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Dr. Diane Purvey: Dean of Arts, Kwantlen Polytechnic University


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/03/22

1. What positions have you held in Academe?  What position do you currently hold?

My positions held have been:   Assistant Professor in the School of Education in the Faculty of Human, Social and Educational Development at Thompson Rivers University, where I was promoted to the position of Associate Professor.  I was also Chair of a large department.  I applied for and was offered the position of Dean here at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.  Also, I have done a lot of different sessional and online teaching, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  In fact, I recently taught a couple of courses at Royal Roads, in both online and face-to-face formats.  However, this is my first full-time administrative role.

2. How did you come to this point in your academics?  Who/what influenced you the most? 

Soon after I started a permanent job at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) I became Chair.  I discovered I was good at it.  It felt right.  What is more, I liked it.  However, administrative work is not highly valued in the Faculties.  It is not something faculty desire to go into.  For example, when I told people I had taken on the position here, many of my colleagues responded that I had gone onto the dark side.  It is seen as a negative rather than something to aspire to.  While at TRU, I slowly started doing more administrative work.  I sat on more internal and external committees.  In 2012 I was invited to apply for my current Dean of Arts position, but I was on sabbatical at the time and I had full intention to return to TRU.  It was one of those situations where I thought it would be interesting to go through the interview process. I thought I will see what it is like.  It was low risk for me because I had a job which I liked and looked forward to there. And, the more I looked into the position at KPU, they more I was intrigued.   The interviews were great.  I liked the people I met.  I like the trajectory of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) from a college to a university-college to a polytechnic university.  It felt like a good fit for me.

3. How did you gain interest in Social and Educational Studies?  Where did you acquire your education?

I think of myself as a historian.  I did my B.A. and M.A. in History.  When I decided to do my Ph.D., I wanted to work with a particular historian.  Her name is Veronica Strong-Boag.  At the time, she was at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in the history department.  About the time I talked to her, and she agreed to be my supervisor, she had accepted a position at University of British Columbia (UBC).  She would become the head of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Relations.  That position was affiliated with Social and Educational Studies at UBC.  Now, Nicki, my supervisor, is a historian, but she became associated with Social and Educational Studies.  Therefore, being her student, I became, de facto, associated with Social and Educational Studies.  I do not have a teaching degree, nor a teaching background in terms of K-12, but I began to teach in the teacher training program and the courses I taught had to do with history of education, history of childhood, history of women, and the history of the family.  These were the history courses within Social and Educational Studies.  Social and educational Studies at UBC is composed of sociology, history, anthropology, and philosophy of education.  None, or few, of the faculty within Social and Educational Studies have teaching degrees.  The courses are called foundational because they look at the history or sociology of education.  That is how I got into it.  It is a bit odd because many people think I come from education, but I do not.

4. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?

Lots of research, it is kind of funny.  As I became affiliated with Social and Educational Studies, and earned my Ph.D., I became aware that a lot of the jobs available were the jobs in education.  I took the job at TRU in Educational Studies.  However, my research continued to be in history.  My Ph.D. was on women in the family in Canada in the post-World War II period (1945-1960), and the transition from war time to peace time and the way this played out in the context of the family during the Cold War.  For instance, the context of the Cold War was creating a discourse of ‘a stable nation is a stable home’.  My Masters was on orphanages, which was on the history of childhood.  So my Ph.D. was a continuation of research on the history of the family, but in a different time period.  I published and edited a collection of articles on the history of family and childhood issues.  I worked on roadside shrines, which was a history of grieving and memorialization in British Columbia (BC).  I published more recently a book co-authored with my husband called Vancouver Noir, which is Vancouver between the 1930 and 1960 period.  Also, I recently began work on de-institutionalization.  Beginning in the 1950s in Canada, people began to leave mental health facilities.  I looked at their experiences.  What was the experience of deinstitutionalization like for them?  In addition, I studied de-institutionalization of the developmentally disabled.  I focus much of my research in the domain of.  About three years ago I thought, I really am in a Faculty of Education, I should do some educational research.  Opportunities arose around the history of ‘principal preparation’ programs in the province, ‘diversity’, and diversity education and administration.  When I was on sabbatical in 2011/2012, I did a lot of that research which is coming out in a number of publications this year.  I have oscillated between history and education, which for me are two separate tracks of research with modest intersections.  As of late, it is difficult to continue researching because of the demands of this position, but I consider it really important for me, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, to continue with a research agenda.  So, although difficult in terms of finding the time, it is important and a definite priority for me.

