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Q&A: Meet the new president of Quest University

Arthur Coren takes over as president and vice-chancellor of the Squamish school in June.
Questnew president
On June 1, Arthur Coren will become Quest University's new president and vice-chancellor.

Squamish's Quest University Canada will soon have a new president and vice-chancellor. 

On June 1, Arthur Coren will take over from George Iwama, who is stepping down from the position after leading the university since 2017.

Quest currently has about 200 students and 60 staff. 

Coren, who has a long career in academia, comes to Quest most recently as president and vice-chancellor of University Canada West, a private, for-profit university based in Vancouver. 

The Squamish Chief caught up with Coren — he literally pulled over near Shannon Falls while driving up to Quest — for a wide-ranging chat about his plans and hopes for the Squamish university and its students. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Why did you want to apply for the job at Quest? 

I've been familiar with Quest since the days before the late David Strangway started it.

I remember sitting with him at an event and him talking about what he was going to do post-UBC, and he had this dream about starting this university. I've always been impressed by the concept of Quest. And Number 2, there are things that you can do on the private university side that have more flexibility than you do with the public.

Like what kinds of things? 

Number 1, there's a fair amount of flexibility in terms of the programming and that kind of thing. Number 2, smaller private universities tend to be smaller and, as a result, can be a little bit more nimble in terms of the decision-making process. It's often easier to get people together and figure out the direction and get them pointed that way as opposed to larger universities where — we've all heard the joke — it can take months and months to make a decision.

When you started at Canada West, it had some struggles before that you worked to turn around. And then, obviously, Quest has had some well-publicized financial issues. So what's your perspective on its struggles? 

This is a great location in terms of being more of a retreat setting, but…there's not a huge university community to draw from, so it really is a destination school. I think we would all accept that. 

For Quest, there are lots of things that we need to take a look at. The university has one program, which is exceptional and has amazing students, but it's really not going to be enough to sustain the institution moving forward.

I've had a couple of meetings with the faculty, the staff and the students; they all seem motivated. They all love what they've got. But they understand that we need to extend the palate at the institution. And there seems to be a very can-do attitude. What else can a guy ask for coming into a new situation? 

And I've worked with the Squamish band in various ways since my days at Kwantlen. So, the folks of the Squamish Nation are extraordinary in their support, in their giving, and in their understanding.

You are just starting in the role. What do you see as the first things you will be tackling at the school in your first year? 

I am an old hand, and I have got the scars on my back to show it.

I will keep my mouth shut and listen to people and ask as many questions as I can. 

Obviously, for this institution, the biggest thing is to find a business model that's going to work and generate enough revenue to satisfy its financial commitments. That has to be the primary focus. Everybody in this community and lots of folks in the post-secondary community understand what Quest went through. 

Now the school is in a position where it really is like a startup; it's an entrepreneurial venture. 

We've got the blessing of the Ministry of Advanced Education to offer a degree. We've got the Sea to Sky University Act behind us. We've got the support of the community and the Squamish Nation, and a good group of alumni. And that's where we start to see how we're going to take the world.

What do you hope students take away when they graduate from Quest? 

There are so many things. Obviously, when students come to us, they come because they want to get a great education. And that, first and foremost, is our priority.

Number 2, I want them to know that the institution and the faculty and the staff cared about them and did what they could to make the students' time here a positive one — that they were taken care of.

What I want them to do is to look at what many would perceive as being a small community in the mountains and see how beautiful it is and how gracious the people are — and welcoming. I mean for me, I was born and raised in Philadelphia. To come to a school like Quest would have been just such a beautiful change, and what a marvellous difference it would have made.

Will you be living in Squamish, and where do you live now?

Right now, in the South-Surrey, White Rock area. I certainly plan to be up in Squamish, initially several days a week, and once the family gets everything sorted out and settled, we'd love to be up here.

One thing that is confusing for the public and maybe even some at the school is what Quest's relationship is now with Primacorp Ventures. How do you see it? 

Quest University is run-owned by the board of governors of the Sea to Sky Corporation. They're independent and have the enabling legislation of the Sea to Sky Act.

Unfortunately, because of the financial troubles they went into, they ended up liquidating assets. So now they have a landlord, Primacorp, and they also have some financial arrangements with Primacorp to continue operating the institution. Primacorp doesn't own the university. They own the land and provide financing. To whatever extent possible, everybody wants a good relationship with their landlord and their banker.

While the financial obstacles are well-known, there has always been a core of folks who had a dream for Quest as a liberal arts university focused on small class sizes, experiential learning and so on. Will that heart of what was planned for the school be lost? 

You don't throw the baby out with the bath water, because so much of Quest's reputation was built around that particular program.

But the reality is, and I think everybody understands this, that program and the business model that specifically surrounded it was not sustainable. And we don't have to believe me; the proof is with what they, unfortunately, went through in the past few years. So there are opportunities to keep the programs that are near and dear to us while we expand the others. 

And I guess the other thing that I would say is that many of the things that make the Quest program so special and so wonderful also create some of the challenges.

I'm sure you've heard about the block model, right? Students go for four or five weeks, take one course and then on to the next one. 

It's a residential model, which means that even if a student is interested in a particular subject area of liberal arts, it's very challenging for a part-time student or a student who wants to work or has family or, you know, can't commit to a residential model to come and partake [in] our classes. Those are some things that we need to look at so we can appeal to more students because, at the end of the day, we're an educational organization. We're here to help improve the education of anybody that wants to come and benefit from our services. To be married to just one model, I don't think, is the wisest thing, but, as I said, I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That would be silly because there's a great reputation around it.

Anything else you want folks to know? 

I think that it's important that everybody realizes that this school is very much alive. It's a going concern and they should know that we're going to work together to grow it and hopefully emerge better than the institution has ever been, with more things to offer. It's going to benefit the students and benefit the community. And I do think that the institution is a good draw.

Learn more about Quest on its website.