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Raising expectations: an interview with Wade MacLauchlan

The new Prince Edward Island premier – and past president of UPEI – talks about leaving a legacy.


Wade MacLauchlan’s roots in Prince Edward Island run deep. He was born and raised on the island’s north shore and completed his undergraduate training at the University of Prince Edward Island, the institution he went on to lead from 1999 to 2011. Before that, he was dean of law at the University of New Brunswick and a law professor at Dalhousie University.

So, perhaps it was not a huge surprise when the longtime academic made the jump into provincial politics, running unopposed as leader of the provincial Liberal Party. He was acclaimed party leader and sworn in as the province’s 32nd premier in late February, taking over from Robert Ghiz.

The new Prince Edward Island premier – and past president of UPEI – Wade MacLauchlan talks about leaving a legacy.
Wade MacLauchlan says it is never too early for a university president to start thinking about his or her legacy.

During Professor MacLauchlan’s tenure as its president, UPEI went through a period of rapid growth: enrolment doubled and research funding increased fivefold. But, it is his belief that regardless of economic and fiscal conditions, every university leader has a chance to leave their mark on the institution they lead.

In January, he discussed his own experiences with legacy building at a professional workshop for university presidents organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Here, he shares his comments and advice for new leaders and muses about what inspired him to run for office. Mr. MacLauchlan, 60, spoke to University Affairs from his home in West Covehead, just days before he was sworn in as premier and after a huge snowstorm had swept through the region, leaving behind a record-smashing snowfall.

University Affairs: Have you dug out yet?

Mr. MacLauchlan: Yesterday I went for a full day of meetings and I had to do the first two kilometers on snowshoes. But the road is now open.

UA: You made a presentation at an AUCC workshop where you discussed how presidents can build a legacy, and I’m hoping you can summarize some of the comments and advice you gave that day. But before that, what do you think are some of the highlights of your own legacy as president of UPEI?

Mr. MacLauchlan: I think the overall piece is raised expectations. It’s not [from] me alone, of course. It comes through a collective effort and you have to get your timing right. By raised expectations I mean for students, professors and the community to see a greater role for the university, to see a greater opportunity to achieve and, ultimately, to be able to measure how others see you. You don’t want to try to get to heaven on Maclean’s ratings, but we did go from 18th to fifth in the primarily undergraduate group during those years.

UA: How else did the university change?

Mr. MacLauchlan: We became a research-focused university, with our external funding increasing more than 500 percent. In 2010, when the first round of Canada Excellence Research Chairs were awarded, there was a chair for UPEI, which was far and away the smallest institution to be awarded a chair. It showed that we were focused and that we were able to work together as a team.

UA: When is a good time for a university president to begin thinking about his or her legacy?

Mr. MacLauchlan: I don’t think you can begin too soon. People advise politicians or political leaders who are about to take office to have a very short list of things they believe they can really focus on or achieve and that they want to be known for. I’d say for a university president it’s almost inherent to begin thinking about that when you first consider whether you will be a candidate to be the president of a particular institution, whether the fit is right, what the institution needs and can achieve, and what you can add by way of leadership.

UA: What are some of the factors that [an incoming president] needs to take in consideration?

Mr. MacLauchlan: You have to know a lot about the history of an institution and I think, once you do become the leader, institutional heritage becomes one of the tools you get to exercise.

UA: What are some of the lessons you learned in going about building a legacy at UPEI? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Mr. MacLauchlan: I’m tempted to say, start earlier. The other thing is to be ready for surprises. You always have to be ready to respond to unforeseen opportunities or developments.

I became president in 1999. That was really in some ways the bottom of the trough for the cutbacks that had taken place through the ’90s at the provincial and federal level. The trend lines didn’t look very pretty. Almost immediately we swung out of the trough federally and provincially and, in our case, regionally. It also brought with it a tremendous upturn in enrolment and student interest. Some of that was demographic but some of it was cultural and economic.

UA: University leaders today face quite a different climate, especially in Atlantic Canada. The institutions face a lot of pressures but I think one of the most pressing is demographics and declining enrolment. What needs to be done at the provincial level and the university level to reverse this trend or to help them weather the storm?

Mr. MacLauchlan: I think overall it is to see the demographic trends, not as a menace that’s coming at you but as a challenge that the region and Canada as a whole should face strategically – to see our whole postsecondary sector as a critical lever or instrument to change the demographics. There is no more obvious or more valuable instrument in our region where we have fine institutions that have been built up over time and that have reputations that go well beyond our region. It’s to be very collaborative and strategic in how we not just look after our own revenue lines but prepare and act together to have the workforce and the population and the cultural enthusiasm and the well-geared economy to change the trend lines. Currently, they’re not just demographic. They are essentially economic. If we just try to keep step with them we’re going down.

UA: Are you talking about attracting students from outside the region and internationally?

Mr. MacLauchlan: The one area where there’s been the greatest success, it’s true at UPEI and at other institutions in the region, has been in attracting international students. There’s a lot more to be done in retaining them as citizens.

At the national level we’ve got parts of the country, where if anything there is excess demand [for postsecondary education]. So why would Canada be building whole new universities when we’ve got excess capacity in some other part of the country? It’s a lot more efficient to move the students than repeat the institution building.

The third [aspect], and the one I’m thinking about going into office as premier, is what the postsecondary sector can do together with other initiatives to retain and attract some of our mobile talent. If you look over time or over the history of this region, the most consistent factor has been out-migration of people with superior credentials. Universities can work with their governments to really change that. And you have to change the economy at the same time. But probably the biggest thing you have to change is attitudes.

UA: I know of a couple of university presidents who used to be politicians. But you’re doing it the other way around. What skills that you developed as a university president have you found most helpful in making the transition into politics?

Mr. MacLauchlan: The diversity of constituencies that one deals with within a university, the necessary element of delegation and team building and relationship management that you can’t help but learn about if you are going to be a university president. And I think, more and more, the challenge to keep the revenue line above the expenditure line.

UA: What made you decide to make the leap into provincial politics?

Mr. MacLauchlan: One of the things that led me down that path [was] I spent several years after leaving UPEI researching and writing a book on Prince Edward Island’s longest serving and most people would say most successful premier, Alex B. Campbell. Another big part of it is that my background is law and my work has been in administrative law and public administration and institutions. Probably the single biggest piece of this is my sense of loyalty and patriotism to Canada and Prince Edward Island. I think if one doesn’t have a strong, almost a fire in your belly, politics wouldn’t really be the best game.

UA: What did you learn about leadership from researching and writing the book on Alex Campbell?

Mr. MacLauchlan: This is someone who was uncommonly successful both politically and in government. He was never defeated at the polls and made transformational change. The number one thing that sustained him, I would say, is probably something that doesn’t come up on the list most often these days. He was a listener and not only a listener, but one who really made it his business to be openly in contact with the people and to care about what he was hearing. That skill or natural ability turned into some really brave public policy that they were able to bring forward and stick to.

UA: I have one last question. When will the election be called? I’m kidding.

Mr. MacLauchlan: I’ll give you the same answer I’ve given others. In 1978, which would have been [Campbell’s] fourth general election, in the early winter of that year there was a lot of speculation about would it be the spring or the fall. Campbell, when asked, said he thought there was a pretty good chance the election would be carried out on dry ground. I’ll drop that broad hint.

Rosanna Tamburri
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