The U of M has announced Michael Benarroch — Ryerson University provost and vice-president academic and previous dean of the I.H. Asper School of Business — as its 12th president and vice-chancellor.
Outgoing president David Barnard will finish his term in June. Benarroch, who moved to Winnipeg at the age of three and obtained his bachelor of arts at the University of Winnipeg, will take up the position on July 1, 2020.
Benarroch said he plans to focus on getting in touch with the community during his first few months on the job.
“I’m really thinking about the first three and six months, and developing a network of really listening to people, and really coming to an understanding of where the community wants to go, and where the province needs the university to go,” he said.
Benarroch said he believes his experience as Asper dean will serve him particularly well as president and vice-chancellor.
“As a dean of a business school, I had an opportunity to really connect with the broader community,” he said, “to connect with the government, to connect with the business community, to connect with non-profits, and I think those things have really helped me.
“I did a fair bit of fundraising in my last couple of years at the Asper school, and I think that will be a big part of what I’m doing in this position.”
Discussing the university’s ongoing goal of Indigenizing the campus, Benarroch noted that the U of M had made it a priority even during the presidential hiring process, and said he plans on working in partnership with newly-appointed vice-president Indigenous Catherine Cook to move forward.
“This is one of the reasons I want to come to the University of Manitoba, is because [of] their commitment to Indigenize the university,” he said.
Research plays a large role at the U of M, with the institution being the province’s foremost research institute, and Benarroch emphasized its importance to students and faculty, and society at large.
“I believe that research is a core fundamental of what all universities should do,” he said. “It’s a really important way that faculty are engaged and it’s a big part of their job, and I think students have a huge role to play in that.”
“If you look at the heart of a lot of inventions, of a lot of products, of a lot of social change, they found their seeds originally in universities,” he said.
A provincial and post-secondary “partnership”
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is expected to send mandate letters to provincially-funded universities “outlining expected students’ outcomes and financial accountability” in the next few weeks. Last month, the government transferred responsibility for post-secondary education from the education minister to the minister of economic development and training.
Asked how the provincial government’s vision of post-secondary institutions aligns with his own, Benarroch said he believes that universities are doing their part in economically and socially improving the province.
“If you look at what governments are doing, at the heart of it they’re asking universities to be part of the equation of preparing students to become successful when they leave the institution, and to help promote social and economic advancement in the province. I actually believe universities do that extremely well,” he said.
“I think in part we have to do a better job of educating the public that we’re doing that. And it doesn’t matter what degree you get at a university, I believe that students leave university better prepared to contribute to society.”
Benarroch said that the ideal relationship between a university and its province is a partnership.
“The province is the largest funder to the post-secondary institution, but I think it should be a partnership,” he said, “and that partnership should be one in which both parties speak to each other, both parties try to understand each other, and both parties come to a mutual understanding of how we should move forward.”
Benarroch said there is a need to keep the university flexible and to be cognizant that in today’s world many students will likely return to school for further education.
“The world is changing,” he said. “It used to be that you went to university, you went out and got a job and worked at that job for 25 years or 30 years, and maybe you moved once in your career, to another job. It’s different now.”
“We don’t know what there will be in five years, and so what we have to do at universities is be nimble enough to be able to adapt our programs to those changing markets.”
Speaking about how humanities and arts programs fit into the university’s mandate to improve the province’s economy, Benarroch stressed that such programs are essential for a labour market.
“I actually believe that the humanities programs are critical to educating students who will be successful,” he said.
“When we talk about innovation, we talk about creativity, and if you look at the programs in the humanities, they require a lot of critical thinking, they require a lot of creativity in the work that people are doing.”
“If you’re just training for a job, we will train fewer people ready for the job market, because the job market is changing all the time,” he added.
“What we need to do is give people general skills and knowledge to be able to adapt to changes in the market also, and I believe that that’s also a responsibility, and I think the humanities, the social sciences, and those fields, have gotten a bad rap around this.”
The U of M began the process of searching for Barnard’s successor in February. The presidential search committee included UMSU president Jakob Sanderson, UMGSA president Carl Neumann and a University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) member, but was closed to the larger university community.
At that time, UMFA voiced concerns over what it called a “closed, secretive” process. According to UMFA, the senate supported a motion to make the selection process open to the entire university community earlier this year, but the board of governors rejected the proposal.
UMFA president Janet Morrill talked about what the organization would have liked to have been different about the process.
“We would have really welcomed the opportunity to ask our own questions and to see who all the candidates are, and to be able to express our opinions, and hopefully have had our voices heard,” she said.
“We argued pretty strongly that we would like it to be an open search.”
Sanderson, who earlier this year voted in favour of a successful motion which partly opened the search process to the senate, said that after having experienced the process he has a better understanding of why it was closed.
“We were in support of the open search at the outset of this, but I do think that I am understanding of the reasons for it being more closed,” he said.
“In terms of the candidate pool that we were able to get, I think we got a lot of extremely strong candidates, and it would be difficult for me to say definitively if those would have come through as well in an open search process.”
After having sat on the selection committee, Sanderson said he was no longer strongly opposed to the closed search process.
“We need to continue to have consultation with the university and stakeholders in terms of what works best for the university, but I do think that this process led to a number of great candidates,” he said.
Morrill criticized the closed nature of the search.
“I think it’s clear that it shuts people out of the process,” she said. “It doesn’t allow the members of the university community to see who the shortlisted candidates are, to be sure that they understand the candidates, and to have their voices heard.”
“That being said,” she added, “we look forward to working with president Benarroch, I think that we are hopeful that he’ll be really good for the University of Manitoba community.”