The Mark sat down with Ryan Derby Talbot in December after he announced his resignation as Quest’s Chief Academic Officer (CAO). Ryan had spent 3.5 years in the position. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can find the full interview with Ryan, with further details on his vision for Quest and the role of the CAO, at www.thequestmark.com.
Can you explain the role of the CAO?
In its widest scope, it’s about directing the vision for the university’s academics and developing ideas. Bringing that down a layer, the CAO is on every single hiring committee for faculty and on every single review committee for faculty, and serves on other committees like the academic admissions committee and the curriculum committee. Then, [the position] goes all the way down to the fine grain of managing approval for alternative things like independent studies and academic leaves, and also managing student discipline.
It’s a very big purview. Something that’s challenging about it is that its scope is so varied. It’s like trying to be both the pilot and the mechanic of the airplane at the same time. One thing we’re actually looking at doing is potentially splitting the position. So you’d have an oversight, vision-based, broad scope CAO at the vice president level, and then an associate CAO who would help more with the operations management.
Why did you make the decision to step down as CAO?
The short answer was that it was the right time to do this. My first love here is the educational environment that Quest provides. The alternative model is just brilliant. I love the opportunity to engage in inquiry, in an organic way, in the kind of free-range classroom structure and larger model structure of students focused around questions. And I miss that. Instead of enjoying the trips with students, pointing out the sights—if I can continue with my airplane metaphor—I’ve been so busy being pilot and mechanic at the same time that I feel like I’m missing the views.
Can you explain how your position looks the same, or different, when you compare [former president] David’s presidency to Peter’s?
We had a very thin Executive team when David was president. There were basically five of us: the President, the CAO, the Dean of Students, the Chief Financial Officer, and then the Vice President of Operations. That group handled university business. Oftentimes, because of how Quest works, that involved a lot of conversations. When we had larger university problems, that Executive team would be working on those problems collectively and managing them. David’s office was here in the academic building, so I would run into him on occasion, just to talk through issues. I would say it was pretty collaborative.
We were one short when Peter came in, because we had just lost the Vice President of Operations [Toran Savjord]. Peter appointed a new position of Executive Vice President [Jim Cohn] to kind-of be an operations person, to help with the executive operations of the university. That person became the chair of Executive Committee meetings. The CAO used to be the person who, if the President was absent from the university, was at the helm. When the Executive Vice President position was created, that person became the one who took over operations in the president’s absence.
As a consequence, that meant that…the Executive Vice President was [often] leading the meetings, and the President was doing President’s business elsewhere. [With Peter], we tend to not have problems being dealt with by the committee as a whole, but being delegated more to various units or departments.
My operations as Chief Academic Officer haven’t changed a whole lot. I will still consult with the president over matters that I would consult with David about. I’d say I have less communication in general with the president, but that’s partly because the president’s interests are shifted from David. The President, now, is less involved with the academics on the ground—so not a regular attender of faculty meetings. I’m also now more of the spokesperson for academics at Quest. I will often talk about it in speeches and whatnot.
What is your vision of Quest moving forward? This doesn’t have to be relegated to a CAO mindset, but just in general.
I think the President’s vision to do professionalization at the university is important. I also recognize the importance of keeping the spirit of the place really at the heart of this. And I think the spirit of Quest is really what I’m most interested in. That happens in classrooms. That happens in faculty offices and meetings, in my experience. And I think my choice to step down from the position is because I want to return to that kind of experience, and I think that’s the best way that I can support the institution. It’s by giving my energy to that spirit on the frontlines, as opposed to the back rooms.
The thing that can happen to an institution, and especially a university over time, is what’s called mission creep. It’s where you all of a sudden have different things being satisfied by different people, and different groups, and different departments, and David Strangway is well-known for saying that he built UBC to be a very powerful research institution. But he’ll admit that it was done at the expense of the undergraduates. It had competing missions. It had to make the university a competing research university, but it also was an educational arena for undergraduates. They competed with each other. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to focus on Quest, was to have a single-mission undergraduate institution, so that you didn’t have those split directives. And I think that that’s hard to maintain, because the questions that need to be asked at the root are easy to lose sight of as soon as you start having answers that are workable.
I hope Quest keeps asking fundamental questions about what is essential to the educational process. One of the benefits and privileges I’ve had as CAO is having to think about that and talk about it publicly. That has been really powerful for me to do, and I just hope we can continue to do that over time—as we professionalize, as we grow, as we gain a reputation and tradition, asking those questions will be hard and a bit fragile. But that’s my hopeful vision.