My First Six Months at Cape Breton University

It is nearly six months since I arrived in Cape Breton full of aspirations and energy for the challenges ahead.  Since that time I have been installed, overseen my first convocation,  had a book published, wrote ten blogs and travelled to South Sudan and Kenya; I was commissioned by the Province to look at the thorny issue of hydraulic fracturing, and I have attended more than a few Ceilidhs and Capers soccer games!

But most of all I have been connecting with students, with faculty and staff, with alumni and donors and with our Board of Governors, Advisory Boards and the broader community of Cape Breton.  And six months into the job, I can attest that Cape Breton University has the most loyal and committed stakeholders of any University I have ever known.

When I arrived at CBU I stated my desire to build on the heritage and all the successes of the University, particularly with respect to our unique focus on students and community engagement.  In addition I said I wanted  “To ensure that Cape Breton University remains at the heart of Nova Scotia public policy-making, specifically linking the contribution of higher education to economic development and social inclusion; ii) to project Cape Breton University into the heart of national and international debates on the future for sustainable energy; and iii) to ensure that CBU continues…its focus on educational and business development for Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples globally.”  For it is in our ability to differentiate around these issues, as well as by providing a broad base of innovative and research-informed professional, business, science and engineering and arts degrees that we will build our reputation and our future success.

Developing our Strategy

In coming weeks we will be spending a good deal of time fine-tuning our University’s growth strategy as well as our narrative or ‘brand’.  We will be doing that with the involvement of all our stakeholders, and in late November/early December I will be going on the road to present the draft strategy to municipalities, chambers of commerce, aboriginal communities, school boards and other bodies across Cape Breton Island.  In January we will formally launch our full strategy.

In developing our strategy I am very conscious of the monumental changes that are facing our sector in terms of technological, economic and social change.  These factors will require a high level of innovation and entrepreneurialism from all of us at Cape Breton University; but this is a challenge I know we can meet – perhaps better than any University in Canada.

Innovation and entrepreneurialism are required for another reason.  The world is becoming ever more interconnected, complex and challenging.  And so our students, staff and faculty need to develop a deep understanding of world events and what they mean for us here in Cape Breton as we strive the make the world a better place through our teaching and learning and through our research.

Educating and Researching Solutions for an Unstable World

In the six months since I became CBU President, the world has witnessed many troubling events.  The continuing civil war in Syria has seen the total number of refugees from that country rise to an estimated 2 million persons, with half of those children under the age of 18 according to the UNHCR.  Who will educate and care for these children in years to come?

April saw the horrific collapse of a multi-story building near Dhakar in Bangladesh, with the loss of more than a thousand lives.  Amid a torrent of national commentary, Canadian retail firms like Loblaw had to react quickly to examine and verify their supply chain standards and practices.  Who will ensure higher standards of social responsibility in business in the future?

In June, floods in Alberta resulted in four deaths and costs exceeding $6bn.  In the same month flash floods and landslides in Northern India killed nearly 6,000.   If such events are the inevitable consequences of climate change how will we risk manage and mitigate them in the future?

July saw the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup, with Al Jazeera estimating more than a thousand deaths and around 2000 arrests in the weeks immediately following.  And just one week ago, the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi was attacked and 68 innocent people were killed by al-Shabab terrorists, apparently as a reprisal for Kenyan involvement in Somalia.  Two of the dead were Canadian.  Is political instability and terrorism now an inevitable part of clashing cultures in the Middle East and Africa or will politicians and diplomats one day develop better mechanisms for peaceful coexistence?

Events such as these remind us of just what a complex and unstable world we live in – a world that our graduates and their families will need to navigate successfully in their future careers.  And these events bring home how close we are, even in Cape Breton, to global events that demonstrate the essential fragility of a world dealing with climate change, human safety and political conflict.  Due to events in Cairo and concerns for the safety of our students, the graduation of CBU-registered students of the Canadian International College was postponed.  And we had two senior members of staff in Nairobi during the Westgate attack.

At the same time that these tragedies were unfolding, happily the world saw some progress.  The US stepped back from a direct attack on Syria thanks to an unexpected diplomatic intervention by Russia aimed at neutralising Syria’s 1000 ton chemical weapons stockpile.  And President Obama’s telephone call with newly elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani marked a potential thawing of relations between the US and Iran that could see the threat of strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities further reduced if not eliminated.  And last Friday marked the publication of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report which should demonstrate once and for all the fact that we have a serious problem and that human kind is both responsible for its causes and its solutions.

It is my firm view that no University anywhere in the world is as well equipped as CBU to deliver a meaningful response to pressing global challenges by developing relevant programs and supporting our students and their communities here in Cape Breton and around the world to develop and apply knowledge for greater economic, environmental and social resilience.  Cape Breton University was born out of a deep commitment to community.  That community is now both local and global and I firmly believe that we are ready for the challenge.

David Wheeler

President and Vice-Chancellor Cape Breton University

A copy of the slide deck describing CBU’s current situation and strategic development process is available from