UM President Dr. David Barnard in conversation with former UMSU president, Tanjit Nagra
Tanjit Nagra, past president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, sat down with David Barnard as his 12-year term as president of the University of Manitoba draws to a close. Read President Barnard’s farewell message. Michael Benarroch, former dean of the Asper School of Business, will become the university’s 12th president July 1.
Tanjit Nagra: What brought you to the University of Manitoba 12 years ago? What inspired you to take on such a challenging role?
David Barnard: I actually thought that I was going to work outside universities at that point. A very persistent recruiter, whom I had known from previous work together, suggested to me: You should just come and meet the chair of the committee. And I said, “That’s fine. I’d love to talk about universities.” So we did that. And then: You should come for an interview. I said, “We’re not communicating. I’m looking to do something different.”
Eventually, she convinced me to come for an interview with the whole committee, then to come for a second interview. By the time it got to that, [my wife] Gursh and I decided, this is looking more and more interesting. If we actually get a call now, we should go.
It’s been great, actually. What made it attractive was the people we met. And that’s been true through the whole experience.
TN: Early in your role as president, you led the university community in apologizing for UM’s historic failure to challenge Residential Schools. Throughout your tenure, the university has continued to act on its commitment to reconciliation. What has that journey meant to you?
DB: It’s been a very important personal journey for me because I met people and made friends with people who had obviously suffered. And many of those people were very articulate about what their past experience had been. And so, because of our relationship, I found it easy—not easy to ingest it for myself—but easy to hear them say what it had meant for them and to treat it seriously.
And to then hear it again and again and again from so many different people, it just seemed to me that it was appropriate for this university, with its long-standing commitment to Indigenous education, to take a leadership position, and others supported the idea. It was a difficult experience to make the statement of apology. But it was a very rewarding kind of experience.
TN: And I think a lot of the community appreciated the apology. And I think the work continues to build and we see it on campus.
DB: Just in the last few months, we created the position of Vice-President Indigenous. We were the first university in the country to have done that. And that move was welcomed by our community as well. So, I’m really pleased with how the University of Manitoba community has responded to that reality.
TN: And on the subject of growth, not only with our Indigenous community but across campus over the last 12 years, we’ve seen transformational growth and you oversaw it yourself, including the consolidation of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, the expansion of the Centre for Global Public Health, and the founding of the James W. Burns Leadership Institute. I know there are so many highlights, but when you consider this meaningful progress, what stands out to you?
DB: Process matters, but what happened in almost all of those cases was there was a specific champion or small group of champions for those changes. So, in medicine and the related health faculties, the dean was a strong leader. In other parts of the University of Manitoba community, there were other people who were willing to step up and carry the burden of it. So again, while we had a central commitment to it, we needed to find people who would carry it and we did.
TN: It’s very important to ensure you have buy-in from your leaders across the board. You mention working with deans and working with other leaders, that it’s incredibly important. If you want to have transformational change, you really need everyone on board.
If we think about the sustainability strategy that was implemented, a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and exploring net-zero approaches and what not, I think this is increasingly important as we face climate change globally.
I’m wondering as UM advances and moves forward on this strategy, especially considering the Southwood land development and revamping and repurposing our buildings and spaces, are there additional actions you think the university should take and why is this strategy tackling climate change so important?
DB: Again, it seems to be an issue where the logic is compelling. We as humans have done things to the planet, that if they’re reversible at all, they’re only reversible over long time periods. And we can’t keep abusing our natural resources.
I think, for the university, it’s a statement of principle on the one hand, but it’s a very pragmatic statement on the other. Again, what was required, was a group of people who would buy into it, and for every one of these major initiatives there have been advocates on campus who have been willing to carry it forward.
And as we discussed it, within the leadership team within the executive, and the larger group of deans and directors, it was relatively easy to bring some of these things forward because there were vocal, energized champions on the campus. It didn’t mean that we didn’t have to make some changes that were difficult, or that we didn’t bump our elbows on each other from time to time, but the enthusiasm and the willingness for people to lead was really impressive.
TN: There were also some challenging times during your tenure. Specifically, I remember when I was UMSU president, there was a faculty strike. What experience and lessons came out of that time, that historic moment in your 12 years?
DB: I think experiences like that are always stressful for everyone involved. I’ve watched it when other people that I know and members of my family have gone through similar kinds of experience in other organizations. One of the things that is particularly difficult I think inside the university is that our normal processes are largely very collegial processes.
So when you were president of the students’ union and I was president of the university, we spent time talking to each other, and members of our teams would talk to each other, and we’d work things out. And you would teach us what we needed to know. And we’d do what you wanted us to do.
But one of the things about labour issues is that it goes from a model of reaching like this to a model, that at least for a while, feels like this. [Gestures to show a growing distance.] And that’s very disruptive to the kind of pattern that we usually have on university campuses, so it takes a while to recover from that. I think that’s one of the big differences.
