At the start of the current academic year, David Rew — formerly the Vice-President of Student Services and Planning at Red River College — took over as Interim President and CEO, following the departure of former president Stephanie Forsyth.
Born in Scotland and raised in Malaysia, Rew has been an RRC employee for the last 35 years, and brings a wealth of experience and expertise to his new role, having in the past served as everything from co-op coordinator and instructor to program chair and dean.
We sat down with Rew to discuss his vision for the coming academic year, as well as his hopes and goals for the College going forward.
You’re taking over as president and CEO under somewhat challenging circumstances. What would you like to say to staff, students and supporters of the College about the events of the last few days and months?
The last few months have certainly created a sense of uncertainty and unease. But the reactions to these events have — from what I’ve sensed and picked up — created a sense of relief, primarily because we now know that we have fully staffed and engaged leadership at the College. Part of that sense of feeling good about where we’re heading is that I’m really encouraged by how the Executive group has rallied and is committed to rebuilding a really effective team.
Last week, we had a couple of gaps in the Executive group. We’ve now filled those. Raeann Thibeault is coming in as acting Vice-President of Community Development, and Cindee Laverge is coming in as acting Vice-President of Student Services and Planning. This rounds us out, and we’re going to spend some time together working through the key issues and priorities we know we have to address, and we know we have to address them pretty quickly. We’re not going to be doing that in isolation — we’re going to be engaging people from around the College who we feel can help us work through the problems we’ve identified.
On a broader note, going down to the staff barbecue last Friday — and getting a chance to walk around and talk to people — felt really good and really positive. There were smiling faces, people were glad to be back, and they were wishing me well, which I really appreciated. I felt we got off to a good start to the year, so I’m really encouraged and really hopeful that we will have an excellent year.
Let’s talk about your background. How long have you been with the College?
Thirty-five and a half years. And counting, I suppose.
Do you remember what drew you to the College in the first place?
The College was advertising for a co-op coordinator for the Commercial Cooking program, and that was actually the second co-op coordinator position at the College. I was really intrigued by this position. I was familiar with co-op programs — prior to coming to Canada I was thinking about going to school in the U.K., where they had what were called sandwich programs, which is another word for co-op program — and I was really interested in this one. I’d been thinking about moving out of industry — I was in the hospitality industry at the time — and getting into education. This particular position was interesting because it allowed me to not only be an instructor and a co-op coordinator, but it also meant being able to maintain ties with industry.
So when I was hired, I had this rather unique position: I was in the classroom and could begin to learn what it was like to be an instructor, I had to work with students and staff in arranging co-op placements, and also I had to maintain very close ties with industry. It was an absolutely terrific job, and it was those pieces that drew me to the College.
What are your thoughts today on maintaining connections with industry and employers, particularly in light of the province’s current skills shortage?
Maintaining ties with industry has always been an important part of the College, and it’s even more important now, in a variety of different ways. Whether it’s gaining advice on the ongoing development of our programs through advisory committees, or bringing in new programs and connections through research, or just the overall connections we have, particularly as we look at capital campaigns, they’re all incredibly important to us in driving the direction we want to go in as a College.
How do you think your decades of experience at RRC will benefit you in your current role?
Over my career, I’ve had a variety of positions, from co-op coordinator and instructor, to chair and acting dean, to leading the Colleague implementation process, plus my VP experience. It all builds up to give me a really good sense of what the College is about and the direction in which it needs to head. All of the parts and pieces of that experience are going to come to bear, in some fashion or another, on my term as interim president.
What do you see as the primary function of the College?
Our primary reason for being is to educate students and prepare them to be successful in their chosen fields, and to contribute to the prosperity and well-being of the province and the country. Our graduate employment satisfaction surveys indicate that we do this really well. The numbers are there to show that. And the promise that we make to students in our Strategic Enrolment Management plan just emphasizes this. We’re here to elevate the potential of our students — that phrase, to me, captures perfectly our primary reason for being.
How do you balance the need to provide quality education and enhance the provincial workforce with the ongoing need for development and fundraising?
