When Dr. Jeff Keshen arrives to begin his term as eighth president of the University of Regina on July 1, he will hit the ground running.
Keshen will be taking the administrative reins of a university just three years away from its 50th anniversary and one year into a new strategic plan. This means celebrating strengths and making improvements, while the institution is preparing for its second year of educating during a global pandemic.
But Keshen is excited about the job.
“The University of Regina is young and young at heart,” says Keshen. “It’s open to experimentation. I think it’s a tremendously exciting place with an amazing future and I think that people want to see it shine.”
Keshen comes to Regina after three and a half years as vice-president of Memorial University in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Previously he served as dean, Faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He also served as chair of the Department of History at the University of Ottawa and was an adjunct professor in the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
A professor of history as well as an author and editor of several books and articles, Keshen’s research focuses on war and society, particularly on the home front. His earlier work focused on censorship and propaganda. Most recently, he’s turned his attention to families and wartime, studying the changing roles of women, impacts on children and ways the economy was transformed.
The changes COVID-19 has brought on Canadian society are not lost on Keshen. In fact, they remind him of what happened during wartime.
“Social crisis calls for the best from people under very stressful circumstances,” he says. “It also accelerates change. (Wartime) really did teleport change in so many areas that we knew had to happen. It transformed our society.”
In the environment created by COVID-19, Keshen sees the need for universities to be flexible and responsive to the needs of students on campus and off. Offering more intensive courses and a hybrid of online and in-person learning are experiments that will need to happen, he says.
“If we’re pre-conditioned to think in a certain way, I’m not sure that we’re going to get it completely right,” he adds.
However, in his opinion, the on-campus university experience will always have priority.
“University is not just about learning in the classroom. It’s also about the connections you make, about growing as an individual, about encountering people from so many different parts of the world. That’s absolutely essential.”
All Our Relations: kahkiyaw kiwâhkômâkaninawak, the University of Regina’s 2020-2025 strategic plan, was what sold Keshen on the University, along with the institution’s commitment to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and Indigenous ways of knowing. Keshen helped develop Memorial’s 2020-2025 strategic plan, which is similar in scope and vision and targets more retention of Indigenous students and Indigenous programming. Strengthening the university’s roots within the community is a key theme in both plans.
“The U of R strategic plan champions ideals, which I think are inspirational. It is comprehensive; it is accessible,” he says. “It is connected to and really wants to be involved in its community.”
Keshen believes the benefits of community connection go both ways. As budgets tighten across the post-secondary sector and government funding decreases, partnerships with other university stakeholders such as Indigenous communities, as well as not-for-profit, non-governmental and industry organizations, will become vital.
“Establishing partnerships to leverage the potential that you have within the University, to enrich it through connections to others, is going to be important,” he says.
In return, Keshen sees the University as a community hub providing opportunities for the local community to better itself, to exchange ideas and to learn from all that researchers have to offer.
“Universities have expertise in so many areas that affect the daily lives of people. We can show the tremendous good that we can do in people’s lives. I see the University and the community it serves as intrinsically linked.”
He believes working towards reconciliation is also about partnerships and reciprocity. Memorial University is on traditional Mi’kmaw territory and 20 per cent of the students are Indigenous. Keshen wants to see First Peoples as part of the fabric of the university community, something the U of R is committing to in its plan to provide educational opportunities to Indigenous communities across the province over the next five years.
“If any place has the responsibility… to lead in redressing and showing the way of improving for the benefit of us all, it is the university,” Keshen says.