Dr. Peter Ricketts On Acadia Funding Crisis, Scotian Charm, And Hate Speech

“Your university experience should be the best time of your life because once you get out into the world and you get a job, responsibilities, and family – these things constrain you”

You stated after your appointment that Acadia was an embodiment of a tight knit and personal education. Our outgoing President (Ray Ivany)  also realized this and was seemingly omnipresent around the campus, and was always greeting students.  How do you plan to continue the type of personability that Acadia has come to know and love in your tenure?

“One​ ​ of​ ​ the​ ​ quintessential​ ​ elements​ ​ of​ ​ Acadia​ ​ is​ ​ that​ ​ it​ ​ is​ ​ small,​ ​ but​ ​ you​ ​ can be​ ​ small​ ​ and impersonal,​ ​ and Acadia​ ​ isn’t,​ ​ it​ ​is small​ ​ and​ ​ personal.​ ​ I​ ​ think​ ​ this​ is​ ​ what attracted​ ​ me​ ​ to​ ​ this​ ​ university,​ ​ because​ ​ this isn’t​ ​ something​ ​ that​ ​ only​ ​ happens​ ​ on​ ​ the​ ​ edges​ ​ of the​ ​ operation​ ​- it​ ​ happens​ ​ centrally.​ ​ I​ ​ think​ ​ Ray​ ​ Ivany​ ​ did​ ​ a​ ​ fantastic​ ​ job​ ​ here,​ ​ so​ ​ my​ ​ view​ ​ is: if​ ​ it​ ​ ain’t​ ​ broke​ ​ don’t​ ​ fix​ ​ it.​ ​ I​ ​ plan​ ​ to​ ​ continue​ ​ to ​ make​ ​ sure​ ​ that  I am engaged​ ​ with students​ ​ and​ ​ meeting​ ​ them​ especially​ ​ when​ ​ the​ ​ new​ ​ students​ ​ come​ ​ in, but also throughout the year. Obviously​ I will not do this in exactly the​ ​ same​ ​ way​ as Ray did because​ I​ ​ am​ ​ a​ different​ person, but I share his approach to making Acadia a personalized educational experience, and that starts with the President.”

You’ve spent a significant time in Ontario prior to which you were in Nova Scotia, is there some inexplicable charm that drew you back to Nova Scotia?

“The inexplicable charm was Acadia. I didn’t deliberately set out to come back to Nova Scotia. I did spend twenty-two years here, so in a way Nova Scotia was the icing on the cake. This is where I started my academic career, and it’s nice to reengage with that. I’ve lived throughout Canada, but the valley really is a gem. I used to bring my students here on field trips all the time!”

Does it feel good to be back home; in the sense that geographically a lot to your work on coastal research and ocean management is tied to the very essence of this province?

“Yes, that’s certainly an exciting aspect of why Acadia is a good fit for me. Acadia is in a coastal location, and the importance of the ocean and coasts in this region is one of Acadia’s defining characteristics and research strengths. I have maintained a strong professional network of people who are​ ​still​ ​in​ Nova Scotia, particularly through the Coastal Zone Canada Association, an organization that I helped found in Halifax back in 1993. The opportunity to come back closer to that network is​ important, and I do plan to continue my research related to ocean and coastal management, policy, and climate change – it is a lot easier to do that in Canada’s ocean playground!”

How do you plan on advancing education at Acadia?

“I’m a very strong believer in university education being rooted in its community, but being global in scope. I think the role of globalization plays a huge role in the direction university education is heading, and where universities need to be in the 21st century. Acadia is doing a lot in that field, but there is a great deal more that we could do. That includes: making our curricula more global and more international, and giving students more​ ​access​ ​to​ international experiences through study abroad and other educational, research, and work opportunities. I think that in the grand scheme of things this is very important. I’d also like to improve how Acadia is interacting with indigenous populations, and make it more attractive and engaging for students from these communities. Lastly, I think we need to advance Acadia’s reputation nationally and internationally, because I do think that Acadia is the jewel in the crown of Canada’s university system. We have to promote this university and what it stands for, ​and get​ more people to know about it.”

