Innovation in and outside the classroom
Dr. Jeff Hennessy became Mount Allison’s provost and vice-president, academic and research a few months into a pandemic, charged with plotting a significant change of course for the University in a time of broader global change.
He has proven to be up to the challenge, conducting an orchestra of stakeholders who combined their talents to create the University’s new ‘Strategic Academic Plan, Liberal Arts for the 21st Century, 2022-2025’.
Part affirmation of what Mount Allison is already doing well and part aspiration for what the University can become, it is a bigger part perspiration — testament to the hard work of the hundreds of faculty, students, staff, and alumni who created it and are putting it into action.
Hennessy sat down with The Record recently to talk about the creation of this historic document and where Mount Allison goes from here.
Q: What do you think alumni would be struck by if they visited Mount Allison today after 20 or 30 years away?
A: The major change is the reality students face now. Their expectations have changed about what university should be offering them. Their financial realities have changed as well — not only that university has become a lot more expensive, but also their employment prospects, their financial stability, their ability to own a home, those things are more difficult now. Students are more stressed.
Q: How is that translating to teaching?
A: We have to balance between what we know to still be true — that a well-rounded liberal arts education will provide opportunities that will lead to a more meaningful life and more long-term success, however students define that. But we also have to provide them with programs they can see the value in and that more directly relate to the things they care about and the work they want to do.
We’re still a university interested in deep inquiry and developing scholarly competence, communication skills, critical thinking. But now we are balancing that by working to create more experiential learning — whether it is internships, field experiences, or community case opportunities.
We’re trying to take a more learner-centred approach to education rather than passive instruction, where you listen to lectures only and memorize the content and take tests. We’re moving toward much more active classrooms with a lot more engagement. It can be challenging for students and faculty but ultimately it can make learning more meaningful.
Q: What about the content of courses and re-thinking the canons of the various disciplines?
A: We’re sort of shifting it beyond a classical education and trying to diversify the things students might be exposed to — from different perspectives on the world to the books they might read to people they might engage with.
Q: From chemistry to music to administration and leadership, you seem like a living example of how a diverse education has value. What do you think of your own path?
A: I had two things that were interesting in my life — music and science — and I thought I had to choose. I wanted at the time to be a medical doctor and chemistry was what I was best in, so I went to Trent University, which at the time was a lot like Mount Allison. I had a great time there, but at the end of my chemistry degree I realized I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. I missed the other side of me, which was music. So, I went to Mount A for a year before transferring to Acadia because my fiancée was there.
All three institutions were smaller and allowed for more engagement outside the classroom, more chances for me to develop as a person and a leader. It worked out fine for me, but it was really a great example of what not to do, which is to completely silo yourself into one discipline. If you’re interested in a couple different things, find a way to join those together. One of the things Mount Allison is really focused on today is ways to offer far more interdisciplinary opportunities for students.
Q: Has Mount Allison’s small size helped you more deftly tackle the big changes of the ‘Strategic Academic Plan’?
A: I think so. First, there a lot of things we would like to pilot. It’s easier to do that if you’re a smaller institution. It was easier to engage a lot of different people, especially among the faculty. We ended up having a significant cross-section of the University involved. This plan was mostly built by the faculty with input from students and other staff. I sort of more directed it, I didn’t write it all.
Q: As COVID-19 has affected every aspect of people’s lives, is it correct to assume the ‘Strategic Academic Plan’ has been informed by the pandemic?
A: That’s right. You know, it’s funny. COVID in some ways stalled the planning. It interrupted some things and made some things difficult to juggle. But in another way, it has definitely informed some of the things we have done. There were things we were forced to do by the pandemic that are actually pretty good. We will want to keep those things and build on them.
And as much as meeting virtually was a pain, it actually benefitted this process. We did a lot of this in the summer. People could give me an hour because they could be at home. They didn’t have to arrange childcare and drive into campus for an hour. It allowed for much more fulsome participation than maybe would have happened in the past.
Q: Are the plan’s aggressive deadlines for implementing 65 concrete recommendations over the course of the next few years on track? Or is Omicron going to prove onerous?
A: There are some things in the plan that were already in progress. Part of that was putting good things we have already started doing into the context of other things we want to do that are more aspirational. Codifying the different types of experiential learning we offer is, for instance, almost done.
Q: What’s one of the shorter-term deadlines you are keen to meet?
A: We have a first-year foundations course we would like to start in the fall and if we are going to do that we have to get started on it really quickly. (Laughing) I have a selfish motive too. I have a son who is starting at Mount Allison in the fall and I would really like him to take advantage of that course.
But I am also telling people who are exhausted with everything that is going on in our world right now, we have to be ready to have certain deadlines be flexible. We still hope to meet our goals, but we know we may also have to roll with some punches.
Q: Beyond the period 2022-25, one of the recommendations of the ‘Strategic Academic Plan’ is to start looking ahead to Mount Allison’s bicentennial in 2039. What inspired that?
A: Universities can plan short term, which makes sense. It’s hard to plan 10 years or more out and then you know, you get hit with a pandemic.
But it is also difficult to do major wholesale changes in a short time.
The idea with looking farther out is to ask, “If we were going to start Mount Allison from scratch, dream up the perfect university, what would that look like? Would we fundamentally change things or is that not a good idea?”
The year 2039 is far enough out that most of us here now won’t be here then and have to change the way they’ve been doing things. But the ones who are going to be here, they have a chance to be involved on the ground floor.
It could be just a tweak, or it could be a fundamentally different way of doing things. I think that’s an exciting way of thinking about the future.
In the past three years, Mount Allison has announced over 20 new or revamped academic programs, building on this momentum and bringing the total number of offerings to more than 50. Alumni can find the full Strategic Academic Plan online.