5. In your current role as Dean of Arts, where do you see ‘The University’ (as an abstract) going?

Good question, I could talk a lot about that, but I think we are re-defining ‘The University’.  Is it a place for people to become credentialed for a skill or job?  Is it job preparation?  Or is it the place for people to become enlightened in terms of liberal education?  I do not necessarily consider these antithetical, although they are often presented as such.  I do not think they necessarily need teasing apart.  For instance, in the university, we can prepare people for jobs and for living in a global society.  Prepare them for living in a society with people who have a multitude of diversities.  It does not necessarily mean not equipping them with the tools for a job.  At KPU, we have the polytechnic title, but we have liberal education courses.  The courses do not necessarily have pragmatic applications for an immediate job.  For example, philosophy does not necessarily teach someone a skill for a job, but it does open our minds by making us consider things in a different way, especially those things that we have not considered before.  We may not have questioned ourselves and our assumptions before, which is essential, to me, to be a citizen in today’s world and to be a good employee at virtually any job.  In terms of the direction for the University, I think universities will be around for some time.  I would like to see universities having more open access regarding the constraints people have with respect to the cost of university. Even though universities may not be very expensive, while attending university you may be unable to work, which is a negative expense.  I want universities to be more open, more available, and much more flexible in terms of when we offer courses.  Not simply a more fulsome summer semester, but I mean weekends, evenings, early mornings, that sort of stuff to make education way more accessible for people.  Education or a university is becoming more than graduating from high school, doing your four years like I did, but becoming a place to come back to for continual learning.  This is the place where I see universities going.  In terms of our post-secondary institutions, I like the idea of various institutions connecting to one another.  For instance, a student could live in Dawson Creek going to Northern Lights College (NLC) can take those courses and go to Athabasca University (AU) for open learning, come here, and then put things together from a variety of experiences.  Also, I am a big believer in prior learning assessment.  Putting things together from these various life experiences and different courses that they have taken.  It is fundamental to the institution.  You know, not all faculty at KPU conduct research.  They may not conduct research in the traditional academic sense, but they are actively engaged in the research and the scholarship of teaching and learning, they re-work assignments, think about their classes, re-design their courses, and they think about this in consistent and constant ways without even realizing it or recognizing it as a form of research.   I think research in all its forms is important for me to recognize and value.

6. In some cases, you have sciences such as biology bringing the knowledge and experiments down to the high school level, and having ambitious teachers and their students, at least in some cases, attempt, and in occasional cases succeeding, to publish their work. 

I love that.  I think more high school students should come into the university setting and receive dual-credits.  I love the idea of having students engage in the university in this way.  I think KPU should do more of this, and I have been an active supporter of the dual credit program, which at KPU is called Xcel.

7. Since you began studying social and educational studies, what do you consider the controversial topics? How do you examine the controversial topics?

I work with people have mental health issues.  They have problems, obviously, and this impacts the research. For instance, I worked with a woman in creating a video. She disappeared for about six months.  I worried about her. As it turns out, she went through a bad time.  She did not want to be part of the world.  Now, she is back – to my delight.  However, these factors come into play when conducting the research. It can come into their own experiences with poverty, stigma, homelessness, and so on.  All of those things are much different compared to going out to the library and having total control for four hours to conduct research on archival materials.  This has made me appreciate working with people, and the challenges of that.  The dynamic between you, as the researcher – let’s face it, a middle-class privileged white researcher – and the way it plays out in the research, how this plays out in our relationship, and the way I need to understand and research their lives.  It has led to really, really understanding other people, and by that, also understanding myself.  I am a historian through and through.  I love history.  I do not want to devalue history, but working with actual people is a different animal – let me tell you.  It has hugely changed my attitude to research and to people.

8. In both cases, we have qualitative research.

I do mostly qualitative research; a little quantitative, but not a lot.  Most of my historical research is 20th century, recent history.

9. How would you describe your philosophical framework? How did it change?

When I was first in university, I was exposed to Marxism and Socialism, which was huge for me.  Labour history had a huge influence on me.  Then I was introduced to feminist history during my masters, and that had a big influence on me as a female in the academy because I came to realize I had only a few female role models.  In terms of both faculty and historians, at that time in the 80s, it was much different.  Even when I was a history student, to make it from there to a professorship was a huge challenge, I will give a little example.  When I decided to do my Ph.D., I had finished my B.A., worked for a while, began my masters, had a child, finished my master’s dissertation, had two more children, and then decided to do a Ph.D.  I applied to various universities and for a few that included an interview process.  In one interview, the interviewers wondered about the gap between finishing my masters and starting my Ph.D.  I worked at (what is now)  KPU, Douglas College, University of the Fraser Valley, Simon Fraser University, and  Vancouver Island University, all of the institutions of the lower mainland going back and forth between them attempting to gather together a life.  An interviewer asked, “Why did you take a 5 to 6 year break?”  I paused and said, “I had three children.”  He replied, “I put it to you.  If you were serious about your academic life, you would not have had children.”  That was in the 90s.  I thought, “That makes a statement.”  Maybe, that is the reason for women not existing in significant numbers in the academy.  If he treated me like that, I wonder of the treatment of his female colleagues.

