Q&A: Ron Burnett

President, Emily Carr University

March 4, 2011

By Michael Harris

Are your design and art students as distracted and fragmented as other kids?

What you’re describing I call bricolage-the capacity to take a great many fragments and bring them together into an organized form. Younger people are better at it. Which means they can create links between things that don’t have obvious connections.

We ask computers to do bricolage when we get the Twitter engine to find trends, say.

Totally. YouTube and Twitter are becoming more powerful as people learn how they can bring together things that otherwise wouldn’t be connected.

How disconnected are your days?

My days are filled with meetings. I’m generally on a cycle of 60-hour weeks working in an office I consider both real and virtual. I receive 60 to 80 emails a day and I try to answer all of them within 24 hours.

You’re also writing books on culture and media. How do you find time to create something new?

I write in the evenings. When I was hired, in 1996, I said I would maintain my writing and my creativity or I wouldn’t be good for this type of institution. And I’m oblivious once I start writing. I can’t hear things.

What do you read?

I’m reading David Grossman’s new novel at the moment. I have over 15,000 books in my library, plus my iPad. I keep about 20 books on the go. I’ve spent many years training myself to be a very fast reader. I consider books to be my friends. It comforts me to know they’re sitting there, waiting for me.

How has Emily Carr changed in your 15 years there?

It’s unrecognizable. It was finally, after 83 years, recognized as a university. And it’s gone from 850 students to 1,800.

But the campus was only designed for 1,000 students. How are plans coming to expand onto the Great Northern Way site?

Ground will be broken this year for a 50,000 square-foot building to house a collaborative master’s of digital media program, a shared degree among UBC, SFU, Emily Carr, and BCIT.

Emily Carr has been stepping up its new media programs. You’ve opened a large 3D production facility and a new research centre devoted to social and interactive media.

Sure. Anyone in any creative industry who thinks they can stay unchanged for a month is dead. That includes journalists, by the way.

What do you say to people who think art school is a waste of time?

An Ipsos poll found our level of post-graduate employment is more than 90 percent, higher than most institutions’. But you have to be careful when you talk about the economies of education. We can make economic rationales, but education is really about creating great citizens.

Still, arts institutions often have a hard time justifying their existence.

Education is a non-linear process. We don’t know what the output will be, but we do know that an uneducated society is a society with no future.

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