News recently broke that Acadia has received a 25.4 million dollar bailout from the provincial government. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)-Nova Scotia stated that this  “further proof of the funding crisis in the post-secondary education system in Nova Scotia.” Should Acadia students be worried about this?

“No. Next question! [Laughs]. Just kidding! Students should be extremely happy. First of all, I wouldn’t characterize this as bailout money. What the government has done is provide to Acadia on an ongoing basis what it has been providing over the last 8 years. This is money that the government has been providing to the institution for a while: 3.5 million per year over 5 years, and prior to that the allocation of a 7 million dollar loan. This is a recognition that this is money that Acadia needs as part of its operating budget. The impacts of the funding formula change in 2008 created an emergency situation that was added on top of an already tight and difficult situation that the university was in at the time. The funding formula dug the hole deeper and said ‘not only do you have to dig your way out, but now you have to claw your way out by hand’. The university has done that, and I have to give an incredible tribute to Ray Ivany, John Rogers (Chair of Acadia Board of Governors), and Paul Jewer (Past Chair), as well as many others, for the work they did on this issue.

This funding announcement that recently came out was the result of a very serious government review of Acadia’s finances. The financial audit said that Acadia got its act together. It has made cuts and done everything that it could reasonably be expected to do. This is a good news story and a vote of confidence by the government in Acadia’s finances, administration, and the university itself. They’re very impressed with how Acadia engages with industry, and businesses, and communities to help with the future economic and social growth of Nova Scotia. The CFS statement about underfunding is true in general, universities are underfunded by government, but this particular funding action was not related to that.

The 2008 funding formula didn’t cut funding across the board, but it negatively impacted Acadia and Cape Breton University especially hard, and this is the government’s way of trying to rectify that. The CFS comment isn’t relevant to the government’s funding of Acadia in this instance, but is relevant on an ongoing basis across Nova Scotia and Canada. All of the institutions in Nova Scotia will have a discussion with the government to review how the finding formula should be developed going forward, and that is a discussion I am eager to be involved in. The​ ​ terms​ ​ used​ ​ in​ ​ the​ ​ headlines​ ​ -​ ​ emergency​ ​ funding​ ​ and​ ​ bailout​ ​ aren’t​ ​ accurate.​ ​ The loan​ ​ 8​ ​ years​ ​ ago​ ​ was​ ​ absolutely​ ​ emergency​ ​ funding,​ ​ but​ ​ the​ ​ forgiveness​ is just​ ​ recognition​ ​ that it​ ​ should​ ​ have​ ​ never​ ​ been​ ​ a​ ​ loan.​ ​ The​ ​ current​ ​ government​ ​ has​ ​ fixed​ ​ that.​ ​ This​ ​ is​ ​ good​ ​ fiscal management​ ​ by​ ​ the​ ​ government​ ​ and​ ​ it​ ​ recognizes​ ​ prudent​ ​ fiscal​ ​ management​ ​ by​ ​ Acadia.”

In your opinion, what are some of the greatest challenges you’ll face along the way of running this university?

“Well, we just talked about one of them. The budget is certainly always a challenge, and I had no false expectations of that coming into the Nova Scotia system. It is known to be very tightly controlled, and every university has made cuts and sacrifices to keep budgets balanced. I believe universities should be efficient, and we should not be in a situation where we are throwing money around. We should always be very conscious of the use of the public, government money and the student tuition money. We have to be careful stewards of that, but there is no doubt that this will be a big challenge for us as costs of operating a university go up 3 to 4 percent a year. The big challenge will be to discuss what the appropriate level of government funding is, understanding that the government has many competing challenges as well, and of course the challenge of trying to keep tuition fees at a level that are not beyond the reach of students and parents. That is a very difficult balance, as every time we increase tuition it is an impact on the student’s ability to pay, and parents ability to support their students.

Another challenge going forward relates to the funding challenge. We need to pay attention to areas that have been starved of resources over many years. One of the major targets of our capital campaign is infrastructure revitalization, and again that is something that has been put off. Frankly, it is not as sexy to give money to renovate a building or provide a new information system as it is to build a building, but I have been impressed by how Acadia has managed to get funding to renovate some of its buildings. I think we have to look after the infrastructure of the campus, and make sure that we are investing in the resources that are going to have the most benefit to the students.

