Mr. Russell Bruce Rein joined AIT as Vice President for Administration (VPA) on May 1, 2019. He has served as Head of Business Services and Director of Operations with the International Schools Group, Jubail, Saudi Arabia and formerly performed the same role at the United Arab Emirates University and the American University of Phnom Penh.
AIT’s Office of Public Affairs joined him in his office and had a long and engaging discussion with him. Here are some excerpts from the interaction.
- You bring a wide diversity of experience ranging from the financial services sector to student services and from business services to operations, and that too from South Africa, Cambodia, and the Middle East. Your first impressions of AIT?
The family feel to AIT, with people who are warm, kind, and hospitable. It’s a mosaic of multicultural understanding and coexistence; and not to overstate the beauty of the campus surroundings. I love that AIT is like a small city, where one moment you can be eating great food, visit the bookstore, have a massage, take a brisk walk around to admire the wildlife that shares our campus, watch a game of cricket or badminton as you walk by, or stop off for an ice-cold coconut, and the next pop into the 7-11 to buy supplies. And this can all be done again in the afternoon! 🙂
Of course, there are also challenges, as in all institutions worldwide. In the three-plus months I have been here, I have been asking the 4 Ws and the H: who, what, when, why, and how. Particularly, “Why do we do what we do the way we do it?” The support has been refreshing as we take a critical look at current systems and processes and the desire to embrace suggestions, and changes and pursue best practices.
- Students are a significant stakeholder in the success of any educational institute. What steps do you plan to help them perform better?
By providing a degree and sense of belonging and comfort for students who make AIT a home-away-from home, including caring about each and every one. As a strong believer in the holistic development of students, I know that students who pursue educational, social, and recreational opportunities with passion thrive in such an environment.
It may be a cliché, but over the years I have noticed that students who are able to manage their time and to prioritize are the ones that are highly successful in all spheres of their lives. We want to provide students with opportunities to embrace a good work-life balance.
- AIT is different from most institutes and universities in that it is a residential campus. In what ways does AIT fulfil the requirements of a full-fledged residential campus?
We provide myriad opportunities that have been identified as being advantageous in a residential campus. The main impact is that AIT offers easy access to campus resources like the library, sports facilities, support services, food services, lecture halls, research labs, and other facilities all within a short walking distance. Students have more time to study while AIT takes care of housekeeping, laundry, and catering services.
In addition to this, students assimilate into a broader community, particularly with other students from diverse backgrounds. The opportunities to learn together and develop supporting friendships are long-lasting in residential campuses.
Students are respected individually and collectively. We are fortunate to have a mature adult student body who have previous university experience, so we already have a common understanding of how a campus operates.
- What is your strategic plan to reform the operational systems at AIT?
Over the last few months, I have been focusing on working with the various operational service directors, on understanding their business processes and creating workflows where none have existed on paper before. We are identifying existing gaps and taking incremental steps to remodel our services to follow best practice and have it perceived as being highly professional. Part of this has entailed a review of all current policies and procedures and as mentioned earlier, we are institutionalizing this change to make it part of our AIT DNA.
Although we have transformed some of the ways we serve our customers, the operations team continues to take the initiative to bring about further changes at an increasing speed, recognizing that these systemic reforms will make AIT more efficient and effective. This is together with the added benefit that all AIT stakeholders will notice the difference in our service delivery.
- Food, shelter, and the internet — What steps do you plan to take to improve these facilities?
If the psychologist Maslow were around today, I’m sure he would have added the Internet to our basic physiological needs. These three services are close to the hearts of all of us, and the most challenging for AIT.
Knowing this, I wanted to start off my AIT journey by living on campus to have the same experiences as our students and employees who call AIT home. My expectations so far have led to discussions on: (a) a planned preventative maintenance and refurbishment program; (b) making the cafeteria and snack bar the central social hub of AIT; and (c) finding out how to reliably stream my favorite sporting events and comedy & law episodes.
I should also mention that we are involving the student union and other stakeholders to gather opinions and suggestions about what we can do to improve these services. Given the diverse backgrounds of our community, the valuable feedback we receive from students and employees has already resulted in changes to vendors and additions to food options, and very soon, music should be coming to the cafeteria. At the recent new student orientation, I mentioned that we recognize that we will not be able to meet all these diverse expectations all of the time, but we will aim to meet most of them most of the time. We value this feedback immensely.
- A safe and secure environment in the sine qua non for any campus. How good are we, and how are we going to make it better?
Student safety and security remains a very high priority for any academic institution. We have made this a key component of student welfare over the last few months.
