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New President, Dr. Ben Cecil, excited to join Olds College Team

December 07, 2022

On Nov. 2, 2022, Leona Staples, Chair, Olds College Board of Governors, announced the 14th President of Olds College of Agriculture & Technology – Dr. Ben Cecil. The Board of Governors conducted a nation-wide executive search to find the College’s next President.

Dr. Cecil comes to Olds College from London, Ont., where he most recently served as Vice-President, Academic at triOS/Eastern College. With deep roots tied to the agriculture and horticulture sectors, Dr. Cecil brings a personal connection to agriculture, and a successful career dedicated to post-secondary with him to his new role as President. 

We recently had the opportunity to sit down and interview Dr. Cecil to learn more about the College’s next President, who starts at the College on January 16, 2023.

What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of, and why? 

When it comes to career accomplishments, I’m most proud of the teams I have worked with over the years. It has been my honour working with outstanding people and developing incredible teams. Building strong teams that rely on the collective expertise of the group, using that expertise in a genuinely collaborative way, and establishing a “culture of the possible” where the team members really (and I mean REALLY) support each other has been the greatest accomplishment of my career.

How did you start out in the agriculture industry, and how has it brought you to where you are today?  

I grew up in rural Ontario and worked on both my grandparent’s farm in Tweed, and on a dairy farm in Simcoe as a young man. Each weekend on my grandparent’s farm, we had a delivery of 100 to 120 chicks and I worked many hours under the heat bulbs in the poultry brooder sorting chicks. On the dairy farm, I was the summer labourer. I loaded hay bales, mucked the stalls, and made sure the cattle didn’t get hurt or break a leg — meaning I was responsible for ‘tending’ to the groundhog holes in the pastures.

I’ve applied that first-hand work ethic developed on the farm into the support of academic programs I have led such as Hort-Tech, Landscape Technologist, Environmental Science, Wetland Remediation, Ecosystem Restoration, Arboriculture and Greenhouse Operations.

When I was in the private sector, I managed projects for a number of meat packers and processors such as Maple Leaf Foods, Dominion Packers and Mitchell’s Gourmet Foods in Saskatoon. I worked the kill-floor in a processing plant, which allowed me to gain first-hand experience to support clients in the sector.

I continue to take that hands-on, learn-as-you-live-it approach in all that I do. Applying that knowledge, that experience, and now linking it to my experience in the college sector is how I plan to help Olds College advance as the leading agriculture education institution in the country.

Why are you interested in working in the agriculture and agri-food sector? 

The pandemic has reinforced in us the importance of food security. With the disruptions to global supply chains, access to safe and affordable food in an era of accelerated inflation, and the need to produce more food with fewer resources to feed an ever-growing global population, comes with increasing demand for a skilled workforce to provide agricultural products and services. Olds College is uniquely positioned to leverage its innovative and entrepreneurial culture to train the next generation of agricultural leaders who will deploy new technologies, optimize agricultural output, and develop transformative practices to create a better world. It is through the personal development of the individual, grounded in applied hands-on student centric and industry-informed practice, where I see unlimited opportunity. In Olds College, I see this opportunity to educate the next generation and advance a sector so critical to the success of not only the province, but our entire world, and I am excited to become part of it.

Why do you enjoy working in post-secondary? 

The students. I firmly believe that all students arrive at our doors on their first day of college and they see themselves as the agri-business workers, farriers, landscape technicians, or precision agriculture technologists they hope to become upon graduation. We have a sacred trust to help them fulfil those dreams and bring those dreams to life by providing them with the education, experiential learning, and success-supports to achieve those dreams. When we help the students, we advance our mission and we create a better, transformed sector (ag and education) as we transform lives, one student, one graduate at a time. When students cross the stage when they graduate, and we have had a hand in helping them get to that point where they are achieving their dreams – there is simply nothing more fulfilling to me.

What are the core components of your leadership style? 

You will all likely hear this a lot in the coming weeks/months/years from me — and it is the steadfast and unwavering foundation of my leadership style. In everything we do, before we act or undertake anything, ask yourself these three questions: 1) Is it good for the students? 2) Is it good for the College? 3) Is it good for the communities we serve? To those questions, we must get three “yes” answers before we act. Anything less than a three-way “yes” means we need to rethink the approach, the action or even the initiative itself. In all we/I do, the students will always be the first focus, immediately connected to how we (all Olds College employees) benefit from the initiative as we support our students, and how what we are about to do serves the industries, sectors and communities we touch.

To ensure the “yes” is well informed, I listen. I rely on information from the experts across the College, in the community and in the sector to help make good decisions. I seek people’s opinions, so you will see me asking lots of questions to understand your context about an issue. In meetings, I do far more listening than speaking. I let the experts be the experts, and I count on their expertise to inform decisions. I use healthy and respectful conversations/debates to gather as many viewpoints as possible on issues before decisions are made, and once made, we/I communicate the decision and then act boldly.

What excites you about working at Olds College of Agriculture & Technology?

