Talking leadership: Alan Shepard on weaving a sustainable narrative

Western University president tells Rosa Ellis how it united all of its community behind a comprehensive impact strategy

June 1, 2023
Alan Shepard smiling
Credit: Rachel Lincoln

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Alan Shepard comes from a family of farmers and blue-collar workers. The first in his family to attend university, he says his introduction to higher education was “transformative” and he has been dedicated to academia ever since. Now he leads Western University, one of Canada’s top research-intensive institutions and a leader on addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Shepard spoke to THE about his mission to consolidate Western’s various strands of work linked to sustainability, the importance of communicating what it is doing internally and externally, and what the university sector as a whole can do better.

No game plan

When Shepard joined Western in 2019, the university was already doing much in the way of sustainability but it was apparent that there was no “formal game plan”. A detailed survey of staff, faculty, students and alumni conducted in advance of his new strategy revealed that it was a vitally important thread running through the institution.

“The number one focus for our campus community was sustainability. It came out [as a priority] among the students, which you might expect. But what I didn’t expect so much was when we talked to alumni, it came out there, too, as their most prominent concern,” he says.

To put sustainability at the heart of Western’s new strategy, the university’s leadership team first needed to review and understand all the work already being carried out. “Often, one person on the faculty didn’t know that another was even doing that work. We’re a big place, and it’s easy to lose the thread,” he explains. “It’s not as though there’s a faculty club where everybody gets together on a Friday afternoon for sherry.”

Having identified the information deficit, Shepard sought to address it by working with a new President’s Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability (Paces), a coalition of student leaders, faculty and staff, as well as other members of the community, led jointly by the provost and the vice-president for operations. He describes this group as covering “everything from how the food service works to what graduate diplomas we’re going to offer in sustainability”.

Shepard is keen to stress that the committee is not micromanaging or interfering in matters properly left to academic decision-makers: “If department x or faculty y wants to do an initiative, they don’t need Paces’ permission,” he says. Rather, the committee’s role is “to help keep an eye on all the balls in the air”.

Making it visible

While few would argue that the issues being addressed by this work are not important, Western’s experience shows that it is also vital that the work is seen to be being done.

“Before we had all these official organs that help us organise, [the sustainability work] wasn’t always visible,” Shepard says. “Even inside the institution, some efforts were invisible from one person to the next.”

With his doctorate in English, Shepard has a strong sense of the value of storytelling. “One of my leadership mantras is that you can be doing great stuff but if you don’t tell people in a way that they can receive it and digest it, the greatness of whatever is being accomplished will not be transmitted, and may not be replicated or funded.”

Addressing this is, as he sees it, a key responsibility of his as leader. “The job has many moving parts, but one of them is to be able to identify the stories. Often, you can cut to the chase with the story in ways that 10 pages of facts will not do.”

The benefits of this approach are numerous, he says. “It shows to students, their families, taxpayers, government leaders and everybody else that we’re really participating [in society] carefully and thoughtfully, and in a really deep way.

“There are constant debates about academic freedom and so forth, and one of the privileges we have [in universities] is that we can tell the truth as we see it. That’s a benefit to society, too. We’re able to comment on climate change, or poverty or whatever it is, and we’re able to intervene in a serious way.”

An extra bonus, he adds, is that being able to demonstrate how the university’s efforts are benefiting society and the world is also a “talent magnet”, because “nobody wants to go to work and think ‘I’m doing stuff that nobody cares about’”.

Divestment: the hardest part

One of the most difficult aspects of Western’s sustainability programme is the task of decarbonising the institution’s investments, Shepard says. Yet this is also an area in which he thinks the university is distinguishing itself.

In 2022, Western announced a commitment to reducing the carbon intensity of its operating and endowment fund by 45 per cent by 2030 (using 2020 as a base year). This measure is used to assess the exposure of investments to carbon-intensive companies and is useful across all asset classes. Western also committed to achieving net zero absolute carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

The university believes it is the first in Canada to have completed a “total portfolio” carbon footprint analysis, tracking the impact of its investments across public equities, private equity, fixed income, infrastructure, real estate and more.