10. If you had unlimited funding and unrestricted freedom, what would you enjoy researching?

That is a good question.  It goes to my previous statements about working with people having mental diagnoses.  That is, although I love history and think of myself as a historian, and believe a historical perspective benefits our understanding of everything in our society, I have to tell you, from working with people having mental diagnoses and seeing their experience, the way they walk through life and stick with it, especially coupled with my living in Gastown, Vancouver now.  One and a half blocks from Hastings Street, the population, the homeless population, addicts, I know many of these people are deinstitutionalized. They have a ton of mental health problems.  I cannot help but think, if we focus our research on people suffering from addictions and if they received appropriate help, we would be a much better society.  If I could have unlimited funds, and research anything I wanted, I would research the way to support people with mental health diagnoses.  How do we help them?  How do we get them to a point where they can help themselves?  How do we create real choices for them?  How do we get them more housing?  How do we get services for people?  What is the intersection between crime and the legal system with the homeless and addicted population – even diagnosis?  All of that stuff.  I consider this a huge social justice issue in our society today.  I think many people think of this as too much to take in.  It’s overwhelming.  Therefore, they blame the victim.  I think this problem is screaming out for attention in the inner cities and committed citizens want to do something about it.  I would really focus energy on this issue.

11. Sheryl Sandberg made a statement in her TED talk akin to that, but from the female side of the ledger, “If it’s me who cares about this, obviously, giving this talk, during this talk, I can’t even notice that the men’s hands are still raised, and the women’s hands aren’t still raised.  How good are we as managers of our companies and our organizations at seeing that the men are reaching for opportunities more than women?”

Yes, I began to realize this at a certain point in my life.  I went to seek out female faculty members as mentors.  I searched my faculty, female members of the Ph.D. committee, and so on.  Interestingly, the ones I found were tough.  Sometimes tougher than males.  I asked a woman on the Ph.D. committee, “Why is that the case?”  She said, “It’s a tough world out there.  You have to be tough.  That is my attitude towards it.  I had to deal with it.  You will have to deal with it.” At the time, I thought this was unfair because my experience does not have to replicate her own experience.  Her experience was twenty years previous.  In terms of influences, I would say feminism.  I went from the labour history to looking at feminist historians.  I think of some of them like Natalie Zemon Davis, a French historian, as being particularly influential.  She wrote a number of books, which I like because of their interface between academic history and history for a popular audience.  She wrote a book called The Return of Martin Guerre, which was a book set in 16th century France.  It became a movie.  She was the historical consultant on the movie.  I found that amazing to bring history to the people through this medium.  Actually, I heard her speak a short time ago at UBC. She is wonderful.  She was the second woman president of the American historical Association and in 1971 she co-taught at the University of Toronto one of the first courses in North America on the history of women and gender, and hence has been an important figure in the development of that field.  In terms of my philosophical orientation, I would say a social history perspective.  In other words, a history of marginalized people whether that be due to labour or class, gender, ability, race or ethnicity, sexuality, or the intersection of these..

12. One mistake of people: the fundamental attribution error.  We look at the contextual factors and the individual.  We attribute the surrounding environment for our faults/accomplishments and the individual for other people’s faults/accomplishments.  For instance, we, as individuals, say, “I am good because of talent.”  For others, we say, “They are evil because of them.” 

We need to develop empathy.  My regular driving route to KPU has recently become re-routed.   Now, I travel through the alleys for part of the drive.  I regularly drive by 10 to 15 women.  They are street workers in the downtown eastside.  It is sad.  Do not misread me, I am not saying that it is a bad thing to do because I am not commenting on these peoples’ choices or the circumstances that drove them to this place.  However, these women are severely marginalized.  Most of the women are addicts; many are aboriginal women; some of them are in their teens.  It is tragic.  We live amongst this and we are educated people with lots of resources who know about past crimes such as Robert Picton and who nevertheless turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

13. Yet, it does not seem like an idealistic notion to me.  Here’s my sense of you, on the one hand, you state the observation, and “This is a problem.  We have to fix it.” On the other hand, it does not seem like much lay commentary on war, “War is horrible.  We should end war.”  Of course, people consider war bad.  In that, you seem pragmatic in problem-solving here compared to the idealistic, optimistic paying of lip-service to negative societal issues.  In other words, we need reasonable consideration of the amount of reduction in these problems.

Absolutely right, we do have some solutions.  We do have harm reduction, safe-injection sites, INSITE, and so on.  But things like ‘Just Say No’ do not work.  Again, I know myself as a historian and historians don’t have the reputation in the academy of leading social causes, but this is something that we can do.  We can do something about this.

14. In short, other than the theoretical, we need to do concrete, on-the-ground research.  In the immediate, something practical.

