Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Richard Florizone is on to new things for the new year.
The 11th president of Dalhousie University is taking his leave from Halifax and heading to the Quantum Valley Ideas Lab in Waterloo, Ontario. Dalhousie Gazette contributor Isabel Buckmaster chatted with Florizone over the December break to discuss his time at Dal and what he hopes the future holds for the school.
The Dalhousie Gazette: Having previously been a vice-president at the University of Saskatchewan and later working in Washington DC, moving to Halifax must have been a big change in scenery. What will you miss about Halifax?
Richard Florizone: It was both familiar and a big change. I think I commented even when I arrived that a lot of my education was in the northeast – having gone to school in Boston – that this felt very familiar to me. I have always felt that that the Maritimes and the prairies share some cultural connections. I don’t know if it’s because of their routines or people’s but I found that people are fairly down to earth and so I always found it to be to be quite similar, actually.
In terms of what I’ll miss, I mean, it’s the people in the place, right? With work like this, I know people laugh that I say repeatedly that “nobody does anything alone,” but it’s really true, you only achieve things – especially as president – through others, and so I’ll miss all those relationships inside and outside the university and hope to hang on to many of them. I’ll also miss the place; this province is really wonderful. I think Canada’s a gorgeous country, a great country and the Maritimes is an absolutely stellar spot. I, for example, I am an avid kiteboarder, so that’s a bit personal but I’m going to miss visiting the ocean, I’ve got some adjustments to do.
DG: What will you remember most about your time at Dalhousie?
RF: The image that’s really locked in my mind is about the students at convocation. I found so much at Dal, whether we were facing opportunities or challenges to always come back to the central mission of our institution, which is about education. It’s about new knowledge and it’s about serving communities and to me, the way that was crystallized is actually a convocation.
I made a point as president to shake hands with every student across the stage and those are really special moments when you get to celebrate that investment of so many years of efforts of the students of our students, often with their families and friends present and that’s really an image that’s frozen in my mind. To me, that sums up the promise and potential of higher education at Dalhousie.
DG: Over the past five years, Dalhousie has experienced many ups and downs; undergoing media scrutiny after moments like the Dal Dentistry scandal but also introducing important additions to the school like renovations to the Dalplex and securing high-level research grants like the 2016 Ocean Frontier Institute. How do you think Dalhousie has changed over the five years you’ve been president?
RF: Well, I’d say it’s changed and it hasn’t.
So first on how it hasn’t: I think one of the things I’m proud of is, I feel that that as a community – all of our faculty, staff, and students and board and Senate – I feel that we met our opportunities and challenges in the same way, that we went back to our fundamental mission and values. I talked a little bit already about the importance of education and research, and about our fundamental values – things like academic freedom, freedom of expression, respect, diversity, and inclusion – and that I feel like by being firm in our commitment to those underlying values and mission of the university, which, of course, are historic and somewhat timeless, we were able to achieve some great things, as I’ve often said.
I said it to the board: I hope people feel that we were able to both do good and do well. What I mean by that is, we did well by the university, by its conventional metrics, whether it’s enrollment or research, income, or fundraising, or capital construction, we reach various records.
We also did good at the same time, in that we started to live up a little bit more to our fundamental values and things like diversity, inclusion, and hopefully starting to make some steps to making the university a more welcoming place.
DG: What are you hoping for the future of Dal? What do you still hope will change?
RF: Well, I’m very optimistic. I think that [in] our world, we’d agree that the biggest opportunities and challenges that we face involve a lot of complex issues, whether they’re technical, economic, environmental, or social. You can name them off the off the front pages of the newspaper these days what the issues are. I think that knowledge and education and working together with others is more important than ever.
A lot of these complex problems don’t have easy solutions, they often involve issues that cross across institutions, across countries, across borders and so I think the potential of the university is as great as it’s ever been and likely better. I would hope that whatever directions we choose, that we build on the success that we’ve shown by committing some of those fundamental principles.
DG: What are you most proud of about your time here?
