By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on January 3, 2024.
Digvir Jayas wants Lethbridge residents to feel they are part of the University of Lethbridge community.
The seventh president and vice-chancellor of the university was formally installed into his new position last fall.
His arrival on campus was, as the university has stated, representative of a year of change “that saw a significant infusion of new perspectives.”
The university also welcomed new leadership in other positions including alumnus Terry Whitehead being named chancellor; Michelle Helstein, provost and vice president, academic; Heather Davis-Fisch, Dean of Faculty of Fine Arts; John Doan, Dean of Health Sciences, Harold Jansen, University Librarian and Dean of School of Liberal Education; and Lisa Starr, Dean of Faculty of Education.
Jayas, who was born and raised in India is an internationally renowned researcher who studies the drying, handling and storing of grains and oil seeds as well as digital image processing for grading and processing operations.
He came to Lethbridge from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg where he started teaching in 1985. He served as Vice-President (Research and International) for 12 years before moving west to Lethbridge.
He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, appointed in 2018 and the 2023 recipient Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration in Manitoba.
“The warm welcome I have received has been phenomenal. And the support I’ve received from the staff at the university, the board, the faculty, the members of the senate, everybody has been very supportive” and have offered to help in any way they can, said Jayas in a year-end interview.
“That certainly has been great. I really appreciate that and it has made the transition that much easier,” said Jayas in a recent interview at his office.
Jayas spent nearly 25 years in administration and there has been a learning curve on some aspects because he has a much broader responsibility, he said.
But he knew what the role involved “so I had a basic understanding of the role.”
The president sees a lot of optimism in the Lethbridge.
“I certainly get that feel so going forward one thing which I would say is I certainly have some ideas but I would want to get the ideas of the community into consideration,” he said.
The university is doing a comprehensive strategic planning process which is involving internal groups including students, staff, faculty, boards, senate members, alumni and the community at large, he said.
The university will be having open session with community leaders and members, he said.
He has asked leaders here where they want the university go and he’s heard that the huge agri-food corridor is important and the university wants to know how it can work to support its growth and success, a matter he wants to look at seriously.
“And that would involve introducing new programs or could introduce the aligning of programs. Is the curriculum meeting the needs of the community? But all of these things I’m certainly hoping would come to our strategic planning assessments we are having.”
The president said the university exists in the Blackfoot Confederacy so its important to see Indigenous students succeed.
And he wants to see a respectful environment created for people of all backgrounds.
“And that is something which cannot by done by the administration alone, it becomes the responsibility of everybody. Everybody has to take that responsibility that we want to create a respectful, safe working environment and learning environment,” added the president.
The focus on liberal education is a distinguishing feature of the U of L but “sometimes people get (that) confused with a liberal arts education. The focus in liberal education is for the students to be successful, so they are provided the skill sets like critical thinking, they’re provided the skills to work in teams, they’re provided with skills to deal with the complex problems and bring the expertise of different people together in solving those complex problems.
“So they become truly global citizens and then contribute to the success of society. So a liberal education is not just the list of courses but we want to engage them in working with people from other groups,” he added.
The school wants to focus on the holistic development of students from the day they start to their graduation, he said.
Budgets are a concern of every university in Alberta and one of his roles and that of his presidential colleagues is to engage their communities in convincing the province to invest university education, said Jayas.
“That’s why I’m spending a lot of time getting a hold of community members and the community members have to show to the government what value the university brings to the community.
“If the government hears from the community members, it has much more impact. When I say the same thing, they will say I have a self-interest in the process.”
Among the highlights at the university in 2023 was the announcement of a $200,000 endowment fund by alumni Kurt Schlacter and Jason VandenHoek to support a suite of awards aimed at reducing barriers for 2SLGBTQ+ students. The first award will be presented next June.
The U of L was also the first post-secondary school to sign on as a supporter of the Buffalo Treaty, which is a treaty of “cooperation, renewal and restoration.”
A U of L grad, Marshall Vielle, made history in 2023 by joining forces with fellow Making Treaty 7 members Caleigh Crow and Neil Fleming to bring to the stage the school’s first Indigenous-led and created production called Yisstsiiyi.
In 2023, the Dhillon School of Business launched a new diploma in Indigenous governance and business management, the first diploma in Canada that focuses on both.