In December 2022, it reported having reduced the carbon intensity of the fund by 4.3 per cent and reduced carbon emissions in the public portfolio by 38.6 per cent in 2021, compared with the previous year.

Shepard explains the complexity as being rooted in the deep technical skills required to achieve such changes. “It really requires technical finance and accounting expertise that most of us running around the university don’t have,” he says.

The solution was to engage the investment committee, composed of Western graduates who have gone on to become investment industry experts or advisers, to develop the university’s Responsible Investing Strategy and Pathway. This set the framework for the university’s investment team to pursue decarbonisation in investments through engagement and new sustainable investment opportunities.

“The tricky part is really communicating what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Because people will say, ‘we want you to divest everything immediately,’ and they don’t understand what exactly it is they’re asking for. What they’re asking for is enormously complicated and could actually do damage in a way that they don’t anticipate.”

Does it then become part of the recruitment strategy to always hire people with knowledge of and a passion for sustainability? It has not been instituted as a formal criterion, he says, but it is definitely a consideration for some roles. The university recently appointed a new leader of physical infrastructure, for example, and Shepard says “I’m sure we wouldn't have hired him if he had had no interest or if he’d been hostile to the idea [of sustainability being at the heart of the university’s ethos].”

Forging partnerships

An area in which Shepard thinks the whole university sector could be better is becoming accessible partners to outside organisations. “One of my dreams is that all universities would have kind of a public concierge,” he says, who would handle a hotline for any industrial partner, company owner or project manager seeking advice or assistance. “The person on the phone is not an expert in everything, but they would know ‘Oh, that should go to the engineering dean’ or ‘That should go to the dean of fine arts’.”

“When I look at other institutions’ websites, I’m often mystified about where would I go. I can only imagine if I were a private sector partner looking to make an alliance – it’s really, really hard to traverse our ways of doing things, because to most people universities are quite opaque.”

Does the inevitable emphasis on science, technology and engineering in discussions about sustainability leave him, an English scholar,  concerned about the future role of the arts? The short answer is “no”. “I’ve been a university professor for 30 years, a long time, and for my entire career, all the way back from when I was an undergraduate, people were worrying about the arts and their demise.”

When he was accepted on to his PhD programme, he says, he received a letter saying: “Congratulations, you’ve been admitted – please don’t come. There are no jobs for PhDs in English. And although we’d love to have you here, we strongly advise if you can do anything else, do.’’ He went ahead with it regardless, and was lucky to land an academic job – but he acknowledges that many of his peers struggled. “The reality on the ground is that it is not great. But even when I was an [early career] job candidate, it wasn’t great. I don’t know that it’s significantly worse today. Maybe it is.”

A different path

Shepard took a different path from the rest of his Midwestern family. When he was young, he says, “There were no books in my house there; none of that.”

As a result, “I didn’t know what it really meant to go to university, I just knew that I didn’t want to be a farmer. I wanted a life that was more interesting.”

But as unromantic as this route into academia might sound, he went on to fall in love with scholarly life. “I was just overwhelmed with the joy of all these ideas and all these people from all over the world, and from different traditions. It’s not too dramatic to say that it was transformative for me.”

At about the age of 40, he decided that he wanted to steer his career in the direction of administration, “which most people won’t even say out loud, because it’s thought that all the dummies go into administration”.

He moved to Canada, where he felt that his status as a gay man was less likely to get in the way of his career, and began the climb up the university ladder, eventually leading Concordia University as its vice-chancellor and president for seven years before moving to Western.

Does he miss life on the front line of research? “One of the things I found if you’re in the humanities is it can be a very solitary life. You’re at home reading your next book or your next paper, you’re marking essays of your students, you’re preparing for class – which in our case means reading and rereading texts. One person at a time in an office. And what I love about administrative work is I’m always on a team, and the team changes depending on what time of day it is and what meeting is going on. But I feel like I make a difference [working within a team], and I really value that. I’ve found that incredibly fun.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here

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