Given that he teaches evolutionary history, Alan Pinder is no stranger to how things change over time. But he’s still a bit surprised, looking back at his career, that he now finds himself taking on the role as chair of Senate, the university’s primary academic governing body.
“Look around this office: how much reading do you see on governance?” he says with a laugh, gesturing at the piles of Biology books that line the walls of his Life Sciences Centre office. “It’s not my experience, so it’s somewhat intimidating, but I’m building on a lot of great work done in recent years.”
Dr. Pinder is no stranger to Senate, of course. He just completed a three-year term as vice-chair, student affairs, a role that oversees the non-program elements of Dal’s academic experience. That includes everything from plagiarism policies to student accommodation, from course evaluations to academic discipline procedures. Prior to that, he served as a Faculty of Science representative and sat on Senate’s Nominating and Discipline Committees.
Learn more: Dalhousie Senate website
“I came back from sabbatical and there was an opening for the Faculty of Science… I was told it was an opportunity for me, and it sounded interesting,” he says. “I knew Senate was the senior academic decision-making body at the university, but otherwise I didn’t know much about it, which is probably the same as a lot of people at Dal. And from there, if they find you’re willing to get involved, people start to take notice.”
The value of governance
Since then, he’s developed a great appreciation and respect for Senate and its work. Senate’s membership includes more than 50 faculty representatives, seven student reps and the university’s academic administrative leadership. At times, grey areas can emerge between the responsibilities of Senate and the administration — “Senate sometimes is taken to task for things that aren’t part of our jurisdiction,” notes Dr. Pinder, “and sometimes administration is seen as responsible for things that are actually Senate policies” — but it’s through Senate’s eight standing committees that faculty senators make decisions that shape and set directions for Dal’s programs and academic life in general at the university.
“The value [of Senate] is the faculty can govern, to a large extent, what we do,” explains Dr. Pinder, who in his role as chair oversees the agenda and overall function of Senate. “The faculty bring forward much of the programs, the research directions, the academic policies that we have here at Dalhousie. We may not always agree with our individual faculty colleagues across the hall or across campus, but we do have a say in the general direction of the university.”
He says the biggest challenge is making sure faculty appreciate and understand the role they play in how decisions are made at the university.
“I see this as an important part of what faculty should spend time on,” he says. “It’s often something people don’t have time for, unfortunately, because there are so many other demands on time. But if we want faculty to be self-governing, if we want faculty to have a major hand in making decisions at the university, then you have to be willing to get involved.”
A career in evolution
Similar to his transition into Senate, Dr. Pinder’s teaching and research has undergone its own evolution during his 26 years at Dal, moving from studying the respiratory physiology of vertebrates and into the realm of marine biology. (He’s currently undergraduate program coordinator of Dal’s Marine Biology program.)
“I’ve 'gone marine’ relatively recently,” he explains. “I was working on amphibians, and then started breeding them, looking at juvenile stages and early developmental stages — including eggs — where diffusion is the only mechanism for exchange. Then from breeding amphibians I got into breeding fish, including Atlantic Salmon, then got into clownfish — a marine reef fish — and now I’m doing research on coral reefs in Honduras.”
Serving as chair means his time with Senate will now increase to 60 per cent from its current 40 per cent as vice-chair. This means more time bringing faculty members together to come to key decisions — but perhaps a little less time spent wearing his favourite fashions: an impressive collection of colourful T-shirts featuring all sorts of creatures, from turtles to puffins.
“[It comes] from being a biologist and preferring to wear T-shirts,” he says, with a smile. “And there’s a lot of really neat biology t-shirts out there, so why not use ‘em?”
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