In general, from my perspective, AIT is a safe and caring environment, but as in all communities, there are times when poor or questionable decisions can have unintended consequences. Not only are we communicating expectations of being a guest in Thailand during new student orientations, but we also reach out regularly to our community via email and social media with reminders of what is expected behavior, particularly those issues that carry zero tolerance. We also highlight to what extent AIT can provide support when it is most needed. We would request that our community read and take heed of the details contained in these communications.
I wanted to also assure our community that when incidents do occur and are reported, Administration provides the support needed and takes appropriate steps, often mediating an outcome acceptable to those parties involved. If need be, these are escalated up the line, and my weekly meeting with student welfare keeps me updated. Out of respect for those involved, we refrain from divulging our actions publicly, mainly to protect the identities of the individuals involved.
My appeal would be to continue to report incidents to student welfare; their duty to care is close to my heart.
As part of any large community, health and emergency services are crucial. Regular meetings are being held with the AIT center as well as student welfare to ensure that those needs are met, steps to be taken are clear and readily available, and translation services are available outside of the AIT campus.
To this end, the Office of Facilities and Management (OFAM) will be linking their intranet site to the AIT site, which contains emergency contacts and other very useful numbers. I would like to see us expand this with student affairs to find ways to offer basic first aid courses and have a local fire station come and train us in the correct use of fire extinguishers and general awareness of staying safe in and around Bangkok and Thailand.
- Being international, AIT has many unique characteristics. Food tastes vary, and campus residents have specific meal requirements and preferences. Similarly, there are cultural differences. As VPA, how do you plan to cater to myriad demands and yet maintain an “AIT character”?
By listening. During my first foreign posting over 22 years ago, I came across this mantra: Be FAT. Since then, I have found that being Flexible, Adaptable, and Tolerant has helped me to acclimatize to my new surroundings and get to know and understand different cultures, even embracing and making some of these my new personal norms too.
AIT’s diversity is its strength, and AIT aims to accommodate as many of the preferences and expectations in food, dress, and behavior of our internationally diverse community as possible.
I would encourage our community to try new things, stop and see the world through the eyes of others, and if you are not sure, ask and clarify.
I am still on my own journey of discovery as to the nuances of this “AIT character.” Each day I come prepared to learn something new, and sometimes it can be an unexpected lesson!!
- Beyond student welfare, what steps are planned for employee welfare, and what changes can we expect in the realm of Human Resources?
The biggest asset of any service organization is its people. AIT is no different. Human Resources is currently determining how to streamline our recruitment process and develop an onboarding checklist and new employee guide and FAQ. In addition, we will be looking at revising the staff evaluation process and developing a succession planning system, together with the ongoing review of remuneration, including benefits.
- Finance, Purchasing, and Budgeting are critical for every institute. What are the mantras AIT will follow to ensure financial prudence, transparency, and accountability?
As a non-profit, we need to ensure that we are getting good value for each baht we spend. I would like to see better institutionalized processes and procedures that would complement AIT’s strategic goals and are sustainable.
Given recent fiscal challenges, as in many academic institutions these days, our budgets should reflect the current market conditions, particularly with respect to our revenue stream and the actual cost of doing business. Our operating budgets must reflect a balance between net tuition and fees and the cost of operating AIT, which also includes our one-time funding of strategic capital projects. Successful organizations rely on everyone being fiscally prudent from the grassroots up, and the leaders of the various units are being consulted for their valuable input and initiatives over the long-term sustainability of AIT.
It is important to note that a sound and sustainable financial model will need to take into account the President’s I²E²S² strategic transformation initiative in order to make the funding available where it is needed when it is needed. As we make these decisions, we ask what is its impact now and on the future of AIT.
- Our AIT International School (AITIS) has come a long way from being a small community school. How do you see its future?
AITIS remains integral to the recruitment of both employees and students. Enrolment continues to grow, and parents are very supportive of the school, given that it is the only English-medium school within a 20km radius of AIT. Parents have indicated their desire to keep their children enrolled in AITIS beyond Grade 6. We will be studying the feasibility of this options in the coming months.
In the interim, AITIS continues to prepare our students to become global citizens, encourage a competitive spirit, and refine the curriculum, all in a welcoming, nurturing, and lifelong learning environment.
- What steps are planned to ensuring a clean, green and sustainable campus?
As I walk around the campus, there is evidence of some of this, with an electric vehicle charging station, solar panels, segregated rubbish bins, and greening of buildings. What I would like to see would be all these efforts being combined into one consolidated strategic plan for an AIT campus that is clean, green and sustainable.
We have started looking at models of other institutions and organizations and our ambition would be for AIT to become the model campus in Thailand, and the Region, for these endeavours. I was pleasantly surprised when in my very first month at AIT, I was approached by a number of faculty and staff to share their ideas and find out what we could do to make this a part of the future initiatives of AIT.