Ralph Nilson has been president of Vancouver Island University since the institution changed from Malaspina University College in 2007. He is now retiring after three consecutive terms.
His intention was to serve only two terms, but served another term at the request of VIU’s Board of Governors. The board requested he remain on as president because of building projects that needed to be finished before another president could come in. VIU recently completed a $20 million upgrade for the Trades program and installed a $39 million new building for health and science programs.
“I’m a firm believer in change in leadership, so this change is very important,” Nilson said. “I think there’s been some wonderful committed evolution of the institution based on the values of what this institution has been for many years, even prior to our name change. But we are now a university, and there were some fundamental challenges in moving from the governance structure we were under to the new legislation we had.”
When Nilson was leading VIU through that transition in 2007, he visited post secondary institutions in Norway who were making the same transition. In Norway, the institutions were supported by the government with an increase in funding, however VIU saw no increase in funding from the provincial government. VIU is recieves less than 40 percent funding from the provincial government.
“They gave them all the money for all the faculty, all of the supports, all of the labs to have four main PhD programs, it was hundreds of millions of dollars,” Nilson said. “Talking with them about what we’re doing, and what they were doing, and what the difference was, was really something. We’re now at 1,000 graduate students, the government gives us no money for any of those students. This is all completely cost recovery.”
Another challenge that came with the new classification of the university was a faculty strike in 2011. There were strong disagreements between faculty and the administration, including job security, but the strike was settled in April 2011.
“It was a lot of change happening very quickly,” Nilson said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to get people trained on change management, and there was a lot of resistance to change. As in most conflicts, there were misunderstandings, and as a result of those misunderstandings there became real differences.”
Nilson pointed to a divide over how the university was run under the Colleges & Institutes Act that VIU could not continue to do under the Universities Act. Because of that, the administration rejected many proposals from faculty.
“As I fully reflect back on it now, I see how the institution’s evolved. It was a very difficult time, but one of the things in all of this was, I always try to take the high-road, because I was still the president for all the people who disagreed with decisions of administration,” Nilson said. “It was an opportunity for growth and learning on everybody’s part. I learned a lot about the region, the people, and that learning helped me recognize where we needed to invest, and how we needed to invest to build the strength of this institution.”
In his time with VIU, Nilson has worked to create dialogues between various groups for the betterment of the institution. He has made strides to listen to community partners, including forestry industries, the Nanaimo and Cowichan Valley regional districts, municipal governments, staff faculty and students. Among all the groups, Nilson has prioritized making VIU a partner in learning with Indigenous nations on Vancouver Island.
Before coming to VIU, Nilson served as dean of the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. His research was based in population health, and looking at the determinants of what makes communities healthy. Through his work, he helped establish the Indigenous People’s Health Research Centre, (IPHRC) in Saskatchewan with grant funding from the federal and provincial government.
“We really did some magic work,” Nilson said. “In building that capacity, we couldn’t do it without very significant partnerships with the communities, because the in the communities is where the issues were… We spent a lot of time making sure the community was at the centre of it and driving the conversation.”
When Nilson came to VIU, he spent a lot of time learning about Vancouver Island nations, and sought out opportunities to engage with elders and youth.
“The numbers of young people who were feeling comfortable coming in to this institution were very low. They just didn’t feel welcome… When you’ve got a history in a family where there’s been nobody having that education, and a very negative attitude about education because of how all the constructs of it have been broken down, you can see we’ve got a problem here,” Nilson said.
Under Nilson’s leadership, VIU was the first university to enact a tuition waiver for youth in care. According to 2016 census data, 7.7 percent of youth in Canada are indigenous, and 52.2 percent are in foster care, in BC, 64 percent of kids in foster care are Indigenous. In 2017, VIU partnered with the MasterCard Foundation and the Rideau Hall Foundation to bring $13.5 million in new funding for Indigenous learners.
“Part of the narrative we’re trying to build, especially in Ottawa, is that education is the only thing that will make a change,” Nilson said. “The other thing we’re going to start seeing in many of these communities — Stz’uminus and Ladysmith are a prime example —Stz’uminus is just starting to emerge, but they’re generating eight figures a year. They’re generating a lot of money. The capacity in the community to take on the jobs isn’t there, but they’re coming… This is where education is key.”
On the note of Stz’uminus and Ladysmith, Nilson said one of the things that has been most disappointing for him is that VIU has not been able to facilitate public transportation between the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the Nanaimo Regional District. The lack of public transportation leaves VIU students living in Ladysmith with no option but to drive to either the Cowichan campus or the Nanaimo campus.
“It’s easier to get from Victoria to Duncan than Duncan to here, and that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong,” Nilson said. “I feel there’s lots of good places for students to live in Ladysmith, but the transportation is poor, so students who don’t have a car can’t even think about going to Ladysmith.”
Nilson said he does not see VIU building a regional campus in Ladysmith or Chemainus any time soon, unless growth demands a new facility open up. At one time, VIU had spoken to SD68 about doing courses at Ladysmith Secondary School, but those talks have not progressed. Nilson said VIU can do more to engage with the community.
“We have a very good relationship with the mayor. We have a very good relationship with Ladysmith. We have a very good relationship with Stz’uminus band, Cowichan band, and Snuneymuxw, but are we doing everything we can? No. I think we can do more,” he said.
As Nilson prepares to leave the institution, he reflected on initiatives that he wished he could have completed during his time as president. He hoped to have the opportunity to work with Snuneymuxw to develop the Nanaimo DND land. He also hoped to create better housing for VIU students, and update the VIU gymnasium.
Recently, VIU established a new arm of the institution called the VIU Trust. The trust will work to create new developments, raise capital, and take on debt in a way that the university cannot. While Nilson will not be involved with VIU administration, he will continue to be involved in the trust. Before he immerses himself back in work with the trust, Nilson is looking forward to spending time with his family over the summer.
VIU’s next president will be Dr. Deborah Saucier. She will begin her term as president in the fall 2019 semester. Already, she has been accompanying Nilson on trips, as well as meeting with community members and organizations. VIU held a community dinner for partners to come and meet Saucier. Staff have also been preparing briefing notes on their various areas so Saucier can be briefed on important matters.
“We want to make sure the new president is supported, and the whole university is holding her up,” Nilson said. “Deb’s going to be a different president, and that’s good, because she’ll be a different president. It’s a great platform that she’s got to continue to build. She’s a brilliant woman, she’s got a big heart, and she’ll be very good for this institution.”