A champion for the student experience

“The sense of community at McMaster is incredible,” says Sean Van Koughnett, who joined the University in August 2013 as associate vice-president, students and learning, and dean of students.

His portfolio oversees the entire student experience outside the classroom, from recruitment, registration and financial aid to student residential life, athletics and recreation and the Student Success Centre. It’s a wide reach, but the former varsity basketball star – who measures in at just under 6’7” – knows how to keep his eye on the ball.

I hear you still play basketball? There aren’t too many deans who can say that.

In summer 2012, I played on one of three teams that represented Canada at a qualifying tournament for the world three-on-three championships. I was 41 at the time. I still try to play competitively, but injuries get in the way as I get older and more brittle! People ask me how basketball relates to life. It’s all about working in teams, knowing when to lead, when to follow. It teaches you there’s a process to success – you have to work at it day after day. And it teaches you how to work with other people, since your own success depends on how well your teammates are doing, too.

McMaster AVP students and learning and dean of students, Sean Van Koughnett.

McMaster AVP students and learning and dean of students, Sean Van Koughnett.

What inspired you to take this position at Mac?

When I was offered the opportunity to join one of the best universities in the country, there really was no choice but to accept. I felt there was a great fit between my 12 years’ experience at the University of Waterloo and the direction McMaster is taking. I was really inspired by President Patrick Deane’s vision in his 2011 letter to the community, Forward with Integrity. McMaster recognizes that “learning” takes place not only in the classroom, but also during all the activities a student takes part in. That’s where my role comes in. Even my title reflects this. By including the words “and learning,” we’re saying that everything in the student’s journey is about learning.

Your own career path reflects this kind of ongoing learning, doesn’t it?

Yes, I began my career as a fundraiser, I became an assistant registrar, and then I ran a business unit and started a program for student entrepreneurs, called Velocity. Most recently before joining McMaster, I launched and ran a student success centre. When we talk about lifelong learning, we often associate that with taking a course. That’s great, too, but part of the reason I accepted this position was for the learning opportunity – to learn about a new institution and take on new challenges.

What are your key priorities in the job right now?

One big area we’re focusing on now is how we can improve our support systems for student mental health. We’re already doing lots of great things at McMaster, but there’s a lot more we can do. Another big project is a new “living-learning” centre, a combination residence, classroom and administrative building that will foster a holistic, integrated approach to the student experience. And another important initiative is promoting student entrepreneurship. This fall, we’re launching a co-curricular program geared to students from all disciplines and all years to give them experience as entrepreneurs.  

You’ve also been busy hiring some new senior staff.

Yes, we’ve said goodbye to two very important, longstanding employees: Jeff Giles, director of athletics and recreation, and Cathie Miller, director of housing and conference services. We’re sad to see them go, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for new ideas to emerge with new leaders. Mike Porritt, who has nearly two decades’ experience at a number of universities, has come on board as McMaster’s new director of housing and conference services. And we’ve just welcomed Glen Grunwald, the former GM of the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks, as our next director of athletics and recreation.

And you’ve moved to Hamilton!

Yes, this summer my wife and I moved with our kids to a great neighbourhood. When we were house-hunting, we saw so many different areas in Hamilton that would be great to live in and raise our kids. So many family-friendly things to do and areas of nature we’re interested in exploring. I’ve lived my whole life in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, so it was hard to leave. But any growth requires change and I felt it was time for a change.

Change seems to be the constant in your life.

Yes, and with three of our five kids now university age, I have my own personal sample of the student experience! It’s a time of enormous change. I honestly don’t know how any 17-year-old can be certain what to do with the rest of his or her life. At McMaster, we don’t require students to specialize in their first year to the extent that some universities do. And the out-of-classroom environment here is so vibrant and full – we have more than 300 clubs. McMaster really excels at integrating in- and out-of-classroom learning. That’s the glue that keeps students at a university and keeps them engaged.

*This Q&A was prepared by Allyson Rowley and first appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of the McMaster Times.