Dal president wants to keep job longer

Traves seeks contract renewal to finish final term

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Tom Traves anticipates he’ll be ready to retire in four and a half years - he’s got a golf game “that needs improving.” (Photo: Katie May)

Tom Traves thought he’d be bored by now.

With 12 years already under his belt as president of Dalhousie University, Traves decided last year to stay on for only half of another six-year term. Fifteen years, he thought, would be “a fairly good run” as head of the largest school in the Maritimes.

When Dal’s board of governors asked him last spring if he wouldn’t mind staying on a bit longer, the 60-year-old said he’d sleep on it.

“So I thought about it through the summer, just sort of chewed it over: what do I want to do when I grow up?” he explains, deadpan.  “And (I) came to the conclusion that I’d love to continue doing some of the things I’m doing now for just a little longer.”

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Tom Traves appeared on the cover of a 1995 Dalhousie Alumni magazine after he was appointed president. (Photo: Kerry Doubleday, c/o Dal Communications and Marketing)

Presidency at a glance: highlights from Traves’ time at Dal

  • July 1, 1995: Thomas Donald Traves was appointed as Dalhousie’s 10th president.
  • April 1997: Traves oversaw Dal’s merger with the Technical University of Nova Scotia (TUNS), now associated with Dal’s Sexton campus. 
  • March 25, 2021 – April 2, 1998: Faculty strikes at Dal for the first time since 1988 over faculty union demands for salary increases and guaranteed staffing levels. About 25 students sued Traves and the Dalhousie Faculty Association for lost class time but dropped their lawsuits when the strike ended.
  • March 4, 2022 – April 3, 2002: Second faculty strike in four years over the Dalhousie Faculty Association’s previous concerns: wages and guaranteed professor replacement after retirement. Students held an overnight sit-in in Traves’ office to protest the strike before both parties reached a deal.
  • Sept. 1, 2003: Dal became the first university in Canada to ban smoking on campus, a policy Traves helped push for.
  • Aug. 14. 2006: Dal announced it would opt out of the annual Maclean’s university survey after Traves, along with other university leaders across Canada, signed a letter to the magazine citing flaws in its ranking system.
  • Jan. – March 2007: Traves headed a university campaign urging Dal students to approve a $25 million campus makeover plan that promised new buildings for student space in exchange for a hike in student fees. Students shut down the plan in a referendum, with 57.3 per cent of voters against it.
  • March 31, 2008: As chair of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, Traves helped negotiate funding agreements with the province to provide more student bursaries and freeze tuition for all students until 2011 – the first tuition freeze in Nova Scotia after years of steady increases.

Sources: Archives from The Daily News, The Chronicle Herald and The Dalhousie Gazette

Committee to conduct presidential review

As Dal enters its 190th year, Traves has committed to his third and final full term as president. He’ll keep the job for four and a half more years, pending official approval from the administration when it finishes its contract renewal process in the coming months.

Dal Student Union President Courtney Larkin is the student representative on the presidential review committee, which also includes three senate representatives and three members from the board of governors. The committee will hold its first meeting at the end of this month and Larkin is responsible for finding out what students, faculty and staff think of their president.

“There’s going to be a wide range of opinions,” she says, opting not to share her own opinion of Traves’ work as she starts to collect feedback from the student council.

Lots of projects in the air

There’s too much going on in the university community for Traves to retire early. He won’t get special benefits for staying in the job longer, apart from standard annual increases to his $349,311 salary, but he says he wants to help see Dal through the sudden financial fallout that’s affecting enrolments and endowments at universities across the country.

“From the time I thought about this in the summer months to today, we have the intervention of a global economic crisis that has come down,” he says. “I think the university will be in a good position to manage our way through that but ….with my experience I might be in a better place to deal with those and see the university past those concerns before I leave.”

He also wants to see through a funding agreement Nova Scotia universities signed with the province last March that promised to freeze tuition for all students for three years. It’s Traves’s “single most important priority” to make sure that agreement works out the way it’s supposed to and that Dal benefits from a new financial distribution plan when this one expires in 2011.

Then there are campus construction projects, new academic programs and fundraising plans all on the go.

“For me this is very energizing,” Traves says. “I have a new job but it just happens to be in the same place. And the ‘new job’ is a product of the fact that I have some terrific new colleagues.”

While his key administrative team has changed frequently over the years, Traves has remained at the helm of the institution for nearly 13 years – many of them marked with tuition hikes and pleas for more government funding for the university.

Last year he was elected chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in addition to serving as chair of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents. His institutional memory will help him guide other Atlantic universities through new challenges, says Saint Mary’s University (SMU) President Colin Dodds.

Dodds, SMU’s president of nearly nine years, says the financial crisis is crunching endowments and enrolments in a way universities haven’t seen since the 1987 stock market crash. Schools are also worried about faculty retention and labour discussions and they need a steady hand to keep them going, Dodds says.

“We’re going into uncharted waters, uncertain waters, and it’s always good to have somebody who’s been around for a long time,” Dodds says, adding Traves brings “stability and confidence to people beyond Dal as well.”

Traves says Dal has changed a lot – particularly in employee morale – since he took the job at 47 with York University dean of arts and University of New Brunswick academic vice-president jobs on his resume.

“When I came, Dalhousie was a depressed institution and now it’s a very optimistic institution,” Traves says.

“Over time you kind of get to the point where you feel you know what makes things happen, what makes people tick and you’re ready to go to the next level. I think the challenge for people in my position is to get to that point as quickly as they can.”

Updates

Nov. 16, paragraph two: Dal is the largest school in the Maritimes, not in Atlantic Canada.

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