ALONE AT THE FRONT

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by Victoria Scrozzo 

It’s been more than a month and a half since Arne Kislenko was named one of the 10 finalists in TVOntario’s Big Ideas, Best Lecturer competition, but Ryerson’s promotional strategy appears to be blowing the school’s chances of winning the $10,000 grand prize — and the prestige of being home to the best professor in the province.

Ryerson officials say they don’t have the tools to generate support for their candidate’s nomination and upcoming Nov. 5 TVO appearance. The series began Oct. 8. Kislenko was nominated by students last fall alongside 359 other lecturers in Ontario for the series.

“If we had unlimited (resources) we could have done more,” says Bruce Piercey of the Office of University Advancement, adding that efforts have very recently been made to start promoting Kislenko, a popular history professor who consistently appears on Maclean’s Popular Profs list.

But this delay will likely hinder the history professor’s chances, since student support will be the deciding factor in the competition, says Big Ideas spokesperson Alex Stewart.

“I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that students are rallying around their professors,” says Stewart. “I have been able to see what’s happening around the province, and it has been staggering how much each university got behind it and the support from each town involved.”

Carleton University immediately posted a large rotating red banner that stretches across the school’s homepage to promote its three finalists.

“The response has been fantastic from faculty and staff,” says Carleton spokesperson Steve Blais, adding that the university did so much to promote its candidates that when it came time to film the final lectures, “we had to turn people away.”

In contrast, Ryerson wouldn’t give TVO cameramen time before Kislenko’s lecture to set up. No extra space, they were told. Kislenko had to personally approach the professor teaching before him, who happily wrapped up a few minutes early.

“I thought a school especially like Ryerson would jump on the bandwagon, I know other schools have,” says Kislenko. “For a school that really wants to promote themselves as an academic place — not to seize upon it — it’s odd.”

Carleton plastered posters across campus before filming began, and they were reposted when the lectures began airing on television. Features on each of the professors appeared in the university’s monthly newsletter, and e-newsletter. In addition, a mass e-mail alerted students, faculty and staff to when, where and how to vote for lecturers —  and that’s just Carleton’s internal promotions.

The Best Lecturer competition operates similarly to Canadian Idol. Each week, TVO broadcasts pre-taped lectures from two finalist professors, and viewers vote for their favourite contestant online or by phone. A panel of judges selected the top 10 finalists.

Following Kislenko’s top 10 announcement, Ryerson posted a small, white link of congratulations on the bottom right of the “Spotlight” section. Only this past Monday did a full biography of Kislenko appear on the site — but it’s not on the homepage. There are no posters of support around campus. And since the president hasn’t sent out an official e-mail, many students aren’t even aware of the competition, let alone that Ryerson has an entry.

If Kislenko won the Best Lecturer title, the impact would be priceless, says Kiran Chauhan of High Road Communications, a public relations agency in Toronto that deals with major corporations such as Microsoft and Universal Home Entertainment.

“I don’t think the university is looking at the long term. If they’re trying to change the stigma of how they’re viewed, they have to see this as a golden opportunity,” says Chauhan. “They can use it to heighten their profile. It shows that Ryerson has great profs, a great learning environment and it makes it attractive to prospective students.”

Three weeks ago, the Office of University Advancement lacked personnel to devote to the project, until media relations officer Suelan Toye started at Ryerson. Since she began on the project, Toye has posted Kislenko’s biography online and she hopes to get an e-mail bulletin sent out before Kislenko’s TVO appearance.

Ryerson is in the process of updating and branding its image, says Adam Kahan, the vice president of university advancement. Last year the university was engaged in developing a brand that would emphasize Ryerson’s reputation and profile. The school spent about $55,000 on research for the project, which was put on hold until new president Sheldon Levy settled in, but Kahan says the university plans to restart the branding initiative within a month.

Kislenko’s victory would benefit Ryerson students most. The winning school is awarded a $10,000 scholarship.

“I’d like to win just so that Ryerson can wave the flag a bit,” says Kislenko, adding that if he wins, he’d want to see the money turned into a travel scholarship for students. “This isn’t just a thing I thought students would care about. I thought administration would care. I’m not hurt, I’m just surprised.”

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