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Ian Rowlands' 2020: A year of working at the heart of the higher education sector

Published on 18 December 2020
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Dr Ian Rowlands

Dr Ian Rowlands is a Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo, Canada; he was also formerly the University’s Associate Vice-President, International and is scheduled to return to that role in 2021. During 2020, Dr Rowlands is on sabbatical from the University of Waterloo and affiliated with the ACU.

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During a 2020 sabbatical from my position as a Professor and Senior Administrator at the University of Waterloo in Canada, I was affiliated with the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). As the year draws to a close, I welcome the opportunity to reflect upon the experience.

Since arriving in London earlier this year, I have contributed to a number of areas in my role as a Special Advisor for the ACU. Many of the areas allowed me to build upon my interests in sustainability – for example, my involvement with the Commonwealth Climate Resilience Network and my participation in a multi-association sustainable urbanization initiative

This experience also helped me further my understanding of the internationalisation of higher education – for instance, my engagement in the ACU’s emerging pattern of regular virtual engagement with its member universities and a convening of the ACU’s contribution to a pan-Commonwealth programme for early career researchers

Working across these and other areas, I played different roles at different times – contributor, facilitator, reviewer, drafter, moderator, connector, communicator, and so on. I brought my perspective as a Canadian academic with almost 30 years of national and international experience across all three of a professor’s portfolio – teaching, scholarship, and service – as I gained new knowledge, insights, understandings, and perspectives.

My time at the ACU has taught me a great deal. I was able to learn so much more about the global higher education ecosystem. Whilst my own background – including a term as my university’s Associate Vice-President, International – equipped me with my own experiences, I came to recognise how limited those necessarily were. They were from the perspective of an individual university understandably advancing its specific interests from its own particular situation.

My year with the ACU gave me a new point of view within this larger ecosystem. My role allowed me to step back and adopt a more holistic, global perspective - revealing to me how different parts of higher education can be connected for mutual gains. Working hard to hone my still-developing emotional intelligence skills – particularly listening and empathy – I enriched my understanding of the world of higher education by being exposed to, and working with, such different perspectives.

As it did for many, 2020 taught me how to adapt. My own story of resilience involved an unanticipated return to Canada in late March – nine months earlier than planned – from where I continued to work with the ACU throughout the year. The initial weeks I spent at the ACU allowed me to develop an understanding of the organisation and build connections in-person. This helped in sustaining effective virtual work and collaboration during the months that followed. My experience at the ACU has prompted me to reflect on how ‘hybrid affiliations’ for academics like myself could be part of a best practice offering moving forward. These reflections are available from me upon request.

Events of 2020 also affected the content of my work with the ACU in at least two important ways;

Asking ‘why?’

My instinctive tendency to ask ‘Why?’ was further encouraged at the ACU, particularly during these unusual times. Like others, the ACU quickly pivoted in late March 2020, ensuring the safety of all staff and working to support its more than 500 member universities worldwide. Those times required a focus upon the evolving value proposition – how is the ACU uniquely positioned to offer programmes and services to universities around the virtual world? Being part of these discussions and activities was invigorating and thought-provoking. My own thinking about the role of internationalisation in higher education was certainly stimulated through this process of ‘learning by doing’.

Equity, diversity, and inclusion

My commitment to act upon equity, diversity, and inclusion issues has grown as well. Like so many others, I was impacted by the Black Lives Matter movement this year. I was so grateful to be in an organisation that – given its own history – has long had to address and to act upon this set of issues. Indeed, under Dr Joanna Newman’s leadership, issues of equity have always been front and centre. From gathering data on the issue, facilitating discussions and galvanizing action, the ACU’s activity this year has inspired and encouraged me to bring these issues more into focus in my own work.

As 2020 recedes and as 2021 approaches, I find I have mixed feelings: I am genuinely excited about returning to my activities at the University of Waterloo. I would like to think that I will arrive with increased knowledge, skills, perspectives, and connections that could serve to advance the university’s strategic priorities. I certainly arrive back with an invigorated commitment to maximise the ways in which the university that is so much a part of me can continue to advance global sustainability.

I will miss my ACU connections – perhaps not the 5am EST meetings (which, thankfully, were quite rare), but most definitely the people. Indeed, though I mention it ‘last’ in this blog entry, the people aspect is always the most important element to me. I am thankful for how welcomed I was made to feel at the ACU. I enjoyed working with so many committed, knowledgeable, globally-oriented, and amicable higher education professionals. I will continue to value the relationships greatly, and I hope that many of them will continue into the future.


Dr Ian H. Rowlands is Associate Vice-President, International at the University of Waterloo. During 2020, he was on sabbatical from the University of Waterloo and affiliated with the ACU.

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