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MacEwan’s special place

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Dr. Annette Trimbee accepted a job as the president of MacEwan University back when COVID-19 was still a rumble in the distance, and assumed office in the depths of a pandemic on Aug. 1. While her job so far has been almost completely embroiled in trying to make sure the University can adjust to these extraordinary conditions, Trimbee also has a lot of thoughts about MacEwan’s future, and where it fits in between larger, research universities on one side and technical colleges on the other.

Before coming to MacEwan, Trimbee was the president of the University of Winnipeg for six years. Before that, she earned a PhD in ecology from McMaster University, was a postdoctoral fellow studying zoology at the University of Alberta, and spent five years as a Deputy Minister of various ministries in the Government of Alberta.

Your educational background is in ecology. Why did you choose that as a subject?

Annette Trimbee: I loved biology in high school, I think in part because my favourite teacher was a biology teacher. When you have teachers and professors who inspire you to care about something, it’s easy to want to follow in their tracks. I originally went to the University of Winnipeg and I wanted to be a high school biology teacher, like my mentor, and then I found I really liked research so I did a master’s in botany, and a PhD in ecology. But really, my thread throughout that whole time was I studied water bodies. I’m an expert — or I should say, I was an expert but perhaps not so much anymore — in blue-green algae. So while most people really don’t like to see algal blooms I actually get excited. Then I wound up here, at the University of Alberta to do a postdoc. I just love biology. I love being outside, I love analyzing data, and I have this thing for water.

Becoming a university president is quite the switch. So what made you want to get into university administration?

AT: I like to talk about “crossing the river.” I came to Alberta to go to university and do a postdoc, and I was working on water. And then I crossed the river to get involved in water policy working with the Government of Alberta. I had actually quite a long stretch in the Alberta public service. I got to be a leader in Alberta Health and Wellness, Deputy Minister of advanced education and technology, Deputy Minister of treasury board and finance. I had been in all the fun ministries in Alberta, then I had the opportunity to go back to the University of Winnipeg as the president. That was my first undergraduate University, and that’s where I had this phenomenal, transformative experience, which I was very grateful to the University of Winnipeg for. I grew up in a family where there were no expectations of me to go to university. It wasn’t part of the family tradition, per se. They came and got me in my high school and I had a great experience there. The other thing that drew me back to Winnipeg is that I am Métis, from Red River in Winnipeg, and I grew up at a time when it was really we were taught to kind of downplay that part of our identity. My journey back to Winnipeg was part of my own reconciliation journey. I was able to reconnect and learn a lot, so it was a transformative experience.

Do you think you will miss Winnipeg now that you’re back here?

AT: Well I did spend 30 years here. Winnipeg is my childhood home, and Edmonton is where I had my children and where they still live. I love both cities. I feel quite happy to be back. I felt it was nice to go back to Winnipeg — go full circle — but now that I’m back in Edmonton, I tell people I’m in for a few circles.

I’m also happy to be at MacEwan. I love downtown universities. I love undergraduate universities, because like I said earlier, we offer transformative experiences. I know some people like to look at us as a transactional place. That’s not how I see it. I love that students coming out of high school and going to university, it’s a significant time in their lives and they’re thinking deep thoughts and asking big questions. If you’ve ever heard Murray Sinclair talk about reconciliation he talks about how we all have an interest in understanding where we came from, where we’re headed, why we’re here, what we’re all about. That’s the frame of mind most people have when they enter university, whether as a young person coming out of high school, or somebody in their 40’s or 50’s wanting to go back and reinvent themselves.

After six years of experience as a university president, what is your favorite part of the job?

AT: I love interacting with students and I love academic events. At the University of Winnipeg I was ubiquitous. Every day I went to a lecture, went to a panel, and went to an event on campus. Downtown universities are very porous. They mix academic experts and community experts together and you have these incredible conversations around that. I have to say, arriving at MacEwan in the middle of COVID is making it a little bit harder to have those same ubiquitous experiences. Like everybody else, I’m doing my best through Zoom to meet new people and to engage in those very important dialogues.

Speaking of which, what challenges have you faced assuming a new role as president here right in the middle of a pandemic?

AT: Well, we have a lot on our plate. The top priority is launching the fall term in a safe manner. Our campus is a little more active than some other campuses — about 80 per cent of our courses are offered face-to-face or with some component of face-to-face in them. So that required a lot of work. So one of the challenges is we’re paying a lot of attention to relaunching and to keeping people safe, while also trying to keep that secret sauce of MacEwan, because what people like about it is interacting with professors and small class sizes. We’re trying to figure out how to keep the online experience as personalized as possible, recognizing that students succeed when they interact with professors who inspire, professors who care, and they get involved in activities that are bigger than the classroom, activities that possibly span terms or span courses. So that’s why I’m excited to hear about things like the Interdisciplinary Dialogue Project. When we offer these initiatives that are bigger than just one course at a time, that’s what makes university experiences memorable. It helps people feel a sense of community, like they belong. So one of the challenges is if you were to ask the people from U of W, what I was like, as a leader, they would say I was very approachable, ubiquitous, and humble, and that I was very interested and curious. I just showed up to their party, so to speak, and interacted in an appropriate way. That’s a little harder to do with less activity on campus.

