Q+A: Summerlee reflects on first semester

In August, Alastair Summerlee stepped into the role of Carleton’s interim president and vice-chancellor for the 2017-18 academic year.

From the get-go, Summerlee pledged to prioritize openness and transparency, and to bridge the gap between the university administration and the Carleton community.

In an interview with The Charlatan, Summerlee spoke about his progress in meeting these objectives, what’s in store for the remainder of his term, and why he refuses to wear shoes in the office.

The Charlatan (TC): How have your first few months gone?

Alastair Summerlee (AS): It’s amazing. I don’t know what it is. It’s something about the place, it’s about the people, it’s being back doing this, being busy . . . I landed in Toronto and I actually caught myself walking through the airport saying “I am happy,” and I can honestly say I’ve never, ever felt that . . . and it’s because of being here. It’s a fantastic place and I love it. It’s full of problems, all kinds of things, but it’s just wonderful.

TC: What have you learned about your role at Carleton, and about the Carleton community?

AS: It’s full of acronyms! I thought the place I came from had acronyms . . . “Do not be afraid of the tunnels” is the next thing. On a serious note, it is sort of this collaboration, and the interaction between people, and that is different from other places I’ve been, and there is a genuine interest in people, learning about, talking about, being engaged in, thinking about, debating, which is, for me, fantastic.

TC: Besides navigating the tunnels, what have been your biggest challenges so far?

AS: I think the biggest challenge is just to get to know the place, and the people, and how everything works . . . actually trying to understand process. Then the other is sort of trying to understand why we do things in a particular way: who on earth would have [a Senate meeting] on a Friday afternoon, for example? Was it to try and stifle debate because everybody’s dead by the end of the week? Everybody’s different, so it’s sort of learning those things that are different.

TC: When you began in this position you stated that you were committed to openness and transparency. You brought up making room for dialogue alongside the provost, and having an open door policy. What have you done to achieve these goals?

AS: I’ve certainly had a whole host of people just come and talk to me and see me . . . People are getting used to the fact that they can just email me and I will reply. [We] had the rumour mill where we did actually sit and were asked questions. [We] will have another one next semester. [We’ve] invited students to be much more engaged . . . Inviting students and faculty to the Board retreat, which was a big surprise for members of the Board, but I think they loved it—they actually loved being able to talk to real people and understand more about the place, and then interestingly, by talking about it and saying “that’s what we needed to do,” the Board has taken the first steps to having students on all Board committees, not just on the ones that don’t matter, and that was absolutely their choice.

TC: Is there anything that sticks out as being a big concern among students?

AS: Obviously concern around mental health, and concern around the Sexual Violence Policy, but they are big concerns for us too, and I actually feel at the end of the day that if we’re working together on those things, we’re going to be much more successful than trying to work in silence. [The] Sexual Violence Policy has a real history here . . . it got off on the wrong foot here as far as I can see, and people started to draw lines in the sand and have very firm opinions, and make assumptions about the views and behaviours of others, so that’s a case of sort of slow and steady and work through it.

On the other hand, frankly I’m appalled at the cases that are coming forward . . . I want to believe in the goodness of people, but I’m also 100 per cent intolerant of sexual violence . . . When people do those things, there should be really serious punishment, and just throwing people out of the university is not enough, in my view, but I cannot make that judgment, but I can at least exercise the limited power that I do have. It’s again something that we have to keep working at.

Hate speech: another one that I don’t think we do enough here about it. We remove issues whenever they come up, but I actually think they’re learning opportunities, and I think it’s the responsibility of the president when those things come up to be very, very public about “that doesn’t fit with this place, that doesn’t fit with the values,” and it certainly seems to be going on quite a lot at some of the other universities.     

TC: On a lighter note, what is your favourite thing about campus?

AS: It is the tunnels, actually. It is that I can go places and I don’t have to put a coat on, I don’t have to. It’s also the fact that people have got used to the idea that I don’t wear shoes and I don’t, I will put on my armour when I need to be like a real president . . . I have no idea what they say behind my back, but that’s irrelevant, they let me do these things.

TC: Yes, we heard that you like to take your shoes off at the office?

AS: Yep, I’ve never liked shoes . . . I grew up, when I was young, not wearing shoes at all because I was in and out of the water all the time.        

Photo by Meagan Casalino