From budgets to chainsaws:
Ten questions with Paul Davenport
By David Scott
With major changes on the horizon for Western's campus, a commitment to more graduate students and a new Strategic Plan to guide a multi-million dollar building boom, these are interesting and exciting times for the campus community. The Editor of Western's Alumni Gazette, David Scott, recently caught up with Paul Davenport to pose some questions about his unprecedented third term, including his thoughts on both the University and personal life.
DS: What has been the most challenging issue to deal with in your terms as President?
PD: The gap between our resources and the outstanding potential of our faculty, staff, and students. Spring is budget time at Western, and each year we have to make tough decisions on the creative requests for resources coming from faculties and support units, requests that are all well-supported and designed to improve education and research at the University. A great University must make good choices, and I believe we are doing so at Western. We called our 2001 Strategic Plan Making Choices in order to underline the need for clear priorities and bold decisions.
DS: You are currently co-chairing a Strategic Planning Task Force designed to set Western’s directions for the years ahead. What are the key issues?
PD: A key issue for the Task Force is building on our mission: “the best student experience among the research-intensive universities of Canada.” Among the large research universities of Canada, Western has ranked first in all four years of the University Report Card, a survey of student satisfaction published in the fall by the Globe & Mail. We also ranked first in the survey of university alumni conducted by Maclean’s in 2005. We are doing well, but we know we can do much better.
Our commitment to the student experience includes the outstanding work of our faculty in teaching, as well as activities outside the classroom: from amateur drama and music, to athletics and volunteer work, to the 150 clubs run by the University Students’ Council. The Task Force is working to find new ways to enhance that broad experience, such as combining learning with community service, and increasing student engagement in the classroom. We will also be focused in continuing the growth and excellence of our research and scholarship on campus, which contribute so much to the betterment of society and the learning of our students.
DS: Why do you think it’s important to have a presence amongst the staff and students?
PD: No one on campus wants an absentee president: faculty, staff, and students want to see me not only in formal meetings, but also at celebratory and sporting events, at drama and music productions, and buying my soup at noon at Lucy’s, the cafeteria nearest my office. And they are right: no one should take this job who does not love the university’s people and want to be among them as much as possible.
DS: Tell me about your jazz show on the campus radio station.
PD: From 1997 to 2004, I appeared on Barney Booth’s jazz show on CHRW about every six weeks. Barney was retired, a leader in the jazz community of London, and a delightful man with an encylopedic knowledge of the history of jazz. He was a wonderful example of the volunteers, both students and non-students, who make our clubs at Western such a vibrant source of a great student experience. We played the tunes of my favorite jazz performers from the 1950s and 1960s: (Charlie) Parker, (Thelonious) Monk, (John) Coltrane, (Miles) Davis, and others. We joked, told stories about the musicians, and did phone-in contests. I stopped this activity after Barney’s death in early 2005; it just wasn’t the same without him.
DS: What is your best memory as a student?
PD: As an undergraduate at Stanford University in 1967, I spent six months at the Stanford campus in Tours, France, in the Loire Valley. The experience opened my eyes to the importance of second language, to art and culture, and to the diversity of politics and people which Europe represents. It was the most enduring part of my Stanford education. I also met my wife Josette in Tours, and that certainly qualifies as a best memory. When we sit down to Christmas dinner with our three children and two grandchildren, I know that it all started in Tours.
DS: Can you describe the course you teach for Continuing Studies?
PD: The course is entitled, “In the Footsteps of the Impressionists.” I fell in love with Impressionist painting in the museums of Paris in 1967, and have maintained a keen interest ever since. Over six evenings, I take the class through the various districts of Paris and into the suburbs, discuss the paintings, music, and dance of the period 1850 to 1890, and show them my own slides of the Impressionist sites as they look today. We visit Courbet and Baudelaire on the Left Bank, Degas and Offenbach on the Grands Boulevards, Manet and Monet at the Saint Lazare Station, Renoir and Van Gogh in Montmartre. It is a popular course and I have a lot of fun teaching it.
DS: What do you do to manage stress?
PD: I bike: on a stationary bike in the basement during the winter, and outdoors during good weather. There is nothing like a little physical exhaustion to take your mind off woes at the office.
DS: What do you like least about your official duties?
DS: I understand you have a chainsaw. Tell me more.
PD: When I arrived at Gibbons Lodge (the president’s house at Western) in July of 1994, I bought a compass and walked east through some 30 acres of forest and swamp that is part of the University property. My impression was that no one had been back there in decades: I certainly would have become lost without the compass. During my first five years at Gibbons, I cut three kilometres of trails using a chainsaw and hand tools. Now about twice a month on weekends I can go out the back door, light a cigar, and walk “my” trails—they are lovely and peaceful, day and night.
DS: What would you tell your successor about Western?
PD: That she, or he, has the best job in Canada.