The fact that everything at the College is singularly focused on agriculture and technology. That focus brings clarity. That focus brings commitment. It brings energy and a sense of community that we are all working towards a singular purpose. That focus allows the three questions above to remain the center of our decision-making without the divisional rivalries over budgets, recognition, or small ‘a’ agendas so typical of many institutions that do not have a focus. Our guiding purpose is clear – “Transforming Agriculture for a better world.” Agriculture — period. Clear. Powerful. Focused. And I’m excited to expand on that century-plus of tradition, double-down on what we are leaders at (ag and tech), continue to fulfill the mission of the College, deliver on our excellent strategic plan, and not change that direction. I’m excited to take that direction into even more focused ag and tech offerings and opportunities that will help Olds become not only the provincial, but national leader in agriculture education and sector thought leadership.

What is your plan for the first three months as President of Olds College? 

Lots of listening, asking questions, and getting to know the culture that is uniquely Olds. I want to meet the students and employees in their classrooms, labs, fields, and work sites to hear first-hand their hopes and desires for their future and hear from them about their college experiences. I’ll be doing a lot of walking the halls in the first few months, listening and learning as I try to meet as many people as I can so I may hear their stories.

I will also be connecting with sector leaders, local businesses, partners, sponsors, donors and local government just to name a few. 

Will you be relocating to Olds? 

Absolutely. My wife and I have already found a little place in town, and we are so looking forward to becoming part of the community. It’s important to me to live in the community where I work — to be part of the town, to participate in local events, to shop at and support the local stores, and to get my coffee at the local coffee shop. 

Having lived across the country, in big cities and small towns, I prefer community-minded living. Knowing and helping your neighbours, and working to better not just the lives of students who come through the doors of the College, but all lives in the region — because the work we do at the College is immensely rewarding and is what draws me to Olds (College and community).

What is your vision for Olds College of Agriculture & Technology? 

I talked about doubling-down on our tradition of agriculture and technology to support both Alberta and the entire ag sector. I’m committed to that tradition. I want to see the existing Strategic Plan and the direction it sets (a plan, by the way, that is superbly done with clear measurable outcomes all connected to the transformation of agriculture) fully achieved. Agriculture is transforming at an ever-increasing pace. I want to make sure our graduates have the skills and knowledge to help Alberta be the leader in agriculture and then help us (Olds College) take that leadership to the world. I know that might sound ambitious, and it is. We have experienced severe weather from droughts to floods on the Prairies, we have introduced advanced technology to improve crop/production yields, and we are finding ever more innovative ways to be effective stewards of the land. These are issues many parts of the world are now facing for the first time as it relates to their traditional agricultural practices. We’ve lived it. We’ve found solutions. We’ve got the experts right here at Olds College. We’re educating the next generation of thought leaders who can continue their innovative work. Now, let’s bring that knowledge to the world.

What role do you see the College playing going forward to support applied research and industry? 

I’ve always found the agriculture community to be very open to sharing knowledge. Helping each other helps everyone. So sharing ideas, innovations, what works and what doesn’t is the “culture” in agriculture. The College has many experts in their respective fields who are exploring leading-edge solutions to some of the challenges the sector is facing. With the resources of the College, the knowledge of our employees, and an eager group of students willing to apply their learning into real-world, hands-on experiences and challenges places the College at the heart of delivering solutions. Working with industry, locally and abroad, to solve real issues so we can then share them with the world is a natural extension of both our mission and our social purpose. As I have done at other colleges across the country, I intend to continue to support our role in applied research, industry support, and knowledge sharing through our employees and through the Olds College Centre for Innovation.

In the time between your hiring and your start date, what have you done to prepare for this role at Olds College?

Reading, reading and more reading. Anything and everything I can get my hands on — from the College’s reports, to the town history, to the PSLA, to reports from the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission, to the Alberta Beef Producers and everything in-between.

I have been meeting weekly with Dr. Ray Block, Interim President of Olds College, who has been so helpful in sharing information about the College and getting me up to speed on matters at the College — from research, to budgets, to community connections. I have also been working closely with Heather Steckly, Chief of Staff, who has helped so much in preparing for my arrival. To both of them, I owe a huge debt of thanks.

From your research of Olds College, what do you think is the most unique quality of the College? What stood out the most to you? 

It could be the Brewery. It could be the Equine Massage certificate program. It could be the focus on agriculture for 110 years. It could be that there are horses stabled at the heart of campus. It could be the size of the land holdings of the College at 3,600 acres (making it the largest educational facility in the country). It could have been the autonomous equipment on the Smart Farm. Quite frankly, the list is so long, I could go on for ages.

What really stood out the most was when I spoke with students and members of the faculty, and the passion they have for the College. The faculty spoke of how their program was supporting students; and the students said with passion how personalized their learning was at Olds College because of how the faculty and staff genuinely care about them not just as a learner, but also as a person. That, for me, sealed the deal. I was in. I was immediately invested. To see that passion from the faculty for what we do and to hear it echoed by the students said to me “Olds College lives the three questions with a resounding ‘YES’ in every answer.” That’s an amazing quality to see in an institution — and I can’t wait to be part of it.

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