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Exit interview with Paul Davidson

The president and chief executive officer prepares to close the book on 14 years of advocacy for Canadian universities.
JUN 01 2023

Exit interview with Paul Davidson

The president and chief executive officer prepares to close the book on 14 years of advocacy for Canadian universities.


After 14 years as president and chief executive officer of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs), Paul Davidson has decided to step down from the role. His last day will be June 30, 2023. While at the helm of the membership organization, Mr. Davidson has shepherded many files: copyright, academic freedom on campus, equity, diversity and inclusion, and let’s not forget the pandemic. Recently, he sat down with me to reflect on his time at Universities Canada and what he considers will be the big issues that universities should keep an eye on.

Take me back to May 10, 2009. What was going through your mind the day before you started at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (now Universities Canada)?

I was nervous. I was excited. I was curious. I’d known what was then AUCC for some time. I had some ideas about how the organization could do some things differently. However, I can’t say that I had a 10-year plan. I was hired on a five-year contract, so I had to hit the ground running. And it was clear that the members wanted to do things differently.

There had been a long-standing advocacy effort from about 1996-97 right through to 2009. It saw record investments in research, saw the creation of the CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research], saw the creation and expansion of CFI [Canada Foundation for Innovation], when it had been a really sustained period of investment and growth in the sector. And then the Harper government slowed those investments. The number one advocacy activity at that point was, How do we increase support for the indirect costs of research at universities? I felt we needed a new agenda that responded to new issues, and to demonstrate how universities contribute to a stronger Canada. We needed to demonstrate that universities are not academic ivory towers, but we’re a community, trying to solve problems. And that we’re a vital part of a functioning democracy.

And so in the spring of 2009, I went on the road to listen. In the first year, I was on the road 140 days, that’s almost seven months.

How does that go over at home? I know you had three young boys at the time.

It worked for our family. There were even times I brought the kids on the road with me. It was really important in the first couple of years to get out, on to campuses. It’s a recognition of the diversity of the membership, like spending time with small institutions as well as big institutions and in all parts of Canada. There are some that say every university in Canada has the same strategic plan, the same vision, that if you were to line up all of the viewbooks, they would all look the same. I really disagree. I really believe the diversity of our membership is a strength. That’s why it was fun to take the kids on the road, so they could see the differences. It was also a great way for me to learn about the sector and really listen to the concerns of the members.

It’s really dangerous in this job to get into the Ottawa bubble and to start looking and sounding like government, because we are not government, we’re there to advocate for our members. So for me, the travel was very intentional.

Looking back on all of the work you’ve done in the past 14 years, what would you say is your proudest moment?

One of the things I’m proud of is how the team at Universities Canada, all the staff, have really done some magnificent work on issues that matter. For example: mental health. That wasn’t on the agenda at all. And it came out of a very profound moment: Daniel Woolf (then principal of Queen’s University) came to a spring membership meeting in Victoria and said, “I’ve had five suicides on my campus this year, what is going on?” This was years before mental health became part of everyday conversations. So I’m really proud that we were able to make a contribution there, and the work is still ongoing – it’s never done.

The other one that was not on the agenda was truth and reconciliation. For that issue, it was Ralph Nilson (then president of Vancouver Island University), who had a chancellor named Shawn Atleo, who had just become national chief of the AFN [Assembly of First Nations], and Ralph said we have to have him come speak at one of our meetings. And after that, unanimously our members said, ‘We’ve got to make this an urgent national priority.’ Still, the heavy lifting there is ahead of us, and we approach it with humility, and in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

I am also particularly proud that in 2019 the federal government committed to a new outbound mobility program for Canadian students to get international experience. We were asked to deliver it in partnership with CICan [Colleges and Institutes Canada]. It was set to launch in April 2020 – and it could have been scrapped by the pandemic. But everyone persevered and innovated. The results are very impressive, and we hope to make the program permanent.

