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In conversation with Mark Evered

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Dr. Mark Evered served UFV at the helm as president for the past eight years. His loving demeanour, calming presence, and sharp wit are just a few of the positive qualities he’s known for.

He brought the University College of the Fraser Valley through into university status, saw the expansion of campuses, and led the team that keeps UFV growing.

Mark is an engaging conversationalist and a great story teller. Here we do a bit of reminiscing and rambling on.

Where did you get started with your career as university faculty?

My first faculty position was at University of Western Ontario, then I got this really interesting offer from University of Saskatchewan. My wife and I had always thought we would leave London, Ontario, which is where Western is, because I had done a PhD there. I’d gone to Cambridge, and they hired me back at Western to be a faculty member. Six years in they made me an associate professor, they gave me tenure, I was settled in. But I always felt I should move beyond the place. I got a PhD, and coincidentally, early in my seventh year I got an inquiry from the University of Ottawa and the University of Saskatchewan.

My wife and I, we had our three girls at that point, thought about it and we thought, “You know, let’s make an adventure of this. And if we’re going to move, why go to another place in Ontario? Let’s go out to the prairies, stay for a couple years.” We did that expecting to stay only a couple of years, and fell in love with the place. And then of course my daughters all met prairie boys and settled in; that’s why my grandkids are now in Edmonton and Saskatoon.

Was it your goal to work in that field?

No, I didn’t aspire to administrative positions, I really loved research, I love teaching, and I was beginning to pick up some teaching awards. When I went to Thompson Rivers University from Saskatchewan, one of the first things I was asked to do, the faculty approached me and they said, “We’re putting together a little symposium, a workshop in which we’re going to share with each other our best teaching practices. Would you come and be our keynote speaker? We want you to talk to us about the characteristics of master teachers, what they are.” Well that was a challenge, because I thought first of all, like so many others, I experienced imposter syndrome. You think, “Oh man, I’m an imposter, I’m not that good of a teacher, how did I ever get this award?” So I thought, “What was it that I saw in the other master teachers I hung out with?”

I suddenly realized there were really only two things that characterized the greatest teachers I ever knew. That was, first of all, they were all passionate about their discipline; absolutely passionate about it. The second characteristic is that you couldn’t get them to shut up about it. And what made them good teachers is they loved what they did so much they wanted everybody else to love it. So they were constantly working on better ways to persuade other people to love what they loved, to see what they saw. They were trying to instill that passion in other people.

Did you ever consider presidency?

No, if you’d asked me as a young faculty member, was that my aspiration: absolutely not. In fact, I have to admit I could sometimes be a thorn in the side of administrators.

Looking back, could you say that you saw what you’ve now done coming?

Absolutely not. You know what, I’m really torn, because I do encourage people to make plans, to think strategically about their life, but at the same time I feel a little bit of a hypocrite doing that sometimes, because I’ve been an opportunist in the sense that when interesting opportunities came along, I jumped at them.

Fundamentally, I’m an introvert. But I learned a long time ago that I needed to step out of that or life was going to be rather boring. So I trained myself to say yes when I really wanted to say no. A consequence of that is interesting opportunities would come along — inside I’d be quaking and thinking “This is really scary,” but I trained myself to reflexively say yes and worry about it later. I think you reach a point early on in being able to judge the positives and negatives so you’re not doing stupid things. And I’ve never encouraged anybody to be, but if you’re just purely opportunistic you’ll be all over the map.

If anything drove me it was recognizing that we still hadn’t gotten post secondary education right, that there were still lots of things that needed fixing, and I had an opportunity to take a position that allowed me to make some changes, some improvements, or even to experiment.

When things have gotten personally tough for you and your family, what have you done to get you through it?

An example would be the death of our daughter. I hope you never experience that, we’re not meant to outlive our children. She had been ill, was getting progressively worse — liver and kidney problems — and getting that word that it was over, that she wasn’t going to make it… To have your daughter die in your arms, essentially, is a horrible thing.

