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January 2019 - John Tibbits

Bemused by A Unique Honour

“I’m not dead,” says Tibbits, but they named a campus after him anyway

by Paul Knowles

John Tibbits cracks a wry smile, and says, “Go ahead, ask – ‘If they’re naming buildings after you, why aren’t you dead?’” The reality is that the John W. Tibbits Campus of Conestoga College was officially opened in October, named for the man who is President of Conestoga College – and has been, since 1987.

But when the 150,000 square foot facility – which now features IT courses, culinary arts classes, and programs for new Canadians – was in the planning stages, being honoured with the name was the farthest thing from Tibbits’ mind. He was focused on raising the money to convert the old high school site into a marquee facility on University Avenue, to grab the attention of students and visitors at both Waterloo’s universities. So he approached Maureen Cowan, Chair of the Cowan Foundation. “The Cowan Foundation has been a supporter of the College for years.”

Cowan came through with $4 million of the $58 million price tag. “No one has ever given us $4 million,” says Tibbits. But there was a condition – “They could put any name they wanted on the building,” subject to the approval of the College’s Board of Governors.

Tibbits was sure the name would be the “Cowan Campus”. Well into the project, Tibbits finally discovered the name that Cowan had chosen – his own. “I didn’t know what to make of it,” he told Exchange. “It’s never been done before. It’s an honour, and I appreciate it, but I find it at times a bit odd.”

This new campus is just one more step in the amazing growth of the College; and that’s the result of the hard work put in by Tibbits and his team over the past three decades. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve got a good team, here,” says Tibbits. “Top-notch academic leaders who care about excellence and equity.”

Tibbits’ official title is indeed President, but perhaps it should be “Head Cheerleader” for the College. He never tires of promoting his school, and a conversation with him is peppered with superlatives. He points out that “We have about 4,000 students who already have degrees,” and he believes that number will increase, as university grads come to Conestoga seeking the practical training the College offers. He argues that the College is not competing with universities – “We think of ourselves as different from universities, not less than,” but at the same time, he’s believes that Conestoga will be able to offer more and more degree programs, including post-graduate, applied Master’s degrees.

He envisions a post-graduate nursing degree. Changes in health care education will be driven by need, says Conestoga’s president. There is a shortage of nurses in Ontario, and an even greater shortage of Personal Support Worker (another Conestoga program). Tibbits says Ontario currently needs 10,000 more PSWs.

The entire employment picture is changing, and changing fast: “I don’t think everyone’s going to be unemployed, but I do think we’re going to have a big issue keeping people up to speed in terms of employment.”

Conestoga continues to see growth by every measure possible. In the year 2000, for example, the college attracted between 400 and 500 international students. This term, there are over 8,000.

That’s good news for Canadian students, insists Tibbits. International students are filling programs that did not attract sufficient interest from Canadians. That means those programs can exist, and they’re open to the Canadians who do want them. Tibbits notes that programs that attract large numbers of Canadian applicants – like the 900 applications Conestoga receives for 32 spaces in the paramedic program – reserve all their spaces for Canadians.

Tibbits believes his College will play an even more vital role in the economy. The entire employment picture is changing, and changing fast: “I don’t think everyone’s going to be unemployed, but I do think we’re going to have a big issue keeping people up to speed in terms of employment.” Even people “with high-level skills” are finding that they need to work hard to keep up to the never-ending changes that come to the workplace. The answer? In Tibbits’ view – Conestoga College. “The future is going to be more and more short-term training. It’s not so much what degree you have, but what skills, what competence.”

The numbers suggest this is already happening. Tibbits says Conestoga has 16,600 full-time students – but that’s just a fraction of the 60,000 or so that are full or part-time, including apprentices. Even in the summer months, which used to be virtually dead at the school, there will be 6,000 students on one of the three campuses (Kitchener/Cambridge, Waterloo, and Brantford).

Tibbits could have retired some years ago. But he says, “I’m working because I like it. And I like to think I’m in reasonable shape (he’s actually a championship level senior tennis player). This is fun. We’re growing. Training is becoming more and more important, and we want to be in that market.… We’re getting more and more into on-line” education. Tibbits is not resting on his laurels “We’re going to grow in Brantford,” he says. Despite a recent set-back in provincial funding, “We will be in Milton.” And on the south Kitchener campus, a 50,000 square foot expansion will start in May of this year.

Says Tibbits, “We need to adapt, we’re ready to adapt, we have to adapt.”


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