ATHABASCA – Although it’s been a whirlwind for Athabasca University’s (AU) newly-minted president Dr. Alex Clark, he says he’s not only committed to growing the distance-delivery, post-secondary institution founded 50 years ago by the provincial government, but intent on forging new relationships with faculty, staff, students and the community.
The 49-year-old Dr. Clark, who’s served as AU’s Dean of Health Disciplines since 2021, was promoted to the president’s chair Feb. 1 following the abrupt dismissal of former president Dr. Peter Scott that same day. Dr. Scott was recruited from Australia and signed a five-year contract in January 2022 that included a base salary of $305,000, but he ran into headwinds from Advanced Education, the university’s board of governors and the community for his insistence on a “near-virtual strategy.”
While the three-year investment management agreement inked in November 2022 between AU and the province mandated a “new strategic plan that expands and reinforces the university’s physical presence in the Town of Athabasca” and demanded more full-time staffers and senior administrators work there, Dr. Scott stated in a December news release it would allow the institution to continue pursuit of its online strategy and that it removed “the threat” that employees would be forced to relocate to Athabasca.
During an engaging 20-minute exclusive interview Feb. 7, Dr. Clark, who previously interviewed for the president’s position and was shortlisted for the job, made it clear “the town has been really key” in the university’s 50-year history “and needs to stay key.” Before coming to AU, Dr. Clark was at the University of Alberta.
He reiterated that he’s “humbled” and “honoured” to be the 11th president in the school’s history and said he’s looking forward to writing “a new chapter in the growth of AU.” The day after Dr. Clark was hired, board governor chair Byron Nelson said in an interview they were “delighted” to get him and that he “has the strengths needed to fulfill this important leadership position at a critical time.”
“As I said in my announcement, I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. I think of it as a win-win where we can have a really strong local presence and local impact. And when you’re strong locally, you can also have a strong national and international impact,” said Dr. Clark, who still sports a light Scottish brogue after emigrating to Canada nearly two decades ago.
“Our presence is important and there’s lots of different ways and things that universities can do that other social institutions can’t and I think that’s where it starts to get really, really exciting in terms of where the possibilities will go.”
Dr. Clark, who’s married with two adult children, used the Calgary-based airline WestJet as an example of a company that’s “really well-known nationally and internationally but they also ground themselves in a place” when talking about the importance of having staff living in Athabasca.
“And they think about the values of that place and recognize that when they do well nationally and internationally, it benefits that place. And of course when they do well, there are more jobs and other economic spin-offs which are good not only for the institution, but also really good for the businesses and people in the community,” he said. “The reality is AU is really different in that it’s flexible and open in its educational ethos. I think it’s unique in Canada and fairly distinctive in the world in spanning that local to global.”
As part of his five-year contract, Dr. Clark confirmed that he will maintain a residence in the Athabasca area and looks forward to “more formal meetings” with local leaders, although he’s had a chance to chat with many on the phone. He also reiterated that he will “invest time” to develop relationships “not only on our doorstep, but sometimes on the other side of the world.”
“I’m Day 4 on the job and I’ve had conversations with some colleagues who reside in Athabasca and it’s been exciting talking to them about how I can get involved in the community. I get an overwhelming sense of opportunity and that’s got me excited, too,” he said.
“I’ve received overwhelming support from my colleagues. I think I’m known as a guy who shows up and focuses on relationships. I really try to listen and work together with people and work strategically and I think my colleagues know that and see the opportunities as well.”
From the age of three until he was 19, Dr. Clark grew up in rural Scotland in a “place called Newmilns, East Ayrshire which is about the same size as Athabasca.” He said in the 1980s when the mills closed it was incredibly hard on the area and “brings home to me in a personal way why AU has such a special place in the Town of Athabasca.”
He and his wife Fiona, who works at the TELUS World of Science, along with their-then 20-month-old son landed at the Edmonton International Airport on April 5, 2003, while their 19-year-old daughter was born here “and thinks that Canada is the best place in the world.”
“I think that’s given me a real appreciation for the importance of places outside metropolitan areas, the importance of local economies and the importance of it being a great place to grow up in, just like I did,” he said on his rural roots.
“This journey has been amazing for us as a family and we’re looking forward and are excited for the next chapter.”