Standing on neutral terrain
February 7, 2012

Who is the NSCAD facilitator and what is his job? We posed those questions to Dan O’Brien, the academic and administrator appointed by the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.

Dr. O’Brien was president and vice-chancellor of New Brunswick’s St. Thomas University from 1990 to 2006 and the acting president of the Atlantic School of Theology for 2011.

At a time when others are thinking about retirement, he’s busier than ever. As well as his NSCAD appointment, Dr. O’Brien was chosen as chair of Capital Health’s Board of Directors last February. He’s known as a problem solver; since leaving St. Thomas six years ago, Dr. O’Brien has assisted the Canadian Medical Association overhaul its governance structure and advised the Nova Scotia Department of Education on ways to improve teacher education, just to give two examples. 

“I would say I was chosen for this job because I have an independent view—a view that’s independent of government and independent of the school.”

As facilitator, he says he stands on “neutral terrain,”—a kind of middle ground between the Nova Scotia government and NSCAD as the university works to create a sustainability plan. Under the terms of the Windsor Report, that plan is due on Minister Marilyn More’s desk by March 31, 2012.

On the face of it, the task is “ridiculously simple,” says Dr. O’Brien. “When you boil it all down, it requires contracting expenditures and expanding revenues.”

But of course, devising the plan is much more complex than that, he adds quickly. Proposed changes must not damage the university’s core mission and studio-based model; the integrity of programs, the student experience and collective agreements with employee groups must be respected and maintained. As a former university president himself, Dr. O’Brien acutely understands the delicate balance.

Since his appointment less than a month ago, he’s been immersed in briefing manuals and reports and attending meetings with senior management and a special task force of the Board of Governors (Grant Machum, Ian Austen, Jim Mills, Julia Rivard, Rob Cameron, Michael Donovan). As well, he’s listened in on the consultation groups and sat down, along with NSCAD President David B. Smith, with the presidents of Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie Universities.

“Everyone’s really rolled up their sleeves,” says Dr. O’Brien. “They’re fully engaged.”

He’s already filed one of his reports with the Minister. He says the tight timetable for a plan—and the detail that it requires under the terms of the Windsor Report—makes it very difficult for the university. Complicating matters is the MOU, which was released subsequent to the Windsor Report, tasks other universities with some of the same challenges facing NSCAD (such as seeking out inter-university collaborations) but without the fast-approaching deadline.

“I’ve brought that to the attention of government,” he says, adding that NSCAD’s application to the University Excellence and Innovation program—the fund to encourage cost reductions on ongoing basis—will need a quick response for NSCAD to be able to incorporate it into its plan.

In only the short time that he’s been at NSCAD, he’s been convinced that NSCAD is indeed different from other universities—the orange among the apples. “The curriculum and the delivery are quite distinct,” he observes. “The closest I can compare it with are science programs at universities which are laboratory-based. Yes, it’s quite distinctive and different.”

Dr. O’Brien is open to meetings with groups, schedule permitting. He advises getting in touch through the Office of University Relations at

 DanOBrien     Dr. Daniel O'Brien is the former president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.