Feature Story

Ideas to action

More than three years into his presidency, over half of that in a global pandemic, Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau reflects on lessons learned and University plans moving forward


Compiled by: Aloma Jardine

While it seems the whole world hit pause more than 18 months ago, at Mount Allison, President Jean-Paul Boudreau has continued to move forward his vision for the University.

In some ways, the pandemic has helped things along, illustrating our amazing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and highlighting the importance and value of innovative and flexible thinkers. These are some of the key capabilities he wants each Mount Allison student to develop, preparing them for whatever possibilities the future presents.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned through the pandemic?

A: I think the pandemic was really a game-changer for post-secondary institutions. Of course we all have plans in place to deal with emergencies and disruptions, but few of us had imagined anything on this scale or for this length of time.

We had to quickly accept that we were going to be dealing with many unknowns — and that is not a comfortable place to be. But so many ideas and innovative solutions arose from that place of uncertainty and discomfort.

The pandemic, in a way, gave us the freedom to fail — no one knew what the “right” solution was, so we were more open to trying different things to find out what worked best.

Q: How has this experience changed how you think about post-secondary education?

A: It solidified many of the things I was already thinking about innovation at the post-secondary level. Innovation is often defined as “introducing new ideas”, but in order to introduce new ideas you need to generate new ideas, and that doesn’t just happen.

You need to create the conditions for those ideas to percolate and emerge, to design a culture that helps make what has been termed “collisions of opportunity” happen.

Q: What does this innovation-driven culture look like at an academic institution?

A: An innovation-driven culture embraces exploration — in fact, makes exploration its goal. And then it supports that goal with not just words, but action.

If you want to empower your students and faculty to innovate, to generate and try those new ideas, then you need to provide them not only with resources, but the institutional support to question, take risks, fail, and try again, without penalty. You have to go into it knowing that some things are not going to work, and that is okay because it is the price of finding those things that do work.

Q: Why does this matter? How does it make a difference for students?

A: It’s interesting — when you look back over the past 50 years or so education in general has  focused more and more on specialization, on training students to do something specific when they graduated.

Today’s world needs the opposite: people who are able to adapt to constantly changing technology and work conditions, who can draw on multiple perspectives to address complex real-world questions.

I believe the 21st century belongs to the thinkers: agile, inquisitive, original, and counterintuitive collaborators with a diversity of knowledge. Those who will be tomorrow’s changemakers and entrepreneurs, the kind of people who can both ask, “What if?” and answer, “Here’s how.” 

Our alumni will recognize that these are the very types of people liberal arts institutions have appealed to all along — shaping creative, critical, and collaborative thinkers is what liberal arts is all about. So, we are already ahead of the curve in that sense, but there is more to be done.

Q: What is Mount Allison doing well and where do you see opportunities to build on that foundation?

A: One of the keys to helping students become multi-faceted communicators and innovators is experiential learning and Mount Allison already has that built into the culture.

Experiential learning is something we have been doing for a long time and we are able to do very well because of the size of the University and the many connections with the local community. Our focus is on creating more opportunities for experiential learning — both locally and globally — and finding better ways to credit students for it.

If we are going to help students become multi-dimensional thinkers, then we also need to make sure we continue to encourage the flow and integration of ideas across disciplines and programs, and have students, faculty, and thought leaders engage as partners in discovery.

We already have many inter- and multi-disciplinary programs at Mount A and more are being developed — we recently added degree major and minors in geocomputing, visual and material culture studies, biopsychology, data science, screen studies and popular culture, and community engaged learning, and a new Bachelor of Arts and Science in Foundations of Health was just approved.

These are really exciting additions and the kind of programs that will help prepare students to be those nimble, flexible problem-solvers and idea-makers today’s world needs.

Q: Is there anything you see as a particular challenge to supporting this innovation-driven model of education at Mount A?

A: One of the areas where I think we need to do some real work is space. I talked about innovation earlier and it being about introducing new ideas — but to what purpose? It’s not just ideas for ideas’ sake — there has to be a goal, to transition those ideas into solutions that build better communities, stronger societies, and more equitable economies.

We need spaces in which to encourage this transition: multi-media development labs, places to engage with virtual and augmented reality, and incubators for student-led cross-disciplinary start-ups, such as social enterprises and micro-businesses.

It’s one of the things we hope to do through our library revitalization project, the Hub for Innovation and Learning. This kind of space is available at most large, urban universities, but smaller, rural universities like Mount Allison are often at a disadvantage technology-wise.

Having the right spaces and technology to support innovation matters. If we could put these tools at the disposal of our faculty and students, I think we could just stand back and be amazed at what they would do with them.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of the last year for you?

A: Seeing all the new academic programming come online has been fantastic. I’m really proud of the work that is being done to put new programs together — it’s a deeply collaborative effort, and the quality of the program offerings is exceptional.

We also had two community-wide reviews in the past year that resulted in comprehensive reports that will have a positive and long-term impact on our campus as their recommendations are implemented.

The President’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion concluded its work in July, and presented recommendations on many aspects of student diversity, inclusiveness, equity, and accessibility, while the Canadian Centre for Legal Innovation in Sexual Assault Response, which we engaged to conduct an independent review of the University’s policies and procedures in response to disclosures and reports of sexual violence, presented a wide range of recommendations. This was important and valuable work and it has provided a path for us to follow to initiate meaningful change on our campus.

On a fun note, I love our new food “truck”, The Flame. As part of the pandemic response, we realized we needed a way to deliver hot meals to residences, but we also wanted something that could offer food services in a way that supported physical distancing. The result is a converted golf cart that has lent itself to all kinds of uses.

I have been able to take it out for a spin myself a couple of times, delivering hot chocolate and treats to students, faculty, and staff during exam time. It’s been a nice way to connect with members of our campus community during a time when face-to-face connections have been difficult. And it goes to show that innovation at Mount A isn’t only to be found in academics!