That’s a really hard thing, and last year I actually spoke a little bit about this at convocation, because I spoke about resilience, and how do you build resilience, and where did I find my resilience? I found it in others. First of all, I’ve got a strong family that were all there at that moment when she died, we were there to support each other. But the UFV family was also there for me. So again it comes down to those relationships, people you can count on, people who will step up and are authentically compassionate; not just the quick card, the quick call, but people who were genuinely compassionate, who cared about what was happening in our lives, and who knew we were going to need some time to heal. I don’t believe it’s something you should ever get over, I don’t want to ever get over that loss. But it’s good to get through it.

You get through it initially being a bit of an introvert, as I say, a guy who was quite happy to spend his time on his own. There’s this natural inclination, it’s part of the Western philosophy, especially on men, you’ve got to be the white knight, the lone hero — it’s all nonsense, don’t believe any of it, it’s never been true. Could you get through it on your own? Yeah, probably, but with deeper scars, with more damage. It will be two years on Canada Day, it’s still fresh, but there is no place I would have rather been than here at UFV with the colleagues I work with.

You said you were an introvert, and you worked hard to become more sociable, what other kinds of things did you do to accomplish all of this?

Here’s a milestone: I was a graduate student completing my PhD — and it was typical in my field that you would do a postdoc — my PhD supervisor asked me, “Who would you like to work with?” I said I would really love to work with this guy James Fitzsimons at Cambridge, and he said, “Ah, that’s a great choice, so why don’t you do that?” And I said, “Woah woah woah, first of all, he’s the guy writing the books in my field, he’s the leading thinker in this field, and he’s at Cambridge! Are you kidding me? A boy out of Hamilton who’s managed to get this PhD at Western University in Ontario; what’s the chance?”

He said, “Look, write to this guy Fitzsimons.” And he said, “I’ll write a letter as well.” I said, “…Okay!” So I wrote a letter to this guy James Fitzsimons and explained who I was. He wrote back right away, and said, “No, I know who you are, I’ve read a couple of your papers. Let’s see if we can work something out. Are you going to be at this international meeting?” and coincidentally, my supervisor was going to pay me to go to present a paper. I said, “Yes, I’ll be there,” and he said, “Well let’s find an hour or two and we’ll chat.”

I went, we sat down, we hit it off, and an hour later it’s, “Yeah, I’ll support your application for a fellowship. If you can get the fellowship, come on, if you can’t get the fellowship, let me know and I’ll see if I can find some milk money to get you here.”

So I went back, I applied, I got a nice Canadian Medical Research fellowship to go to Cambridge for two years. I didn’t think there was any chance of getting a fellowship, any chance of getting to go to Cambridge, or any chance of working with this guy, and next thing I know, my wife and I and our little girl are on a plane and a train into Cambridge where I got to spend two years meeting Nobel Prize winners, and working with this leader in my field.

What did you learn from that?

An interesting element of that is while I was there, working in the same laboratory was a young woman — delightful young woman, but really wasn’t a good fit. She didn’t have the strengths or the interest for that research work, but she was doing a PhD with this leader in the field. So I said to my now buddy/supervisor, “Why did you accept her as a student? There must be people all over the world dying to come and do a PhD with you.” He said she was the only one who applied. He said, “I had an opening, and if there are all those people out there you’re talking about, I never hear from them.”

The lightbulb went on: Ah! Don’t assume that you’ll get turned down. It’s like asking a girl or fella’ out for the first time. What if they say no? Well you’re gonna be awfully lonely if you don’t get yourself around that notion that they might say no. So I learned that in a professional sense.

What’s been most rewarding about being president?

I think having the opportunity to work with really exciting people at all levels. I work with a great team, we have a lot of really stimulating faculty who love what they do and they won’t shut up about it, I love that. And students. The thing I’m going to miss the most is getting to hang out with you guys.

