While the fall semester has begun at Vancouver Island University, Ralph Nilson is preparing for the end of his tenure as university president and vice-chancellor.
Nilson, who came to VIU in 2007 from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, will retire in June. Initially, he was to serve two five-year terms, but agreed to stay another two and a half years at the behest of the university board. Nilson said it was in order to see the completion of new buildings at the Nanaimo campus, including a health and science centre, and “get a number of things completed that were in the works, that would be a challenge for a new president.”
Nilson said there are many accomplishments he is proud of, but added that it is a collective of people who achieve them.
“In terms of proudest accomplishment for the institution, it’s transitioning to a university,” said Nilson. “I think collectively, that was a very, very important bit of legislation that really helped us. I’m very proud of the strength of the institution’s reputation, as a very high-quality learning institution…
“We’re being recognized nationally and internationally for the quality of our faculty and our students are getting recruited to professional schools, graduate schools and really being sought after as employees.”
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In terms of regrets, Nilson said he was disappointed that the post-secondary institution wasn’t funded by the provincial government like a university despite the status change.
“We got a university status but we got nothing,” said Nilson. “In fact, it’s one of those challenges that caused us to be much more entrepreneurial, but I really would’ve loved to be able to invest in people more because … we’ve had a lot of change, a lot of higher expectations, a lot more responsibility. We’ve been so restricted by government’s ability to fund that transition to university and I think that was difficult.”
With the number of First Nations on the Island, Nilson said it has allowed VIU to be part of the reconciliation process brought about because of the damage caused by residential schools. Nilson said the university has been extremely fortunate to have the communities working with it and welcoming it on their traditional territories because it has been able to grow and develop programming to support the needs of the community.
“They helped us be innovative in making sure that we’re creating the type of learning environment where students from the communities can be successful…” he said. “Education was used as a tool of destruction and we’ve been able to learn from the communities, listen to the communities and education is indeed a tool of emancipation, a tool of development, a tool of evolution that’s so strong and powerful.”
Nilson said he leaves with a recognition of a lot of great things happening at the institution, but also a real belief that a leadership change is necessary.
“We’ll likely retire, stay in the community and participate in things in the community … but very, very much continue to be very strong supporters of VIU and the strength of this institution and the people that are here,” said Nilson.