We all know we are really challenged, budget-wise, and that’s not unique to us — that’s very much a part of post-secondary across the country. The government provides only so much money for us to operate, but the reality is if the College is going to grow and continue to serve the province to the best of our ability, we need additional help. And that help is going to come from the organizations and the corporations that we work with — our partners — and their contributions are absolutely essential. We have a campus, the Notre Dame Campus, that was first started in 1962, and we’re still using those buildings. It’s very hard to provide the state-of-the-art training currently required to meet the demands of the economy in these facilities. We’re going to need help to completely renew and reinvigorate the campus.
Do you agree that RRC staff suffer from low morale or a lack of confidence in their administration, and if so, what can be done to remedy this?
Whether you call it low morale, or a sense of disconnectedness or uncertainty — yes, there has been that overall sense of malaise that’s been around for a while. I know I felt it, I’m conscious of it, and so is our Executive group. If there’s one thing I want to achieve in my short time as interim president, it’s to overcome that sense of uncertainty.
I can tell you how it won’t be done. There won’t be any grand pronouncements or rah-rah sessions. It’s going to be achieved with a lot of hard work on the part of Executive, where we’re going to resolve outstanding issues and obviously respond to new issues. We all know we’ve got a really demanding strategic plan. A lot has been accomplished in that plan, but a lot is still outstanding that needs to be addressed: Aboriginal achievement, a renewed academic plan, and internal communications are a few. We’re not going to do this alone; we’re going to need to engage others across the College to help us. In working hard and being focused and responding to the issues, we will get over this malaise we’ve been faced with during the last little while.
That being said, we have to remember that the College collectively does a great job. We have data to support this — just look at our graduate satisfaction rate and our graduate employment rate. Those are numbers that are hard to beat, and that’s very much through the hard work of all of us here at the College.
A number of staff members have expressed frustration that they continue to hear about major changes at the College from the media and other external sources, instead of through official channels. What can be done to address those frustrations?
Internal communications is one of the key issues our Executive has identified, and we know this is an area that has to be improved and that we all have to be part of it, from the Executive through to senior leadership, chairs, managers, and so on. There’s no silver bullet to answering this, but we do have to look for ways that will make our internal communications a lot more timely and effective. We know about it, and we’re going to work on it. It is a priority on the list.
What is the plan for filling the president’s position, as well as any other remaining vacancies?
I don’t know what the plans are for filling the president’s position at the moment; that is very much the responsibility of the Board of Governors. But we do have executive positions and senior management vacancies, most of which are currently being filled by acting positions … and we’ll be developing a plan on how to most effectively move forward with those.
In the meantime, we do have very capable people covering those vacancies. Each of those in an acting role, including myself, is focused on the roles and responsibilities that we have. The acting part, in my mind, just defines that it’s for a finite period of time, but we are extremely conscious of the responsibilities that we have, and the “acting” positions don’t diminish that in any way. None of us have any intention of just keeping seats warm until someone else comes along.
This year’s town hall meeting for staff — which typically takes place in spring, and allows anonymous questions to be asked of the president — has been postponed a few times. Should staff expect to hear from you in a similar context?
Yes, the staff will hear from me before the end of the year, because I think it’s important that I meet with the College community and share with them how we’re moving and progressing, and also that I hear and respond to the questions they might have. I’m not sure at this point what form the forum will take — that’s something that will have to be discussed with Executive. We have to keep in mind that we’re now into the fall term and everybody is busy, so we’ll have to find a way that works best for the College community.
Assuming your time in the president’s chair will be temporary, what are your hopes and plans for the College over the next few weeks and months? What sort of support do you require from RRC staff to achieve those plans and goals?
Well, that is true — in case there’s any doubt, my term as interim president is temporary, and I’ll be retiring at the end of it. But as I mentioned earlier, I really want to see us lose this sense of uncertainty that we’ve had, and regain our confidence, both in ourselves and in the College. It’s going to take strong and positive leadership from the Executive team and senior management, and we’re going to do this through hard work on key issues.
We’re going to work on better internal communications so we can get messages and information out to the College community at large. We also have to realize the outstanding issues in the strategic plan, and to recognize that we need help. Executive can’t do it alone, so we will engage others to help us. But I really do believe all of this is absolutely do-able.