University is an important stepping stone for many people. It marks the years of transition between adolescence and adulthood, or between being an amateur and being a professional. For MacEwan University President David Atkinson, however, university has been a way of life.
“I’ve been in this business 20 years as a president, 30 years as a senior administrator, 40 years as a faculty member, and … it’s (been) 50 years since (I) stepped foot on the campus of Indiana University as a freshman, this year,” he says.
Though Atkinson says being a university president is certainly a “privileged” way of life, it also carries a lot of weight and inevitably takes a toll on anyone in the position.
“This is a quarter — billion dollar operation. It’s 3,100 T4 slips, 19,000 students; there’s really not a lot of room to screw it up,” he says.
“You worry about that kind of stuff. So, not having to worry about that is very appealing.”
Atkinson has been MacEwan’s president since 2011, but he was president at three different universities in Canada before that.
He has a long list of accomplishments behind him. One of his main contributions was helping MacEwan transition from being a college to holding university status. He used his expertise from when he helped Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C. do the same thing.
There’s no particular achievement that jumps out as most important for him, though, as he explains it’s the accumulation of the school’s progress that really matters.
“You always say … that when you leave, you hope you leave it better than when you arrived — and I genuinely believe that’s the case here,” Atkinson says. “It’s not my work itself, it’s everybody else that ha(s) come together. Really, in some ways, all a president is is a cheerleader.”
One of the things that sets MacEwan apart for him is the intimate campus, as it allows him and the rest of the faculty the opportunity to get to know the students. This is something that Atkinson has taken full advantage of, as many students may know if they’ve ever attended his free spin classes at the gym.
He also thinks the organic connection that MacEwan has to the downtown community has helped shape its culture and distinguish it from the University of Alberta.
“When people think of MacEwan, they think of it as their own; there is this sense of possession,” Atkinson says. “People have seen it grow and seen it transform, and I think they have taken enormous pride in that.”
The university is currently in the process of searching for a new president who will assume office in the summer of this year. While he is not directly a part of the recruitment process, Atkinson is confident that whoever takes on the role will be well-suited. He offers his advice on how to integrate into the MacEwan community.
“Be there. This is an institution where presence counts,” Atkinson says. “As much as MacEwan is now a university, there is a culture here — a sense of community, a sense of engagement with the outside community, a sense of history — and you have to respect that.”
Even though he’s leaving the presidency behind, students can still expect to see him around campus. After taking a year-long sabbatical, Atkinson will be a returning faculty member in the English department before he eventually retires.
“It was always my plan to end where I began,” he says. “I began as a teacher, and I’m going to end as one.”
As he prepares for a more relaxed lifestyle, Atkinson is looking forward to spending more time on his hobbies — something he doesn’t always have the energy for between meetings and
An accomplished pianist, he practices music every day and is always working on a new piece by Chopin or Bach. He also expressed a desire to start “giving back in some kind of significant way,” though he hasn’t figured out yet what that will look like.
In spite of his high position, Atkinson wants his departure to be relatively low-key.
“I don’t want any big send-off. I just want to — to (borrow from) Dylan Thomas — ‘Go quietly into that good night,’ and move on to the next part of my life. Because it’s not about what I did. It’s what the institution did, and I was fortunate enough to be here when these things happened. That’s the memory you take away.”
Cover photo by Alex Allan.