TN: And to the faculty out there, is there a message you want to share with them with respect to that?
DB: I think both of those mechanisms—both the collegial mechanisms, and the collective bargaining mechanisms—are legitimate and good. They don’t always mesh well together. And so we practice one for a lot of the time, and we practice the other in moments of stress and that is stressful for the entire community. So the ideal is to be able to find ways forward without that. It’s not always possible.
TN: I know you are a type of leader that took time to actually connect personally with researchers and staff. I’m wondering what [these] conversations and relationships have meant to you?
DB: They’ve been amazingly inspirational. Really. It’s easy in the President’s Office to get caught up in the business of the university and the transactions that need to be made. But one of the things that is just so encouraging and refreshing is to talk to faculty members. I have very vivid recollection of an occasion early in my time here where a faculty member was giving a talk. I really wanted to hear what he was going to say but wasn’t able to make it so I asked him if I could have breakfast with him. And we had breakfast together.
And he explained what he had talked about. I didn’t really understand all of the science in it, because it’s not my field, but I understood the motivation for it. And I said to him, “You know, I’m really impressed with what you and your colleagues are doing.” This is a person who worked in health sciences.
And he said, “Well, I appreciate that, David, but I haven’t saved a life yet.”
I thought, I have to get back to my office and make the conditions better for these people. That’s what people are trying to do. I need to help them.
So, I’ve just been motivated by stories like that, by incidents like that. Not all are matters of life and death, but people who are so committed to doing good things for the institution, but also for the larger community. It’s hard not to be motivated by just bumping up against them.
TN: When I was UMSU President, we had the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with you directly and saw an unscripted side that many students did not get to see.
I sometimes heard from students that they wished they could have those types of conversations with you, especially regarding UM’s response to sexual violence on campus.
Ultimately though, I believe that you genuinely care and you expressed that in your conversations and your leadership. And you did your best to listen to students and take action, even if it wasn’t as quickly as students might have wanted.
What did you learn from students over the years, and do you have a final message for them?
DB: I think I learned a lot from students. I learned repeatedly that sometimes my concern for balancing various things in the university sometimes needed to be set aside a little bit to deal with something that was particularly striking at the moment. And I think a couple of conversations you just made reference to were examples of that.
I think that’s a continual challenge. We would like to be perfect, and we’d like our working environment to be perfect, but we’re not, and it’s not. So we have to find ways to keep pulling back towards the values that we all share. And when we’re off base a little bit, the ways in which we feel the stress can be different. Sometimes you and I might both agree that we’ve got a problem, but we come at it from slightly different ways. We need to work that out and keep working it out.
For me, part of the issue of being president is to keep reminding myself and listening to others when they want to remind me that the other voices are legitimate voices. You’ve got to listen to them. You’ve got to pay attention to them. You got to find a way to work with them.
TN: Looking at the tragic deaths in the U.S. and Canada…We look at the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—I could sit here and list many names. It has renewed important conversations about racism and police brutality that we’ve seen in North America. And although we’ve come a long way, racism is still a reality for many individuals who are black, Indigenous and people of colour.
And we’ve seen examples of racism on our own campus. Earlier this month, I know you released a statement acknowledging white privilege and calling on the community to listen and do better. I’m wondering why was it important for you make that statement to the BIPOC community?
DB: I think it was important to make that statement to the entire community. I’m sure it was particularly meaningful to those who were, in a sense, under assault, whether it was physical or whether it was emotional. But I think it was an important thing for the entire community to remind ourselves [that we] don’t share those values for people to push each other apart like that, to damage each other in that way.
We actually have a different set of values on this campus. And that’s to recognize the innate humanity in each of us and to come together as a result of that. And that’s why I think it seemed important to make this statement.
TN: I’d like to hear more about where you’d like to see the university grow and what next steps they should take, now or in the future. I know that we’re been having conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion. In research as well, we see it everywhere.
DB: I’m not sure what the specific action should be for faculty or staff or even for students. What I would like to see is the general principles that you and I’ve talked about on other occasions, things that we agreed on, that the university remains committed to trying to work those out in new circumstances, whatever those new circumstances are.
Sometimes that might be political activity in a country that neighbours us, that spills over, and we become aware in a fresh way that we need to restate who we think we are. In the years that I’ve been here as president, sometimes incidents have occurred on campus, where we say, “Okay. That’s not who we want to be.” And we need to make another statement about who we want to be and keep striving to be that community.
I’m uncomfortable to predict what should happen next. I think it’ll be an appropriate response to the circumstances, as you tried when you were leading, and I tried when I was leading. Those that come after us will look for the right things to do in the circumstances I think.
TN: Absolutely, and I agree with you. Sometimes things happen around the world and it’s just important to restate the university’s stance and our own values. And I know that’s happened quite a few times over the last 12 years. You have stepped up to the plate and spoken up with the communities that were impacted. And we’ve seen several cases of that, so thank you for doing that.