Yes!  In my work with colleagues on this mental health project, one of things we are developing are educational resources for people in professional programs.  When individuals receive a mental health diagnosis they inevitably end up meeting with a lawyer, doctor, a nurse, a social worker, and so on.  When those professionals are being educated, what do they need to know about the people with a mental health diagnosis?  I ask the people in the group I am working with, what would you want these professional people to know about your life?  We are developing these resources that will be used in education.  We work with colleagues who have various mental health diagnoses, fascinating!  We have a group of about 20 or so.  2 of them are doing their masters in history and ended with mental health concerns and on the street.  Their lives completely changed.  I was a student.  I was doing my master’s degree in history.  People have narrow assumptions of people who are homeless, living in poverty, and who have a mental health diagnosis.

15. What advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students?

I think going into the world and experiencing in all of its terror and beauty is important.  Take risks, even for university students, go into a course unrelated to your field, try a lab, go out there and work with community people.  One of the things I consider important, not everyone has the opportunity, travel out in the world – even volunteering in the downtown eastside.  Go to India, Germany if you want, and do a year abroad, even a semester – travel up north!  These experiences are worth it.  When you take risks, leave the comfortable behind, whether for a sustained period of time or one day or a week, the benefits are huge.

16. What is the most important point about education?

I considerate it important to understand history.  If we understand, we know why things are the way they are today.  So a classic, easy-to-understand example, is the place of aboriginals in society today.  If we understand history, and acquire a history of aboriginal people before colonization, look at the colonization period, look at the epidemics of disease, and, more recently, residential schools and the sixties scoop, that would allow us to have a deeper understanding of some of the challenges facing our society today – especially in terms of aboriginal people.  Another example of the importance of history is simply developing an understanding of our education system. You go to school from September to June, why these dates?  Why is school something paid for by the state?  Why is it that people without children pay for the education of all of our society’s children?  Our ancestors wanted our society full of people educated a certain way.  It was a form of indoctrination.  It was also a way of creating a viable workforce.  There was a belief that if you had to train children to be good productive workers so you began by training them to go to school at a specific time and days of the week.  Think of a difference that made to children and to our notion of childhood.  Previously, most children got up with the sunrise and slept at sunset.  They lived with the rhythms of the seasons.  Imagine how different it was to always have to be at school at 9:00 am no matter the time of year.  People previously did not have a sense of time that was coupled to a clock.  Suddenly, you have to be at school at 9 o’clock.  At 10 o’clock, you have to open your algebra textbooks, and so on.  The purpose of school, of mass school, was to pave the way for people in the workforce: industry.  There was a reason for the development of public schooling.  There was a historical reason for that.  Without understanding that, I consider it difficult for people to understand the grounding for our educational system.  People take it for granted.  It is paid for by the state.  It runs from September to June, and so on.  To me, that lesson is a critical thinking lesson.  If you begin to question things like that, you begin to learn that the taken-for-granted structures in our society are not simply there.  They happened for a reason.  It allows you to re-think anything in our life. Also, it allows us to think of the possibility of change.  If our schools, as an example, were developed these structures in these ways, then they can change.  It seems to me a hopeful notion for change.


1)      American Indian. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

2)      colonialism, Western. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

3)      education. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

4)      Faculty of Education: Department of Educational Studies (n.d.). Veronica Strong-Boag. Department of Educational Studies. Retrieved March 6, 2014, from

5)      higher education. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

6)      historiography. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

7)      Natalie Zemon Davis. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

8)      Purvey, D. & Belshaw, J.D. (2009). Private Grief, public Mourning: The Rise of the Roadside Shrine in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press.

9)      Purvey, D. & Belshaw, J.D. (2011). Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960. Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press.

10)  Purvey, D. & Walmsley, C. (2011). Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia: A History. Vancouver, BC: Detselig Press.

11)  Purvey, D., Vermeulen, & Power, C. (2011). Restorative Justice: Does it have a place in elementary schools?. International Perspective on restorative Justice in Education.

12)  Purvey, D. & Webber, C. (2011). ‘Something Greater was Happening’: A Novice Principal Reflects on Creating Change Through Building Community Relationships. New Primary Leaders: International Perspectives.

13)  Saunders, J. (2012, June). Kwantlen welcomes Dr. Purvey as dean, faculty of arts. Kwantlen Polytechnic University Newsletter. Retrieved March 6, 2014, from

14)  Sandberg, S. (2010, December 21). Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders [Video file]. Retrieved from

15)  Sandberg, S. (2014, December). Sheryl Sandberg: So We Leaned In… Now What? [Video file]. Retrieved from

16)  Sheryl Sandberg. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

17)  The Runner (2012, June).  New Dean of Arts at Kwantlen. The Runner.  Retrieved March 6, 2014, from


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