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Another thing I am also proud of and frustrated by is that when I started, 17 per cent of the presidents were women and now it’s 32 per cent. I’m not saying I caused that or we as an organization caused that. But Universities Canada did come together in the spring of 2015  and we said ‘we have to make a concerted effort on this.’

There’s also the whole conversation around inclusive excellence. Excellence has been very narrowly defined as the number of research papers in highly cited journals. And that’s one measure, and that’s important. But within Universities Canada, over about a two-year period – in advance of this current government’s interest in the issue – we had started to rearticulate the definition of excellence, which resulted in our inclusive excellence principles. When you think about what has changed over the last 10 or 15 years, that’s a big shift. I want to say in all of this, none of it’s done. Nor should it be because the work at universities keeps going.

You’ve had to lead university presidents through a lot of challenging times: copyright reform, academic freedom, the pandemic, racism on campus, etc. How do you handle these challenges? 

We’ve always had exceptional people around Universities Canada. So it’s by no means a solo effort. I will say, it’s an awesome responsibility to be a leader in the higher education community. There’s a lot riding on the success of the higher education sector.

Many will ask a president: “What keeps you up at night?” But I will always add: “What gets you up in the morning?” There are lots of things to be concerned about, but I approach it as, What are the things we’re going to drive on? Or, Where are we going to make some change happen? And with each of the challenges, it’s important to remember we’re working with smart people, we’re working with committed people, both our members – the university presidents – and the team at Universities Canada.

Most people know that you are a book lover. If you had to recommend one book to a new, incoming university president, what would it be?

Oh wow, that’s a tough one. Elizabeth Cannon (former president of the University of Calgary) has written two books on leadership. What I liked about them is that they are transferable; it’s about leadership in general. It is also context-specific, as universities are different beasts. Any number of private sector CEOs would probably crash and burn as a university president. We’re different. But Elizabeth’s books help navigate those core values on leadership and make recommendations specific to universities.

Many will ask a president: “What keeps you up at night?” But I will always add: “What gets you up in the morning?”

What are you reading right now?

I’ve got quite a stack of books on my bedside. I’m hoping to get to them once I have finished up at Universities Canada. Some of them are about personal health and fitness. Some of them are about matters of faith and spirituality, in particular interfaith dialogue. I also want to get back into reading fiction; it’s been a while. You may also know that I am a huge lover of children’s books. [Editor’s note: for the past few years, Mr. Davidson has gifted Universities Canada staff members who have young children with a book, usually around the holiday break]. And I hope that tradition continues after I am gone. When we think about what we’re doing as Universities Canada, we’re forming the next generation, we’re telling our stories. And so to be able to pass on a children’s book each year – I like that.

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You’ve spent a lot of time around university presidents. Have you noticed any common personality traits among them?

I would say they are more diverse than people would expect. There’s no one leadership style in the university sector. Leadership at universities is different than in government or the private sector. Some are more introverted than you would expect. And it has been said that introverts can be very effective leaders. One thing they all have in common is they are all exceptionally committed to their institutions and their communities. They are accomplished, they are coming to work with a good spirit, they lead busy organizations with complex governance. I genuinely look forward to our board meetings because they’re bright, engaged people trying to solve problems.

Leading a bilingual organization is a special kind of struggle, and over the last 14 years a lot of work was put in to better represent francophone members. How important is it for a bilingual organization to find that balance between representing anglophone and francophone members?

What a great question. Let me just quibble with the wording of that question a bit: it’s not a struggle, it’s an asset. I fundamentally believe that. Canada is a diverse country, and we have to have organizations that live that diversity. So I’ve always seen it as an asset, not a struggle or a burden.

For the balance, Universities Canada advocacy is targeted at the federal level; we do not do any provincial advocacy. And honestly, it makes my job easier than some of my provincial counterparts. Because we are talking about the big issues, the cross-cutting issues. So for me, being a bilingual organization is a point of pride. And it [is] something that we need to keep in focus as Universities Canada moves forward, and never lose sight of that.

