the arts department has only had one show by a faculty member in 14 years. In fact, there has only been one faculty show (in which the arts department faculty show their works together). This misrepresented Gazzola’s remarks and has been amended. We regret the error.[/box]

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