On a lighter note, and thinking about the world, we have alumni all over the place; from 140 countries from Hong Kong to India, across Canada. You had so many amazing conversations and saw the impact of our alumni around the world. Can you share with us one of your favourite alumni stories?
DB: I think one of my favourite alumni experiences was going to Hong Kong and seeing the enthusiasm [of alumni] – some of whom hadn’t been to the university for decades. There was a group of us that went, and these folks just wanted to connect back because the University of Manitoba experience had been so meaningful to them. And they continue to have contact with us. In fact, I had a conversation with one of them just within the last 24 hours by telephone. I’ve been phoning some people and thanking them for the relationships as this time comes to an end, and some of these folks have maintained enthusiastic relationships, enthusiastic support for the University of Manitoba over decades.
And there’s a group of people in Hong Kong that get together regularly and remind themselves of their U of M experience. And that’s just typical. There are others as well. But you asked for one example. That’s a good example.
TN: UM Front and Centre was the largest philanthropic campaign in Manitoba’s history. One in five alumni participated. Students participated. Faculty were engaged. It was undeniably a massive success with tremendous impact. What do you think drove that success?
DB: I think two things. First, what we’ve just been talking about recently, the enthusiasm that people have for the university. So students—you and your colleagues as student leaders did an excellent job of mobilizing current students. But students, graduates, community members more broadly—people understand the contributions the University of Manitoba makes. They understand that those contributions are valuable, and they’re willing to step up and improve the circumstances for researchers and students and the general community. When we look at the resources that have been ploughed into the university as a result of it, so that’s one aspect.
I think a second aspect of the response is because of the team that we built internally. We had an amazing team of people with some community members, some existing staff members and some people who came to work specifically on this. On this project, Vice- President John Kearsey was leading that team with Paul Soubry representing the broader community. There was just an enthusiastic leadership of the thing and the enthusiasm was catching.
TN: Unfortunately, the big celebration at the end to celebrate the big accomplishment of reaching the goal, $600-million dollars was disrupted because of the pandemic. I wonder, did you imagine that your term, after 12 years, would end during such a period of disruption?
DB: No. I don’t think anybody imagined this. This is not something we’ve had before, so not imagined at all.
TN: Well the entire community is going online and adjusting to the new normal. It’s definitely been a challenging time. I’m sure you would have liked to have finished your [tenure] differently, but the community has appreciated your leadership during this time.
What has surprised you the most as you’ve watched the university respond to this crisis?
DB: I wouldn’t say that it’s surprising, but what to me is the dominant part of the university’s response is the large number of people who have just taken this on. It would be easy to say, “I was not hired to deal with this kind of stuff. I need more people to help me. I need this. I need that.” We have an amazing number of people who just stepped up and said, “I need to make this work,” and by and large, have made it work. Universities all across the world really are coping with the same kinds of issues. So we have lots of conversations with our counterparts in Canadian universities and sometimes more broadly.
I think this is a very widespread phenomenon. People just said, “Okay, circumstances have changed. We have to change what we’re doing.” And I’ve just been very impressed. There are many things we could have had arguments about and quibbled about. And in general, people have just moved very, very quickly and effectively to get a lot of things done that needed to be done for the good of the students and for the good of the research enterprise as well.
TN: What advice do you have for the new president?
DB: As I reflect back on just this little while that you and I have been talking, so many of the things that I’ve said to you in answer to your questions, “How did this work? Why was that a good thing?” etcetera, they’ve all been about the people who are here at the university, or at least a lot of what I’ve said has been reflecting on how people in the community have stepped up to different challenges—whether it’s racism or whether it’s a pandemic, or just business as usual.
The one thing that I would say is, this is a community of people who want this to work, who want this community to work in the way that it does. Provide educational opportunities. Do research. Have an impact in our broader community.
There’s a lot of enthusiasm here to carry out the mission of the university and you should be able to, as a new president, find lots of people who will be eager to pick up the ideas that you bring into the conversation.
TN: What’s next for you, David?
DB: I’m not sure what’s next. Gursh and I decided that we could talk about what’s coming next, or we could wait ‘til the end and then talk about it. And that’s what we’ve decided to do. It’s busy. I find I am quite occupied as we get towards the end. With just a week to go now, it’s looking very, very close. So honestly, I’m not being facetious. We have just agreed we can wait a few days. We decided a while ago we could wait a couple of months and then we’ll soon have to pay attention to it. But not today.
So I think possibilities may include finding some other tasks to do. I’ve said to Gursh that I have many friends who are really interesting and intelligent people and they’ve recommended good books to read and I’ve bought a lot of those books but haven’t read them all. And I’d be willing to take that task on. She thinks that’s not going to be fulfilling for very long, but I’m willing to give it a run if there’s nothing else that comes up for a while.
TN: David. Thank you so, so much for being here today and thank you for your leadership over the last 12 years. I appreciated it. The community appreciated it. We wish you the best of luck with your next steps.
DB: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. David Barnard thanks the UM community