I was invited to give a talk about UFV to a group of people — let’s just say a group of older people, seniors — who met regularly at breakfast, they wanted me to come and talk to them about the university. I went to this event and I talked passionately about the university and the future, and what we’re doing, what we need to do, what the opportunities are, and why it’s so important that we do this.

The very first question, from an old fella’, first words out of his mouth: “Back in the day…” That’s how he starts. Lord help me, I’m in trouble about “back in the day” — those are just about the worst words you want to hear from any old guy. “Back in the day,” he said, “we only let 10 percent of people into universities. You’ve destroyed universities, you and all you other administrators, you’ve destroyed universities because you’ll let anybody in now. When it was back in that 10 percent, we got the best and the brightest.”

Now, I try to be very diplomatic when I’m out in the community. But I was ticked and I wasn’t letting this guy get away with it, so he got both barrels. The first barrel in the shotgun response was “I’ll agree with you that there was a time only 10 per cent of the population got to university, but I’m going to challenge you that it was the ‘best and the brightest.’” I said, “It was the privileged. Their parents had gone to university, they had the wealth, they had the connections, they got to go to university. I think we can both come up with a bunch of examples of people who got that opportunity and blew it.” I said there were an awful lot of really bright people who had to make their way the tough way, and they’d been world leaders, never got to university.

I said, “And secondly, obviously you weren’t listening to me because I just presented some data to tell you about the million jobs that are going to be vacant in this province, and who knows what new kinds of jobs are going to be created. As people retire and new industries come into the province, we’re going to need to fill those, and 80 per cent of those are going to require people with post secondary education. So your 10 per cent is ridiculous, you’re not only going to destroy a bunch of lives, you’re going to destroy the province of British Columbia.” Next!

I thought okay, I’m doomed, nobody else is going to ask a question now because I beat up on this guy. But he backed right off, and then I realized there were a lot of smiles in the room. The rest of the conversation went well, good discussion period. Nevertheless, I’m driving back to campus after this, listening to the song “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie and I’m stewing about it, because that’s what we do, and I find myself saying what my father used to say, my elderly father used to say: “Stupid old people.” Here’s an old guy driving back, 65, 66 myself looking in the rear view mirror, but I’m thinking, “Stupid old people.”

So I pull into the parking lot, jump out, I’m grumpy, going into the building and there was this small group of students. At least one of them knows me and hollers out, “Hey Mark! Come here!” So naturally it’s like a magnet, I go over there, and we’re having a conversation about some fun stuff, some stuff they learned in class, fun ideas. Suddenly I realize, geez, I better get back to the office, I’ve got somebody waiting for me. I said, “Sorry guys, I’ve got to go,” and it suddenly dawns on me: my feet are no longer touching the ground. I’ve gone from grumpy old man in a heartbeat to a guy who’s just walking on air. I’m excited, I’m rejuvenated, I’m stimulated, I’m walking into my next meeting in a really good mood.

Then it hit me: I’m like some kind of zombie or vampire. I had to eat these young brains or drink this young blood to rejuvenate me! So one of my fears of retirement is what do I do if I can’t find bright young minds to hang out with? So I’ll probably be a bit of a ghost around here, haunting the place.

What are your plans now?

I’ve got a leave at the end of my term as president because I actually have a faculty position in kinesiology, so I’m talking to a few people to see what I might do, some lectures or something. For the next year, I’m going to spend some time at our Chandigarh campus; I go there annually, but it’s usually for a five day visit. I’ll probably go for a longer period, maybe six weeks to two months. That campus is just thriving, and they’ve asked me to come over and work with them on a little bit of planning, we’re outgrowing our facilities and our reputation is spreading.

There are a number of people in the community who have asked me if I would help them out with some projects. As long as it in some way benefits UFV, I’ll stay involved, I’ll commit to that. My wife says I’m failing retirement, but I want to stay involved in some way. Ultimately, maybe when we’re feeble we’ll move to where our kids and grandkids are, but we’re going to stay in the Valley for at least the next decade is our plan.

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