Opportunity Knocks

New U of A president answers the call, has high hopes for institution

Photography Cooper & O'Hara

David Turpin stands on the roof of the Mechanical Engineering Building near the northeast corner of the University of Alberta. A photographer hustles around him, adjusting equipment in order to get a great shot of the new president of the U of A. Turpin, 59, takes a brief moment to look out over the expanse of the north campus. As president, he is, in a sense, in charge of all that he sees, but Turpin isn’t surveying the area like some kind of commander.

The man is too down-to-earth for that. This is a guy who built a completely off-the grid cabin in the Discovery Islands during his spare time from being the president of the University of Victoria. He taught scuba diving to make money while studying for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Besides, he’s got more practical concerns on his mind.

“I’m trying to get my bearings,” he says. It’s an understandable comment. At the time of this photo shoot, Turpin has officially been the president of the U of A for only 13 days. And, from the top of the Mechanical Engineering Building, one can only see a few of the 150 buildings on the 89-hectare North Campus. That’s only one part of the University of Alberta, which consists of four more campuses, almost 40,000 students and over 15,000 faculty and support staff, making it the fourth-largest employer in Alberta and one of the biggest universities in Canada.

“Since we’ve arrived in town, it’s been full-on. That’s the nature of the job,” Turpin says while seated next to his wife, Suromitra Sanatani, in a boardroom. “There’s the challenge and the enjoyment of the job and the institution, which is very exhilarating for us both. But also the excitement about being in a new community, it’s invigorating. We have to get new driver’s licences, new health cards. You’re out organizing all that, and then you say, ‘Where are we going to shop? Where are the things that we want? Where are we going to exercise, where is going to be our favourite bakery and what are we going to do when we have a couple of hours?”

Turpin has wanted to be an oceanographer since he was in Grade 4. So why move from Victoria, where the ocean is a daily part of people’s lives, and dive into an opportunity in a landlocked city more than 1,100 kilometres from the Pacific? 

“We really like adventure. That is something that we really enjoy,” notes Sanitani, a lawyer with a range of experience serving on corporate and non-profit boards. In Victoria, she served as the chair of the Royal BC Museum, as a director of the Victoria Airport Authority and on other boards. She currently serves as a director for Canadian Blood Services and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. “Whether that was part of the decision to come here or whether to figure out how to build a cabin off-grid, whether to cook interesting dishes, I think that’s probably something we enjoy, learning and discovering different things.”

Despite this love for adventure and the fact that both of them held the U of A in such high esteem, becoming the institution’s president wasn’t on Turpin’s radar at the start. When the search committee contacted him, he thought they were just asking him for help. So he provided a list of eight names. “And mine wasn’t one of them,” he chuckles.

“And when [I] kept getting phone calls and started looking at it, we thought this was an amazing opportunity. Why wouldn’t we look at it seriously?”

So they visited Edmonton for four days in August 2014, went to the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, walked through the river valley, explored the city. “We found the people we were introduced to through the university, but also the people we just bumped into, were all very friendly, all very welcoming,” says Turpin. “When people here in town are talking about the university, there is a passion about it that we haven’t seen when I look at the other towns we’ve lived in, the other universities – there’s been nothing like it. We just were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and passion. One thing led to another and, a few months later, I was offered a job.

“It’s funny how the way things unfold. I’m so incredibly grateful that this has come to pass, that we just see the potential, and the passion I feel for the university and the city is just growing. It’s quite exciting to be here.”

Doug Goss, who headed up the search committee but resigned his post as chair of the U of A Board of Governors effective Aug. 31, had this to say about Turpin:

“David has an incredible track record and background being a great strategic leader in the post-secondary sector. To bring David’s skill set to the University of Alberta, we just felt [that] was just a real coup, frankly, for the university. From our perspective, he is the most qualified guy in the country. The fact he was motivated to move from Victoria and make Edmonton his home speaks volumes of not only the potential of the University of Alberta, but what he can bring to the University of Alberta.”

Turpin, though, has some mighty big shoes to fill. Outgoing president Indira Samarasekera steered the university through interesting times during her 10-year tenure. It was a time of growth and new buildings, but also a time of economic downturn and government cutbacks. 

So how does a new president take a great university and make it even greater? Focusing on quality, excellence and benchmarking against international standards for one, says Turpin, as well as strengthening connections with the communities the university serves, especially to the city of Edmonton. “We’re interested in looking at partnerships and establishing further linkages with the city and with other stakeholders in the community. That is so important for us – to reach out and be a part of the community,” says Turpin. “The links we establish with our community are absolutely critical for the furthering development of the university, but also supporting and developing the community and communities that we touch.”

Outside his role with the U of A, Turpin and his wife are just another couple of newcomers to the city, visiting the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market or Little India for the first time, or hiking through the river valley. But they’ve both experienced that same positive reaction time and time again.

“The welcome we’ve received is unbelievable,” Turpin says. “We’ve never received anything like it – people reaching out on the day of the announcement, seeing us on the street, coming up and talking to us. I believe there is a chance for lots of discovery here.”

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