It takes a lot to overwhelm Harry Mertin, but getting a phone call asking him if he’d accept an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University of the Fraser Valley did the trick.
“This is a wonderful honour but not one I was expecting at all,” he says.
Mertin is being honoured for his long history of business and community leadership in Chilliwack, and in particular for the key role he played as a Board of Governors member for what was then called the University College of the Fraser Valley from 2002-07.
As head of several automobile dealerships that bear his name in Chilliwack, Mertin has a reputation as a go-to guy for community projects He’s been a director and chairman of the Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation, a president of the Chilliwack Rotary Club and a director of the Academy of Music, a member of and financial advisor to the Chilliwack Community Living board, and a Junior Achievement instructor, to name just a few of his activities. He also serves on many General Motors, Hyundai and auto industry-related boards.
He is, however, quick to add that he could not accomplish all the things that have been done in the community over two decades without the “outstanding” support he has received from the management and staff with whom he works. In particular, he is grateful to his senior management team of Dan Matheson, Rick Sperling, Scott Bate, Jason Arnold and Jim Cyrull. “These people individually and collectively give me the support I need to meet my personal and corporate goals of giving back to the community,” Mertin says.
When the provincial government was looking for someone with business experience and acumen to join the UCFV board of governors in 2002, Mertin was a natural fit. It was the beginning of an era of intensive involvement with UCFV for Mertin, as he worked with other board members, university college representatives, and the community on key issues such as acquiring parts of the former CFB Chilliwack (now called the Canada Education Park) for a new UCFV campus, and attaining university status for UCFV.
Mertin joined the board not long after a change in government at the provincial level led to a more business-oriented approach to the management of post-secondary in B.C.
“While post-secondary education is certainly not a business, I had always believed that many government institutions, including post-secondary institutions, could be run in a more ‘business-like’ fashion while still ensuring that students and the interests of the institution always come first,” Mertin notes.
The new approach to post-secondary funding in the early years of this decade meant that institutions were expected to obtain less of their funding from government and more from other sources such as tuition, individual donors, and corporate and community support and partnerships. Tuition freezes were lifted and tuition rose substantially to make up for many years of zero increase. Institutions were encouraged to find alternate sources to help fund new buildings and other capital costs.
“These were times of great change and challenge at UCFV, but I always supported the notion that students should come first and that, apart from some discomfort that inevitably accompanies change, the institution should not suffer,” he says. “We made it through that change working together as a board, administration, faculty, unions and staff, all with the common belief that students and this institution mattered most. A huge highlight for me was that even after working through and adjusting to all that change, UCFV was recognized as one of the Western Canada’s best employers and also received top marks in the Globe and Mail’s student survey.”
Mertin also believes strongly in one of UCFV’s traditional strengths — consultation and connection with its communities.
“I believe that an institution has to weave itself into the fabric of its community. It’s what I do with my businesses, and it’s what I see UCFV, now UFV, doing more as it evolves,” he says. “This goes beyond seeking financial support and sponsorship. It’s a case of listening to what your community needs and providing it. These days UFV is becoming so intertwined that we’re seeing companies who desperately need skilled tradespeople, accounting people and more, agreeing to sponsor those students as they progress through their program with the understanding that they’ll continue work for them when they graduate.”
Another example is one that Mertin himself has helped to arrange: donations and shipping of new vehicles by companies such as GM and Hyundai so that auto technician students can be working on the latest technology.
“These days auto technicians have less grease under their fingernails and are likely to be carrying lap tops and hand-held computer diagnostic tools. By combining great instruction from the trades and technology faculty under the direction of Dean Harv McCullough; the new, state-of-the-art facility; and the new technology that we can help provide, we can help ensure that the new graduates are prepared to work in their highly specialized field. UFV’s ultimate product is top-quality graduates. It is what we are judged by,” says Mertin.
Although his formal role as a UCFV board member ended in 2007, Mertin remains a keen supporter of the University of the Fraser Valley, and was delighted when university status was announced in April. He continues to use the word “we” when speaking of UFV, and works behind the scenes encouraging community support for projects such as the development of the new campus at the Canada Education Park in Chilliwack.
And he speaks very highly of the UFV administration, particularly President Skip Bassford.
“A lot was asked of Dr. Bassford, as our leader, when the changes in post-secondary environment occurred earlier this decade. His background was philosophy and academia, not business. I give him full credit for adapting to the new realities. He absolutely never gave up when things got tough and he never lost sight of our primary goals: ‘getting the dirt’ (securing land at the new Canada Education Park at the former CFB Chilliwack) and university status. Dr. Bassford has earned both my respect and my appreciation for all he has done.”
Mertin noted that he was honoured to being part of the final graduating class of the University College of the Fraser Valley, while at the same time being excited about the opportunity to receive a parchment with the new University of the Fraser Valley name on it later this fall.