RF: It’s interesting when you ask that, I shine back to that moment on stage with students because again, I think if you do this kind of work, you do it because – at least how I found it energizing – is you’re trying to make others successful.
When I see our students graduate, when I see our faculty recognized with national or international awards – that’s really a source of pride. And then I guess beyond that, there are the kinds of metrics that we’ve talked about. I’m still a fairly practical person and so I go to some of those metrics that we’ve talked about in the past. And over the last few months, as we’ve been wrapping things up about the records in enrollment and researching them and human fundraising, some of the capital construction, those kinds of partnerships.
DG: Favourite memories?
RF: Other than our students graduating, it’s when we were able to break down those boundaries and get people working together in new ways and making things happen, whether that was a fitness center, or an ocean institute or new sexual violence policy.
DG: Do you have any regrets or things you wish you had handled differently?
RF: The experience for me has really confirmed the importance of going back to fundamental principles and values. Going back to the mission of the institution, going back to the fundamental values and institution and so as I look back, I see everything through that lens.
You know, I think we tried to do that each time and I think some of our greatest successes, both in responding to challenges and seizing opportunities was when we were most aligned with those with those mission values. So, I don’t see anything I’d do significantly differently. I’ve certainly learned along the way about the importance of coming back to those fundamental principles and how that can take us to a better place as an institution.
DG: What are some things you’ve learned from being president?
RF: The importance of relationships, I feel that each point in my career certainly as I’ve gone to higher and higher levels, I’m more and more humbled about how little you can do yourself, and how much you can do through the power of partnership.
I know I’ve talked about this over and over again, but it really is true: when you’re in an office like this, you have one voice, you have two ears, two hands – you know, there’s a limitation to how much you can achieve but when you can find common cause with others, especially powered by that by the mission of the institution, it’s quite incredible what you can achieve. So, it’s important to be able to identify those principles and values, it’s important to pay attention to relationships and build on them, it’s important, you know, important to be kind and important to communicate.
I know that all sounds very basic, and maybe it is but those are those are some of the lessons as I reflect back the last five-and-a-half years.
DG: The Lord Dalhousie panel was one of your major projects, but we won’t see the final product until after you’re gone. What do you hope the school will take away from the panel?
RF: I know that, for example, when we launched that project, there were some who supported it, and some who questioned it but I think for Kevin [Hewitt] and I, what we ultimately saw is that this was – if we’re committed to the university’s mission – this was the only way to tackle tough issues. And so it’s taken a little bit longer, and that’s OK, because it’s really important that it is a good history and sometimes historical inquiry takes more time.
I don’t have a firm view on the very specifics that come out of that report, I just simply believe that institutions build a stronger future for themselves when they reconcile to their past. So that doesn’t mean you can sweep the past under the rug, that means you can’t dismiss, that means you also can’t dwell on it; what you have to do is reconcile yourself to the facts and to build a powerful path for that that recognizes them.
When we look at these instances, you know, there are challenges associated with them and there can be anger, and we’ve got to allow for that but we also we also have to be encouraged by the positive opportunity they represent. So, to come right to your question, it’s simply my hope that we see positive growth for the institution that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘You know what, we’re reconciling to our past, with regards to Nova Scotia with regards to the African diaspora and we’re dealing with it in a more sincere and profound enough, effective way, because we’re informed by our history, we’re informed by the facts.’ And it’s as simple as that.
DG: What qualities do you hope Dal’s next president will have?
RF: I hope that leader is a listener first and foremost, and I’m sure they will be. I hope that they’re ambitious and bold in terms of seizing the promise of our mission dreaming big for the region pursuing big ideas.
We can sometimes have a tendency at Dalhousie or here in the Maritimes to say, “oh, well, you know, that’s, that’s too big for here. Those are things that people out west or in Ontario would dream of doing, we couldn’t do it here.”
I hope we’ve really shown in the last five years that we can do it here, that we can we can do things like a $220 million ocean frontier institute, or the supercluster, that we can do those things. But that requires being guided by our mission is requires thinking boldly and listening carefully and bringing people together in new ways.