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Effective leadership requires extensive listening

Date posted: 
Wed, 03/11/2020
RDC's President, Dr. Peter Nunoda

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” - Audre Lorde

I’d like to begin this month’s column by sharing a quote from Sir Winston Churchill that really resonates with me, and it reads: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, and it’s also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Given the wide and far-reaching context of the discussions surrounding the names of RDC’s Athletics teams over the past several weeks, I find this quote especially relevant. The idea of both speaking up and, more importantly, listening, is something that I will continue to take to heart moving forward.

When I reflect on the first six months of my Presidency here at RDC, I acknowledge that I may have let my past experience frame my reference for how things would happen here. I spent five-and-a-half years as the President of a large urban college, at a time that was challenging for that institution. What I learned from those challenges might have given me a false sense of security about how things should be done at a post-secondary institution, in general, without paying close enough attention to the specific context of the community. In fact, it was that initial sense of community I felt when I was first being interviewed for my role at RDC that really piqued my interest about coming here.

Red Deer is a smaller community, and people are emotionally invested in what happens at Red Deer College. This is a very positive thing. It means that people from across central Alberta and beyond – those who have been connected to RDC in some way – truly care about the College, what happens here and how it will impact themselves and those they care about.

It also means that we have to put a premium on listening to people. When it comes to the names of our Athletics teams, we didn’t reach out to the community to ask your feedback on what Red Deer University Athletics should look like, before initially deciding that we would change the names. I am sorry that we initially overlooked that step.

But when the community spoke up, providing extensive positive feedback in support of our student-athletes, Athletic teams and alumni, we listened. We heard you and we decided to keep the names of our Kings and Queens teams, which are so strongly tied to RDC’s past and will continue to represent the institution’s future.

As we continue to grow and change into Red Deer University, and as the leader of this institution, I’m committed to ensuring we continue to engage and consult with our community. That’s one of the nuggets of positive learning from the Athletics discussion: it reinforced that we can and we will do better. The evolution of RDC to a polytechnic university will be an ongoing journey. We are committed to consultation, and to learning from the diverse people who have many different perspectives and make our region so vibrant.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be some tough decisions to make in the future. There undoubtedly will be, as that’s the reality for any organization. But we will always frame these within the questions of who will be impacted, how will it serve the institution, is there an opportunity to consult the public, and have we done so? Our ultimate goal is to make the right decision for RDC.

When it comes to keeping the Kings and Queens names, we have considered all angles carefully, and we have determined that is the right decision for the College.

But I also want to speak up and be very clear on one important aspect: we were listening to the thoughtful and positive feedback, and we were not listening to the hate that was expressed by some – especially on social media. Our intention was never to start this type of negative conversation, and we never intended to harm or inadvertently target people from the LGBTQ+ community. We are sorry for those who were hurt on a personal, organizational and community level.

We will defend equity without compromise. That is part of our core values and our responsibility as an institution. As the President, I want to ensure that all students and community members feel welcome to study here, work here and visit here. We’re committed to developing a strategy on what inclusiveness, equality and diversity looks like for our institution. We will stay connected with our communities, and we will reach out to you for feedback on what that looks like as this process evolves.

RDC is a leader in the community, and as we transform to a polytechnic university we will become a leader for post-secondary institutions in the province. But to be the strongest leader we can be, we have to fully commit ourselves to listening. This concept was perhaps best summarized by a First Nations leader that I had the opportunity to work with in Manitoba when he said: “There’s a reason that the Creator gave us two ears and one mouth, because we should listen more than we speak.”

Dr. Peter Nunoda is Red Deer College’s President.

This column was first published in Red Deer Advocate on February 29, 2020.