What will you miss about your job?

There’s a wonderful seasonality about the higher education space. I love convocation time – seeing the joy on students’ faces and their real sense of accomplishment. I will miss attending those ceremonies. I will also miss the back-to-school season because there’s an excitement as people are asking: “What’s going to happen this year?”

Your mandate ends June 30. What do you have planned for the summer?

My wife, Elly Vandenberg, works for the United Nations World Food Programme and her job does involve some travel. But I have not been able to travel with her due to my work schedule. So I am hoping to go with her to Rome this summer or fall. And we also have some family weddings that we will be attending, which I am looking forward to. Finally, my three sons, who are now grown, organize a family canoe trip every year. It’s really fun. They rent the canoes and all the gear, identify the route, prep all of the meals for six days and race each other across the portages carrying the gear. It’s pretty sweet.

A group of people
Paul with his family on one of their canoe trips.

What would you say are the biggest challenges universities are facing these days?

It has always been true, but it’s especially true right now: financial sustainability. We’ve essentially had a decade of no additional investments by governments. That’s been coupled with increased expectations of universities: mental health, truth and reconciliation, work-integrated learning, inclusive excellence and more. Nobody’s asking universities to do less. And for the last decade, international students have played a big part in closing this fiscal gap. But that’s changing. Their own countries are building higher education systems and there are new competitors for those students. So I don’t think international students are going to be the solution to financial sustainability for Canada’s universities. The other perennial issue is institutional autonomy. We’re seeing that play out in Canada right now. We’re also seeing provincial governments really getting into the kitchen of the university governance.

When former editor Léo Charbonneau interviewed you in January 2009, you said you’ve never had a career path in mind. “Each experience I have had has really helped inform the next step.” With that in mind, after 14 years with Universities Canada, what is the next step?

I still have that mindset. I don’t have a plan. I’m hoping to take six or 12 months to read books I want to read, do exercise, do a little bit of travel. I want to reflect on what I’ve been up to and then think about what might come next. What’s always motivated me are the questions like, Is there an idea? Is there a project? Is there something where I can make a difference to advance?

My advice to the next person in this role: Love every minute of it while they are in the role. And to know that they are in good hands with the organization. It’s not just a talking point when I say we’ve got excellent staff, we’ve got a strong and dynamic and diverse senior team. So it’s built to roll.

There’s still work I would like to see achieved, but that will be for my successor. One of the thought processes was, “If I haven’t done it in the first 14 years what are the odds that I’m going to get it done next year?” Time for somebody else to take the helm.

What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?

I really like country music, the more classic stuff. I also love listening to live music of all kinds. So the fact that Redbird in Ottawa has opened is really fabulous. It might not surprise people to learn that I am addicted to the CBC. During the pandemic, when I couldn’t travel, I really got into the CBC Listen app. I would listen to programs across the country to find out what was going on in communities from coast to coast.

Do you feel you got to accomplish everything you wanted to during your time at Universities Canada?

I think I achieved everything that I could. There’s still work I would like to see achieved, but that will be for my successor. One of the thought processes was, “If I haven’t done it in the first 14 years what are the odds that I’m going to get it done next year?” Time for somebody else to take the helm.

What issues do you think the higher education will face in the next five years?

It’s interesting that you ask that, because if you look at UA over the last 60 years, you will notice that there are perennial issues. I do think autonomy will be important. How we navigate this polarized culture will be important. I think as Canadians we like to think the stuff that is going on in the U.S. could never happen here, but the polarization is real, and there is a risk of universities being swept up in it. So we’ll see how that plays out in the U.S. Hopefully, we can think about strategies that protect Canadian universities from that sort of future.

Tara Siebarth
Tara is the Deputy Editor for University Affairs.
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  1. Neil Besner / June 6, 2023 at 10:35

    Paul, many thanks for your long and distinguished service to Universities Canada. Every best wish for whatever lies ahead for you!