A Farewell Interview with Dean of Nursing Anita Molzahn

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They say that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their desk. With nary a paper or book out of place in Anita Molzahn’s office, you get the sense that she’s incredibly organized and meticulous — a necessary skillset when you lead one of the largest nursing faculties in Canada.

On this chilly Thursday morning the sun is reflecting off one of the few personal effects in her office, a family photo from her daughter’s wedding two years ago. On a nearby bookshelf rests a first edition of Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not.

The steam rising from the cup of tea warms the room — as does Molzahn’s genuine smile.

With her last day as dean of the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing fast approaching, Molzahn opens up about her experiences and reflects on the last nine years.

You began your first term as dean on July 1, 2008. Was there anything that surprised you when started?

The extent of decentralization was a little different from what I expected. I came here from the University of Victoria, which is much smaller and much more centralized with regards to human resources, finance and IT staff.

Is there a part of the role that you enjoy the most? The least?

I truly enjoy the wide range of people that I get to meet every day; whether it’s potential new faculty members, alumni, donors or colleagues in the community who are interested in what we’re doing.

Reducing budgets would probably fall into the category of something that I enjoy the least.

Are there any accomplishments during your tenure that stand out?

I’m incredibly proud of all of us in terms of the rankings. Former president Samarasekera really emphasized rankings, and we hadn’t really thought very much about rankings before that time. Nursing had never been ranked as a discipline, and we didn’t quite know where we stood; our ranking as fourth in the world and second in Canada in 2016 was a pretty significant accomplishment for all of us.

Our faculty has had a lot of retirements and change, and I think another huge accomplishment has been our recruitment of some really strong new colleagues.

How many emails you receive on a typical day?

I’d say about 250. It’s always nice when you can hit delete pretty quickly [laughs], but you can’t do that with all of them.

What’s a typical week like for you?

Well, Monday through Thursday the days are pretty much filled with meetings. I do, however, try to set aside every Friday to work on my research, but that doesn’t always happen.

How many hours do you think you’ve spent in meetings?

I did a few calculations and I think it would work out to around 12,288 hours, or 512 days.

That’s a whole lot of meetings. How many kilometres do you think you’ve walked to and from meetings?

There’s an app on my iPhone that records my steps and I easily get in 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day.

Let’s do the math. If you walk 9,000 steps each work day that works out to around 13,824 kilometres over the last eight years. To put that into perspective, that’s about the distance from Edmonton to Sydney, Australia. Have you ever been to Sydney?

Oh wow! I have — but I didn’t walk there [laughs].

You’ve been to Sydney, but have you been on every building on campus?

Most of them, but not all of the engineering buildings!

When did you decide that nursing was your calling?

When I was about six years old I wanted to be a ballet dancer — but you can’t get very far if you don’t take dance lessons! By the time that I was in high school I knew I wanted to go into nursing; the idea of working with people and helping to make a difference in people’s lives really appealed to me.

An administrative path isn’t for everyone; why did it appeal to you over teaching or clinical nursing?

Early in my career I was assigned to administrative roles, such as course lead for a large course. I think I have some skills in that area and you can make a difference and influence the shape of things, so that’s what attracted me.

What’s the most difficult situation that you’ve encountered as dean?

When we lost Dr. Christine Newburn-Cook, associate dean of research, in 2011. That was an incredibly difficult time for all of us in the faculty.

You’re a huge proponent of work-life balance. How do you maintain a healthy balance?

I think it’s something that everyone works towards, although there are times when you get closer to it than others. When you have a mad crunch to get something in before a deadline, you just do what you have to do, and you lose balance for a little while.

I try to spend some time exercising, time with family, and I make sure that I have a little time for myself too. For sure there are days where you think, well, maybe tomorrow I’ll get a bit of time to do this for myself.

You’ll be on a year of administrative leave once you’re finished on June 30, 2017. What will you be doing?

I want to spend some time writing and I’ll also be going to a few conferences. My husband, Nigel, and I will be attending one in Italy in October and will take some time afterwards to visit Cinque Terre — which is made up of five villages — on the Italian coast. We are also looking forward to becoming grandparents in November!

We have a home on the west coast in Sidney, British Columbia, which is just outside of Victoria. My daughter, Laurel, lives in Sidney as well, and my son, Wesley, is close by in Vancouver; so it will be nice to have a little bit more time to reconnect with family and friends.

You can have dinner with any one living person — who do you choose and why?

Robert Redford. He’s one of my favourite actors and I like his stance on a number of environmental and social issues.

Do you have a favourite building on campus?

The Faculty Club has lovely views of the River Valley and the city.

What do you like to do in your free time? Are you a closet knitter?!

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I’m definitely not a knitter! When I was in Home Economics we had to knit a hairband and my mother had to help me finish the assignment [laughs]. I’m actually an avid hiker — when my husband and I go on our holidays we hike every day, or at least try to.

Do you have favourite place to hike?

In Palm Springs, California at Indian Canyons are some wonderful trails. Although next year Nigel and I will be spending a month in Sedona, Arizona and I’m quite looking forward to hiking there.

Favourite book?

All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a recent favourite. Room by Emma Donoghue is also another book that has really stayed with me.

Tablet or paper?

I do use my iPad to read when I travel because it’s so much lighter, but with that said, there’s nothing better than holding the book you’re reading in your hands.

Favourite place to be?

Probably our home in Sidney.

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What’s something our community might be surprised to learn about you?

My son is a musician, so when he has gigs nearby, you may find me helping out as a roadie! I’ll be doing anything from lugging equipment around to taking cover at the door.

You did your BScN, MN and PhD at the University of Alberta. Is there a particular class or professor that made an impression on you?

The nursing research course that I took as an undergraduate student definitely had an enormous impact on me. It was taught by Patricia Hayes and we had to write a research proposal for one of our assignments. During my clinical practice I’d been working with people who had chronic kidney disease and based my assignment on that because I found that there were always more questions than answers.

I received a really good grade on the proposal, so I submitted the proposal to the Kidney Foundation for funding without really knowing a whole lot about research. To my surprise, the project was funded and I had to learn very quickly — with some help — how to do my first research project!

Do you have any advice for your successor, Greta Cummings?

You can’t do it by yourself. Consult widely and ensure that you have support for new initiatives and help in moving them forward. We have great colleagues in the faculty, so you might as well rely on them.

Are you looking forward to moving to a new phase of your career?

After my administrative leave ends I’ll still be a professor with the faculty. I may move to a part-time appointment as part of a phased retirement. I currently teach a course in the doctoral program, and I hope to continue that as I begin wrapping up my research projects, which are in the writing stages.

I’m looking forward to a change in pace and a little bit more time for myself and family. Life has lots of new adventures, so we’ll see what it holds.

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Yolanda Poffenroth — Communications Coordinator, Faculty of Nursing

Yolanda is the communications coordinator with the faculty of nursing. When she’s not interviewing the dean she enjoys playing squash, reading a good book, and living dangerously by putting bowties on her perpetually unimpressed cat.