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Rule the school 

Battling high tuition rates, fundraising campaigns, new programs and campus expansions: the new NSCAD and Msvu presidents prepare for the challenges ahead.

Kathryn LaurinMount Saint Vincent University

Leading a university draws on the same skills as conducting a classical orchestra, according to the recently installed president of Mount Saint Vincent University.

“Conductors are great communicators, verbally and non-verbally,” explains Kathryn Laurin, when asked to identify the top quality a conductor at the podium and a president in the big office have in common. She should know: Laurin’s professional music career had her guiding orchestras of all sizes, and recording four albums. Laurin was also dean of fine arts and, more recently, vice president, administration, at the University of Regina, which has around 12,000 students.

Laurin hasn’t forgotten her conducting days. Together with the players, she says, a conductor gleans “the musical outcome” of a score. As MSVU president, she does the same thing, explaining that since July she’s been meeting with academic and administrative staff to determine a renewed strategy for the university, whose student population is roughly 5,000.

Of course, you have to set down the course for reaching the outcome. “Then he or she has to work with a group of people with different skills towards a common outcome,” she says of the baton-wielding maestro role. As university leader, she says, “You’re still trying to chart that path together.”

The path will lead many places, with many tight twists and turns to negotiate, and plenty of traffic: the Mount is a mid-size school on Halifax’s packed field of a half-dozen institutions. “A smaller institution is by its very nature more nimble, more flexible,” contends Laurin. “Being a little bit smaller, you can talk more confidently about quality education.”

Quality education means, in part, smaller class sizes. Smaller class sizes mean increased one-on-one interaction between teacher and student.

The opportunity to interact with a teacher remains a part of the Mount pitch to students. Enrollment trends worry all university leaders in Nova Scotia, according to Laurin, as trends such as “out migration” of youth to booming provinces such as Alberta play a role. Some schools in this province are facing declining enrolment, she says, but the Mount is “holding its own.”

Academic expansion has already been in motion for the last several years at the Mount, including the recently launched tourism and hospitality program, the education department that attracts aspiring and upgrading teachers, and two new graduate-level programs in public relations. “We have a lot of niche programs here, but we want to build on those.”

Of course, people have to afford the cost of these growing programs—high tuition is another reason students may be leaving this province for others. Tuition rates loom large on Laurin’s priority list. In Saskatchewan, once and for a long time considered a have-not province, the provincial government funded around 50 to 55 percent of a university’s operating budget, Laurin points out. In Nova Scotia, where there are more than 10 post-secondary institutions, she reports it’s about 30 to 35 percent government-funded. “How do you make that up? You have to raise tuition and you have to find, obviously, other sources of income. It’s tough.”

While fundraising can help stave off tuition hikes, another pressing issue needs addressing. “One of our pressure areas is space,” Laurin says. A capital fundraising campaign began before Laurin arrived in Halifax. The funds will go to construction of a new building to house classroom, office and research space. The campaign hasn’t launched publicly yet—it’s in a “silent phase”—and Laurin says there’s no date set at this time.

“By the time you launch a campaign, you’re generally at half or more than half- way there, but we’re not there yet,” Laurin says. Funding proposals to potential donors— individuals, corporations and foundations— continue. The goal, she says, is roughly $15 million, “which is not that big for a university campaign.”

After 21 years on the prairies, Kathryn Laurin’s happy in Halifax. When she needs a moment to herself, she can always put on some of her music and consider the beauty of the Basin out her window.

David SmithNSCAD University

David Smith couldn’t have come to NSCAD University, as its new president, at a better time. Put simply, there’s plenty going on with the institution—expanding programs and campus, a major fundraising campaign and more—and Smith, a NSCAD graduate, is up for it all.

“I’m ready and I’ve got a ton of energy,” a youthful Smith says, sipping a tea near the Duke Street building. He’s only 40 years old, but, as he says, “I’ve had a lot of experience.”

That experience comes largely from his work at the University of San Diego, where he’s just wound down tenure as the chair of the Department of Art, special assistant to the provost and faculty member.

He started teaching at USD in 1997, demonstrating skill for developing new programs, including an arts, technology and critical studies program, appealing to donor groups to fund endowments for the arts and partnering up with other institutions, from the San Diego Museum of Art to the Stellenbosch University Department of Fine Art in South Africa.

“People started giving me more stuff to do,” he says. “What that allowed me to do was multi-task—a bit of teaching, administration and a bit of art-making.”

In terms of making his own art, Smith’s practice is rooted in sculpture but it grew to involve video, sound and new media. After NSCAD he took his Master of Science in Visual Studies at MIT in Boston, where he developed a special interest in public art, or, as he says, “art outside the protected space of the gallery.” His temporary and permanent works have appeared in public spaces across Canada and the US.

Smith says that NSCAD’s plans for academic programs on the art and design sides are already well in motion, so he will stay hands-off at this point, as he feels that the university’s vice-presidents, chairs and faculty have their eyes on the ball. He’s far more certain, though, about the role and importance of technology and helping faculty and students understand its impact on learning and practicing art. “Technology is something we can’t overlook.”

As NSCAD expands its space to include a new port campus—planning for a capital campaign has already begun—and government funding for post-secondary education stagnates, Smith will draw on a proven record at USD, where he raised funds (more than $3 million US) to renovate the campus and increase teaching space.

“There are a number of cases to make,” he says of cultivating private sector financial support—businesses, foundations and individuals—for NSCAD, a highly specialized university among so many universities also searching out funding. In fact, he wants to continue fundraising beyond the capital campaign (which hasn’t been publicly announced yet) to ensure NSCAD has the security of an endowment, a savings account, if you will, for everything from professorships to classrooms to scholarships.

David Smith is also an enthusiastic and engaging conversationalist. This will go a long way as he talks to local politicians and those involved in the HRM Cultural Plan, a path he believes NSCAD can help clear. He also knows about the demise and soreness over the Nova Scotia Arts Council. Asked what he will do to bring it back, he says, “You start a dialogue about that.”

Sitting with Smith, his belief in the power of conversation—the exchange of ideas, the art of persuasion and opening minds—really can work. He must have the power: he convinced his wife, an artist in her own right, and two young children to move from one coast to another for this big opportunity.

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