Retiring UCalgary Senator Gord Aker kept wheel of progress accelerating

Gord Aker has been a stalwart University of Calgary volunteer. For six years he held a variety of leadership positions within Senate, and mentored several students and new senators. Most significantly, he helped craft a new strategic plan for Senate that will guide our actions until 2019.

Gord is retiring as a senator and participated in his last Senate meeting on Wednesday. I will miss him, his spirit of service and his wry sense of humour. I asked Gord if he would write a guest blog entry and pass on perspectives and insights about the University of Calgary and its Senate. Here are Gord’s thoughtful reflections on six years of service:


After serving two three-year terms on the University of Calgary Senate under two exceptional citizens and uniquely capable Chancellors, namely Jim Dinning and Robert Thirsk, I can say with great confidence that the wheel of progress at the University of Calgary continues to accelerate. Let me explain.

Two elements are necessary in creating the foundation for understanding my comment. The first element is a basic understanding of the role of the Senate in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. Unlike the Board of Governors, the Senate has no governance role, but rather has a mandate as defined in the Post-Secondary Learning Act to “…inquire into any matter that might benefit the university and enhance its position in the community.” In essence then, the Senate’s role is to help ensure that the University is connected with, relevant to, and an integral part of the community it serves.

The second element reflects my own interest in volunteering for the University of Calgary as I am not an alumnus of the school. My interest stemmed from two core passions of mine, namely, education and leadership. Education remains for me, the primary enabler of human progress. Leadership provides the catalyst, inspiration and direction necessary to ensure that such progress is sustainable and reflects the “common good”.

Now back to the wheel. Six years ago, I joined the University of Calgary Senate approximately a year after Dr. Elizabeth Cannon was installed as President. Like many of my fellow Senators, I wanted my energy and effort to “make a difference” and so began the long process of increasing my understanding of the role of Senate and where the opportunities might be to contribute in a meaningful way.

At each and every juncture, as I saw opportunity, I learned of current administration initiatives underway to leverage or address those opportunities in a very comprehensive manner. As President Cannon engaged with the community, enrolled it in helping to create the Eyes High Vision and built out the myriad of extraordinarily complex strategies necessary to translate that Vision into a reality, I found myself reacting in support of bold initiatives to transform the University of Calgary into one of Canada’s top five research institutions. The wheel of progress at the University of Calgary was being built, section by section, spoke by spoke, with a focus, intensity and commitment that was nothing short of awe inspiring. I struggled to understand and value what my contribution was to be in the face of this enormous undertaking.

As I considered whether to apply for a second three-year term as a Senator, I weighed on one hand the limitations of the difference I could make as a Senator with its narrow mandate, with the desire to support what was clearly the rebuilding of a significant pillar in the Calgary community with influence and implications on a global scale. Ultimately, I recognized the merit in providing yet one more, albeit small, set of hands to contribute to turning the wheel of progress.

In reflecting back upon these six years of volunteer commitment, I am comfortable with the role I played and the contribution I made, however small, within the context of the institution’s advancement. And thus the lessons I take away from this sometimes frustrating yet ultimately rewarding experience, are for me, quite profound.

Firstly, as I have always believed, leadership matters. The University of Calgary is no different than any organization in that it harbored and continues to harbor almost unlimited potential. What was required in order for more of that potential to be realized was a strong, committed, visionary leader with the capability of translating what was possible into reality. Dr. Cannon literally, took the various independently strong but scattered pieces and built a wheel of progress capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.

Secondly, learning to follow matters. There is a certain hubris associated with wanting to identify one’s specific contribution to a cause. The “what about me” siren song of our ego can distort the reality of our effort if left to its own devices. However, leadership without followship is irrelevant. And so, a key lesson for me was to recognize the inherent value in being “part of” collective accomplishment, without feeding the ego hunger of “what did I personally contribute?” Having been assembled by Dr. Cannon, the leadership of the university, including the Chancellor, Board of Governors and numerous community leaders charted a path for the wheel of progress to take and it was important to understand that not every hand can have a role on the tiller that defines this path.

Finally, what can be accomplished by alignment, cooperation, collaboration and teamwork is very often so in excess of expectation as to be relegated to the realm of dream, rather than reality. In truth, as all involved lend their hands to the wheel of progress, so it begins to turn and as additional hands are added in alignment with the direction of travel, not only is rotation achieved, but so too is ongoing acceleration. The wheel of progress assembled by Dr. Cannon and guided by the University’s leadership, is now not only turning but rather turning at an ever-increasing rate. The wheel is accelerating because of the many and varied sets of hands giving it a small push in the direction of travel to keep it moving forward. Every contribution, however small, matters in creating a collective force to be reckoned with.

In summary, my experience as a University of Calgary Senator has been both: inspiring and humbling, affirming and educational, and transformative in my appreciation for the challenges and opportunities of not just institution building, but indeed community building. It has been an honour to serve this great institution in some small way. To those that remain as part of the team, keep pushing and keep that wheel of progress accelerating!

Senator Gord Aker and Professor Lynne Cowe Falls at the June 2017 convocation ceremony for the Schulich School of Engineering.

Senator Gord Aker and Professor Lynne Cowe Falls at the June 2017 convocation ceremony for the Schulich School of Engineering.

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