‘Ottawa’ Ours the Task Eternal: An Exit Interview with Carleton President Roseann O’Reilly Runte
It was a one-two punch. Last week, Carleton University announced its president and vice-chancellor Roseann O’Reilly Runte would depart on July 31. This week, it was announced that Runte will become president and CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
In 2008, Runte arrived in Ottawa from Old Dominion University, where she had spent seven years as president. She had a reputation for dreaming big while remaining fiscally prudent, recognizing synergies and an indefatigable ability to raise money in the toughest of times. The most ambitious fundraising effort in Carleton’s history, the Collaborate Campaign, was launched during her term and has raised about $220 million of its $300-million goal.
But Runte’s tenure at Carleton has not been without controversy. The development of a university sexual violence prevention policy, required under provincial law, was a protracted and controversial process. Prof. Root Gorelick was replaced on the university’s board of governors after he declined to sign a “code of conduct,” arguing it was the equivalent of a gag order.
Meanwhile, Runte’s departure also raises some questions, including about her leaving during the university’s 75th anniversary celebrations, and how much time it will take to the university hire a new president, a process that often takes a year or more. The Citizen spoke to Runte about her tenure at Carleton and her next role.
Q: Carleton has sometimes been sensitive about its place in the university rankings. Do they matter?
A: Rankings are the way external bodies consider your achievements. And they do matter because the reputation of an institution is a precious thing. Rankings help us know what we should do better. But sometimes rankings are like what Mark Twain said about statistics. (“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”) If you stay in the same place, you should do better. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. The number of students who apply to Carleton has increased every single year in the past nine years. Students choose an institution because of its reputation. We have risen in some of the rankings. But when we go out into the community, people say they appreciate Carleton, and it’s a strong institution. We have been asked to lead research teams. That’s a good sign of the quality of our researchers. Our students have won international competitions. One of our professors, (Alan Steele, electronics) has won a 3M teaching award. We have a basketball dynasty, but also our students are winning awards around the world.
Q: When you first came to Carleton in 2008, the economy had just imploded. Still, you managed to get two major building projects, the River Building and the Canal Building, completed in short order. How did you do it?
A: The very best time to work on visionary projects is when times are tough. My grandfather told me when times are tough, like during the Depression, some people give up and some people worked very hard on their vision. It’s actually true. We were fortunate that the province was funding expansion.The growth funding allowed us to make new interdisciplinary programs happen.
Q: What are some of your proudest achievements at Carleton?
A: We have more than 28 new academic programs. They’re all interdisciplinary — computer-human interface, which combines psychology and computer science; big data policy, which looks at how to use numbers to make good decisions; political management; indigenous policy; sustainable energy policy; water policy.
Q: What’s in the pipeline when you leave?
A: I’m going to do my best to leave everything in perfect order (laughs). Our motto is, “Ours the task eternal.” There will soon be a new health science building, the ARISE building (Institute for Advanced Research and Innovation in Smart Environments) and a new building for the business school, which has been designed and planned, and is on the verge of being approved. There are plans for new academic programs. But the most important thing is the people who will be one day be lawyers and government ministers and entrepreneurs.
Q: What do you want to be your legacy?
A: I didn’t do anything myself, I worked with a team. I don’t work so people will say something nice about me now, or ever. I work because something has to be done to contribute something good to society.
Q: Your academic expertise is in French literature. Now you will be head of the the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Do you have to be a scientist to promote research in science and technology?
A: One has to be able to understand science and technology. If an individual is passionate and understands the needs of possibilities and potential, and can translate that to the public, that’s what’s needed. When I was in Virginia, the state was in a difficult situation. They had two major sources of income: tourism and coal. And they weren’t complementary. I thought high-tech would be helpful. We created a modelling and simulation program that was different than anything anyone else was doing. Sometimes you can see needs and see the way science can be fostered. You don’t necessarily need to be a scientist to understand the potential of science, to share the vision and excitement of science. It’s a way that I can serve Canada.
Q: What will you do at the foundation?
A: Provide the ability for Canadian researchers to make a difference in the world. Infrastructure needs to be protected and it always needs renewal. When we talk about networks, it’s networks around the world. It’s an extraordinary time to make Canada shine in an international leadership role. I bring a knowledge of science and technology, the ability to work across disciplines and to bring people together. The first thing I do is listen to everyone. You need to know the hopes and dreams of everyone.
Q: You believe in the value of a general education …
A: A little while ago, I was called to go to the hospital to visit a Carleton graduate who was dying. He said to me, ‘Carleton gave me everything. It gave me a livelihood and it gave me a life.’ He was an accountant, but when he was a student, he was required to take a literature course. He loved the books that he read, and he read to his children. Literature teaches you the value of words and helps you to put yourself in someone else’s mind. It’s a very important skill. Words have power. They move people.
Q: Speaking of words and moving people, are you on Twitter?
A: No. If I say something, it should be worthwhile. It should be thought through.
Q: When you first arrived at Carleton, you were famous for baking cookies for incoming students. What happened?
A: There was a natural disaster — a tsunami or an earthquake, I think — and I thought of what it cost me to bake cookies with good-quality ingredients. It was about $500. So I took the money and made a donation to charity. I gave their cookies to charity.
Carleton during Runte’s tenure:
23,945: Number of undergraduate applications in 2007
4,461: Number of graduate applicants in 2007
27,868: Number of undergraduate applicants in 2016
5,985: Number of graduate applicants in 2016
82.1 per cent: Average high school entrance marks in 2007
83.8 per cent: Average in 2016
7: Carleton’s place in the 2007 Maclean’s university rankings, out of 11 universities in the comprehensive category
4: Carleton’s place in 2016