A third challenge is public skepticism of how continually important a university education is , and what the value of a degree is, particularly a BA [Bachelor of Arts]. One of the challenges is to take strong messages to government and the community, that the evidence of the value of a university education is there to be seen, and is really paid back in the value of our graduates and their successes in their careers. I think Acadia is a wonderful example of the value of a university degree. If you look at the successes of our graduates and the engagement of our alumni in the institution, it is phenomenal. Quite frankly, getting the message out that we are educating students for success in the economy of today and tomorrow is a big challenge as there is a lot of push back focusing on highly specific training. We need to get the message out about the large range of skills and capabilities that a modern university education provides to a person, and while that will be a challenge, I think it is one university presidents especially need to undertake.”

Something that has been circling the news for the past few years, has been a tendency of a liberal university to gravitate towards suppressing free speech for ideas that it disagrees with? Where professors and students feel the need to police the words before they discuss anything that is seemingly antithetical to the norm in universities, like sexuality, feminism, or  race relations. What will you do to ensure that the existence of free speech will be a core duty and a tenet at Acadia during your tenure?

Free speech and academic freedom go hand in hand, because they are at​ the very​ ​ core
of​ ​the mission of the university. Although they are not exactly the same, they are
interconnected with each other. Universities have to defend that interaction between
academic freedom and free speech with all their might. In many ways universities have
a special role to play because we would like to feel that perhaps universities are more
free, more open to discourse, and discussion than society at large and other
organizations; but we must also ensure that our openness is not exploited. 

   That’s​ ​ not​ ​ to​ ​ say​ ​ it’s​ ​ not​ ​ a​ ​ tricky​ ​ issue.​ ​ We​ ​ have​ ​ to​ ​ be​ ​ very​ ​ firm​ ​ in​ ​ saying​ ​ that​ ​ there​ ​ is a​ ​ difference​ ​ between​ ​ free​ ​ speech​ ​ and​ ​ hate​ ​ speech or speech intended to incite violence and oppression, which are​ ​ actually​ ​ prohibited​ ​ ​ by​ ​ law.​ ​ The notion​ ​ that​ ​ if​ ​ I’m​ ​ offended​ ​ by​ ​ hearing​ ​ something​ ​ that​ ​ I​ ​ should​ ​ not​ ​ have​ ​ to​ ​ hear​ ​ it, and​ ​ if​ ​ I​ ​ am offended,​ ​ that​ ​ creates​ ​ an​ ​ unsafe​ ​ space​ ​ for​ ​me, is​ ​ an​ ​ illogical​ ​ argument​ ​ in​ ​ my​ ​ view.​ ​ In any​ ​ university​ ​ you​ ​ are​ ​ going​ ​ to​ ​ be​ ​ exposed​ ​ to​ ​ various​ ​ viewpoints​ ​ that​ ​ might​ ​ be​ ​ quite offensive.​ ​ but​ ​ you​ ​ should​ ​ be​ ​ open​ ​ to​ ​ listening​ ​ to​ ​ them​ ​ so​ ​ you​ ​ can​ ​ counter​ ​ them​ ​ and​ ​ build​ ​ your own​ ​ views and understanding.”

Acadia’s motto is ‘In pulvere vinces’ which translated to ‘By effort you conquer’ what is your interpretation of that?

“I was a bit flummoxed by that when I first read it. The literal translation is something like: in dust you win. I think what it speaks to is that from the very beginning, a lot of people put a lot of effort into building Acadia, and then keeping it going. They managed to build the university through donations and people supporting it, and there was no government money. There were various periods where it was literally on its last legs, and it was through the efforts of the community and individuals providing leadership that it got to the next point where the university could continue.”

What is your message to the incoming and current students of Acadia?

“My message is that I want them to be able to look back in twenty to thirty years time, and say that their time at Acadia was the best time of their lives. Your university experience should be the best time of your life because once you get out into the world and you get a job, responsibilities, and family – these things constrain you. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you never have the same freedom again and you should make sure that you use the opportunity you have at university to explore and extend beyond what you think are your limitations.”