Capilano University president Kris Bulcroft tracks her career from the U.S. to Europe to Canada, and from professor to administrator.
Capilano University’s new president comes to North Vancouver from right next door after a 20-year career in her native Washington state as a sociology professor at Western Washington University. However, she comes by way of Europe, most recently working as a provost of Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland. There she had first-hand experience with European universities’ struggles to forge a unified accreditation system, an exercise that’s among her top priorities today as Cap works through an accreditation process with the Washington-based Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. As a growing institution serving nearly 15,000 students, the former Cap College became a university in 2008, and Bulcroft is keen to take on the challenge of redefining the school’s purpose.
What was the focus of your research back in your faculty days?
My area is family and aging, so I had done a lot of work on later-life families, around laws pertaining to the elderly, policies around guardianship and a lot on later-life marriage and divorce and that sort of thing.
Do you keep up with the field these days?
Well, I’m married to a sociologist. It’s still the dinner-table conversation.
You’ve spent quite some time in Slovakia. What drew you there?
Through the U.S. government, there’s a program called the Fulbright Program that makes it possible for faculty to do research in other countries, and that’s what took me to Bratislava. But most things in life are personal, and my grandparents were Czech, so I had a personal interest in that part of the world. Then we had hosted an exchange student from Slovakia, and I went to visit her family. I just fell in love with the people as well as the country. I was in Slovakia for half a year the first time, and I’ve been back to do some consulting at universities. So I go back and forth quite a lot.
How did you go from being a professor to a university administrator?
I guess people assume that other people are purposeful and planned, but we’re not really. I was very happy teaching, I loved doing my research and I had no aspirations whatsoever to do administration. What happened is I took on the task of being the president of the faculty senate, and I did it so well that the administration said, Gee, Kris, you have the potential to be an administrator. And I said, I don’t really want to be an administrator. But they said I could lead a special project or two for a year and then go back to my faculty. So I agreed to do it, and one thing led to another. After five years of doing administration, I figured, I guess I’m in this for good.
Why have you stuck with it?
I came to realize that as a teacher you make a very big impact on the lives of the students in your class, but as an administrator you have the opportunity to make an impact on really all of the students.
What kind of impact are you hoping to make now?
Students are coming to us with more diverse needs. When I started my career almost 40 years ago, universities tended to serve a more homogenous student body. But that’s not true anymore. The necessity of having a university degree is almost universal, so more and more people want access. We’re also preparing students for a world that’s very different from the world I entered; it’s not just the discipline-specific learning. But if our aim is for all students to be successful, you can’t just assume that teaching it one way is going to meet everybody’s needs.
What can you do to address those increasing demands on academia?
One is trying to figure out how the campus has to work together to achieve our goals. And the only way that’s going to work is if we talk to each other and see where the gaps are. That’s why I think accreditation is important for us. As a new university, we are growing, in terms of our mission, the kinds of students we serve and our programs. And it’s really important when you’re at this point in your history to have some indicators of quality and continuous improvement. Without that, we’re more likely to flounder around and do guesswork. For example, we need students to be good problem solvers and good critical thinkers. Well, OK, but how do you measure that? What does that look like? We’re now at the point of actually being able to identify some of those indicators. Part of it is also that institutions have learned that we can’t be all things to all people. We have to set some priorities and then measure whether we’re progressing in a direction we need to go.
What is Capilano’s role in meeting B.C.’s higher-learning needs?
We’re what you would call an open-access institution, which means that students can come who maybe have had some barriers or are returning as older students – not the typical, traditional, right-out-of-high-school college market. And I think that’s good. That’s a really important market. My hope is that as Cap begins to fulfill its promise as a university, more and more students and families will see it as an actual equal option to maybe a big research place. I think one size doesn’t fit all for students, and students need to think about what’s the best fit for them.