Parting Words from Dr. Ralph Nilson

Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU President Emeritus

Dr. Ralph Nilson retired as President and Vice-Chancellor of Vancouver Island University in June 2019.

September 18, 2019 - 2:15pm

As President and Vice-Chancellor of Vancouver Island University for the last 12 and a half years, Dr. Ralph Nilson has led the institution through some of its largest transitions. Under his tenure, VIU’s largest capital projects to date were completed, the institution was granted full university status, many new programs were added and VIU’s reputation for providing excellence in education grew exponentially. 

A dedicated educator who kept the experience and success of students at the centre of all his decisions, VIU’s very first President Emeritus has shaken more than 17,000 hands at convocation over the years and is “proud of every single one of those students.” Now retired, he was happy to share some memories and insights into his time here with VIU Magazine


How have you changed over the last 12 and a half years?

I think there is a lot that is awfully similar. I grew up in a family, and raised a family with Suzie, where values were very important to us, and those have provided a rock on which to go forward. I would say I have certainly gotten wiser – the people I have worked with in various capacities have taught me a lot of things. I have a deep appreciation for what I have learned here – the community I have had the privilege to lead. I’ve learned that within these leadership roles, there comes a huge responsibility to community, both the internal community and surrounding region, and you can either live up to that responsibility or not. This community has allowed me to live it.


What are some of those responsibilities?

There are many, and most of them have to do with the values we have at VIU, and how we live those values every day. A key value is respect and in particular respect for everyone’s right to access education. This is the belief that access to education should not be limited to those who can afford it.

Another responsibility is what happens once students are here. We do our best to ensure no one is left out, and once you are here, you can be confident that we do not compromise on quality. This is supported by how hard our employees work together on creating an exceptional learning environment. The engaged learning environment is what defines VIU.

Another is celebration of diversity and different ways of knowing, ensuring that we learn and open up space at the institution for difference.

As a leader, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to the employees of VIU. Everything is integrated, so to build an environment in which our students can thrive, we must also build an environment our employees can thrive in. It is my sincere hope that people feel held up and supported as employees at VIU. We’ve always done the best we can to support and foster confidence in each other.


What are some things people might not know about the job of president?

It’s an all-encompassing job of stewardship. So much of it goes on outside the institution. Providing leadership here draws you to so many different places – like going to Victoria or Ottawa to raise awareness about issues and initiatives with the provincial and federal governments. We have a large and active community of donors and sponsors we meet with, and organizations and industries we work with on a regular basis. I take the story of VIU internationally and meet with ambassadors and consuls general and institutional partners around the world. So much of what we can deliver to our students is based on the strength of our reputation. 

The biggest and best part of this job is about developing relationships with people and truly listening to them so you understand the issues and get ideas. Post-secondary education is filled with bright, capable people with fantastic ideas and you can’t hear them if you don’t listen. We must listen to be able to put our plans together and people are really starting to understand the importance of their voice in how we shape VIU. 


What were some of the most successful initiatives you worked on? 

The transition to a university is a major one. We are still transitioning, and it is really very exciting. I’m very proud of the work we have done to increase access for students to VIU. We have the responsibility to open the door to education to all people. We know education is a key determinant of social change and sustainable prosperity for individuals and communities. As a values-based institution we work hard to feed the forces of inclusion and starve the forces of exclusion. There is a continuously growing disparity between those who have choices and those who don’t. We can’t let that disparity grow any larger. 


Are you really retiring? 

I am retiring, but I will be around and I will still be doing a lot of things. I have strong relationships in the federal and provincial governments and I want to help bring those resources to bear on areas where they can make meaningful improvements to student access. I will be spending time with Suzie, our family and the grandchildren in Regina and Ottawa. I want to get out on the water fishing, or hiking some of our coastal trails. 


In this era of uncertainty, what advice can you offer to people who are just starting out or building their careers?

First of all, I’d call it an era of opportunity. An incredible talent pool is developing at VIU and post-secondary institutions around the world. This talent pool will develop social and business innovations we can’t even dream of yet. They will create jobs and amazing opportunities for other people. People say we can’t imagine what the future will bring. We have never known what the future will bring. Never underestimate the human ability to amaze and innovate. Young people are emerging as new leaders with motivation and passion. They are engaged in their communities, they are thinking carefully about the world they want and showing that they are leading with their hearts and minds.

Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU President Emeritus

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