Ilene Busch-Vishniac isn’t intimidated by former University of Saskatchewan president Peter MacKinnon’s legacy.
Busch-Vishniac recently moved in to MacKinnon’s old home and began working her new job from MacKinnon’s old office inside the recently renamed Peter MacKinnon Building.
Outside of Busch-Vishniac’s office, the cover of a U of S publication shows MacKinnon with his arms crossed beside the caption, “President MacKinnon’s legacy of leadership.”
Busch-Vishniac isn’t fazed.
“It would be intimidating if I felt I were following on the heels of the Peter MacKinnon who had failed, but we couldn’t be farther from that. I’m following on the heels of the Peter MacKinnon who was transformative and wonderful as the president of the University of Saskatchewan,” the new university president said.
Busch-Vishniac said it is the legacy of MacKinnon that has made her transition from academic vice-president at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. to president at the U of S so easy.
He “laid the groundwork so that the path is obvious for me, and I feel that I am, in a very real way, building on the legacy he has left.”
MacKinnon’s 13 years in office were highlighted by over $1 billion in capital projects including the expansion of the Murray Library and the Thorvaldson, Engineering and Law Buildings, the construction of VIDO-InterVac and the Physical Activity Complex, as well as the nearly completed health science wings and College Quarter project.
“The economic reality is such that I think I will not be faced with the same opportunities to build massively the way Peter was able to. That is okay with me,” Busch-Vishniac said. “We are now at the point where there are other more pressing issues.”
She said that now the university must focus less on infrastructure spending and more on the school’s third integrated plan, a four-year plan approved under MacKinnon’s leadership outlining the visions for the university and each of its colleges. The plan looks to review several of the school’s academic programs, to increase the amount of scientific research done on campus, to increase the university’s national and international visibility, and to increase the number of aboriginal students attaining degrees from the U of S and succeeding after graduation.
The new U of S president took her first steps out of her predecessor’s legacy at the recent general academic assembly for the medical school.
The College of Medicine is in need of restructuring but students, faculty and administration have been unable to agree on the details for change in several heated meetings held over the last few months.
As the chair, Busch-Vishniac called the latest meeting to order at noon on Sept. 6. She sat quietly and listened to professors and administrators fiercely debate proposed changes to the college’s structure.
She wasn’t ready to concede her thoughts on the matter. She was listening to both sides of the debate.
“What I was aiming for at that meeting was running a very clean meeting. I wanted to be as neutral and fair as I could possibly be and to guarantee that we kept the right tone at that meeting and allowed everyone who wanted to speak to speak.”
This is how Busch-Vishniac has so far approached the job. She has spent a lot of her time discussing what the university does well and what needs to change. She says she needs to hear from everyone before she’ll have a fully detailed vision for the campus.
This communication will be key for the new president as she looks to better involve First Nations and Métis people in the university.
“Studies of aboriginal communities have shown that they want the same thing everybody wants. They want their families to be healthy, happy and productive. We all want the same thing and education plays a key role in that,” she said. “I think the real question then becomes how can we do that with the communities themselves articulating what their needs are instead of us doing it for them.”
Busch-Vishniac was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She earned her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981 and worked as the dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University before taking a position at McMaster.
She moved to Canada because of the polarizing cultural atmosphere in the States, and proudly declared that she is very close to becoming a Canadian citizen.
“On Aug. 31, my application for Canadian citizenship went out the door. I now finally qualify to apply for citizenship in Canada.”
She stressed that the political divide in America has depleted the U.S. government’s ability to compromise and to get things done, which has led to more severe cultural and social polarities in everyday American life. She argued that the chances for social progress are much higher in Canada because the polarities are less severe.
The new president was a very adamant voice for diversity while working in the States, lecturing regularly on how to increase the amount of female students and students from minority populations enrolled in engineering.
“To the extent I can do a comparison so far of First Nations and Métis communities, there is a much closer parallel to what I saw in the U.S. with Hispanic communities than what I saw, for instance, in trying to get women into engineering.”
Busch-Vishniac said she found that the best way to get Hispanic students involved with engineering is to not just engage the students but to also engage their communities.
Families “need to be reassured that we understand the sacrifice a family is making sending a child away, and really far away in many of these cases, to go off to university and how lonesome they can become,” she said. “We need to have those conversations and we need to [have them in their communities], and not demand that people come here.”
Photo: Kris Foster/U of S Communications