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“It’s About Excellence”: a conversation with Ed McCauley

By Kristy Koehler, August 27 2019—

Ed McCauley began his term as the ninth president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary on Jan. 1, 2019. While he may be a new president, he certainly isn’t new to the campus community, having been both a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the 80s and 90s, and more recently, the vice-president research.

McCauley took the time to walk around campus with the Gauntlet, and the most striking thing about our sojourn through the buildings and green spaces was that he knew almost everyone. We were met with waves and choruses of “Hi Ed” as we walked — administrators and professors were certainly comfortable calling him by his first name, a good sign that he’s accessible and down-to-earth. McCauley is clearly well-liked, probably owing to his passion for the student experience and for the university in general. 

It’s no secret that U of C has been described as a commuter campus — somewhere people come to attend classes and promptly leave again, never really taking in the culture or atmosphere of the institution. McCauley doesn’t necessarily think this is the case, likening commuting to campus to commuting to be with members of a family. 

“It’s about creating that environment where students want to come here, because when they’re here, there are exciting things happening, either in their own education — interacting with their faculty — but also other events that we’re hosting,” he says. 

 “The best way to do that is to ensure that when a student walks on our campuses, they are thinking about discovery, creativity and innovation, that they feel the electricity that’s created in part by their participation in our campus.”

McCauley is careful to make campuses plural, acknowledging that the University of Calgary encompasses five different campuses, all part of one family and one institution.

His past experience both as a scientist and vice-president research is evident as the topic of research comes up multiple times throughout our conversation. But, he made sure to note, he’s equally committed to all faculties. Those who think that a president whose background is so heavily science-influenced will neglect the arts couldn’t be more wrong.

“I am a scientist, but really what I’ve tried to advocate for throughout my career is excellence,” says McCauley. “I want to have the best Faculty of Arts in the country. I’m a champion for all of our faculties. It really is about excellence and excellence on the national and the world stage.”

“We’re a research university, but we do not believe in this trade-off between teaching and research,” he adds. “The best learning institutions are also the top research institutions.”

What does the president of a university do? McCauley says it varies depending on the time of year and even changes day to day. Whether it’s meeting with government representatives, hearing from students, maintaining a close relationship with both the Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Association, attending events and setting the overall direction for the institution, McCauley has no shortage of projects to occupy his time. That being said, he tries to attend as many Dinos games as he can, immersing himself in the culture he speaks so much about, although admitting that the transition schedule into his new role was “a little bit brutal” and prevented him from cheering them on as much as he would have liked. 

He’s also been holding informal ‘conversations with the president’ sessions to get a sense of what students, faculty and staff are wanting out of his tenure.

“What are your aspirations for a new president? What are your aspirations for your university?” he’s been asking, stressing that it’s in the hands of the faculties to determine what excellence looks like for them. 

McCauley has plenty of great things to say about the university. He’s proud of the fact that faculty members — and undergraduate students — get invited to speak at international conferences, and that, for our relatively young age as an institution, we’ve managed to do amazing things. 

“If you look at the leadership that’s in the Dinos, look at the great things that the individuals in the Faculty of Kinesiology are doing every day, look at the Haskayne School of Business — they have a whole program about ethical leadership,” he says. “We lead.”

Still, there has to be something that needs fixing on campus — something other than buildings and green spaces. McCauley says if he could change just one thing on campus, it’s perception that needs to shift.

“It would be to change the perception of our students and our community into the reality that is the University of Calgary,” he says. “The reality is, we have an impact around the world. The perception is, we’re the University of Calgary and we’re ‘local.’”

What does success look like for McCauley when his tenure is done? 

“I want the University of Calgary to be viewed as a destination of choice for students and scholars and staff from around the world,” he says.

Family, leadership, culture, electricity, innovation — these might seem like buzz words, but spend more than five minutes with McCauley and you’ll realize that he truly believes in not only the institution but the people within it. 


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