Besides the pandemic, what do you suspect are going to be the biggest differences between the University of Winnipeg and MacEwan for you?

AT: The province of Alberta is in tough financial straits, so to speak. I’m arriving with COVID-19, on top of change in the energy sector, and the province is undergoing a review of the whole (post-secondary education) system. The province, like Manitoba, is paying much more interest in outcomes, and looking at modifying funding to align it with those outcomes, so I’ve arrived at a complicated time. System review, performance-based funding, trying to figure out our special place in the Albertan post-secondary ecosystem, these are the challenges that drew me here — although I will say I accepted the job before we knew COVID-19 was here. We knew it was coming, but I don’t think anybody truly understood. So, I’m the new president of MacEwan, but I think every president on every campus feels like a new president, because we’ve just never done this before.

What are your priorities in this coming school year?

AT: We’ve already talked about relaunch. The next priority is really to engage with students, faculty, staff, and community. Next, is participating in a meaningful way in this system review.

One of the objectives of this review is to grow the system without necessarily growing the investment. We have a demographic bulge working its way through high school, and Alberta has historically had a low participation rate in post-secondary, so the system needs to grow intentionally. So, grow where? What programs? What institutions? That’s obviously on my mind, is figuring out how to work with the MacEwan community and with the other institutions in the province to figure out our special place and how we want to grow.

MacEwan is celebrating its 50th, and at 50 years old it’s a relatively new university. Learning what that means, and really identifying our special place in Alberta is a top priority. That’s what I was able to do at the University of Winnipeg, and what I want to be able to do here is to help reveal that, so to speak, with the full community — reveal it and articulate it, build on our strengths and our past, but also be future-oriented.

I know you’re only a couple of months into the job, but do you have an idea so far of what that special place is, or what areas would be good for MacEwan to grow?

AT: Universities don’t only prepare people for jobs — you know that, you’ve written about that. Universities prepare people for a better life. The focus right now seems to be on job skills, but I like to talk about durable skills. People refer to those as “soft skills,” but I call them durable. I think our special place is with those. We graduate people that stick around Edmonton, and are really the fabric of society. If you think about the conversation that’s occurring right now, in the context of this system review, the U15’s narrative is all about discovery research and how that leads to IP and commercialization and all those sectors. Meanwhile, colleges talk a lot about how simple they are and how they are upskilling and reskilling. We’re kind of in this other spot where I think it’s important to talk about how the current generation and future generations will have very different careers and paths — you’ll be constantly reinventing yourself and you’re preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist. Our special place, I think, is we grow leaders in the community, and leaders that have impact. Part of what MacEwan hasn’t done enough is really tell people the impact of our scholarly work on campus. I don’t think we’ve shared enough just how our undergraduates get involved in research, and publish with professors and are really quite ready to have impact. So I think we need to talk more about that. We’re in that lane that’s a little difficult to describe, which is why I’m working hard in the community to figure out how to really shine the light. It’s easy to take it for granted.

Do you suspect that MacEwan’s impact is not talked about as much is because it is an undergraduate university, and students have to move on if they really want to get involved in research?

AT: But you know what? People love their first university. We need to tap our alumni — engage with both our past and current students, to find the mechanisms to tell those stories better. We have a good reputation in the community. I keep bumping into people and MacEwan grads are everywhere and MacEwan grads are well-prepared, but I don’t know that we’ve had a focused enough — I’m going to use the word campaign, although that might have a negative context. We focus our marketing on attracting students and not enough about our relevance. I think, post-COVID, universities need to think carefully about place, and place does matter. We are a downtown university. We are interested in downtown issues. We are interested in having an impact in our backyard. I don’t think we tell that story enough. For example, (on Sep. 15) our Social Innovation Institute won a contest. Over 220 or 200 plus universities applied with an idea. The problem they were asked to come up with a solution for was related to liquor store thefts. I was really quite happy to see that our solution talked about the people who are buying the liquor, because the data suggests that restaurants and bars are buying it. It was just the type of project that made me so proud as the president of MacEwan, and I think we can and want to do more projects like that.

My last question was going to be about what your long-term vision is for MacEwan, but I think I already got the picture.

AT: Well, I will share with you that when I became the president of the University of Winnipeg, the former leader was a former foreign affairs minister, and is viewed as an incredibly visionary individual. One of the comments made was, ‘well, what if Annette isn’t as visionary? ’ But another consideration was, ‘what if Annette is as visionary? ’ because the thing about a university is that you want the president to have vision, but you also want your president to hear you, and you want the president to reveal your vision. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.

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