Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies (CFGS) at the University of Victoria, joined CFGS in August 2012 as interim director and became director in July 2013. He joined Cascadia Report to share his story and his valuable insights on challenges and opportunities facing the Pacific Northwest in the post-COVID environment.
He is a Professor in the Departments of Political Science and History at the University of Victoria where he also holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European History and Politics. He received his PhD from the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. He taught at the Humboldt University Berlin before joining the University of Victoria (UVic) in 2000 and has since been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, Bonn University, the European University Institute, and Hamburg University.
As a ‘UVic European Studies Scholar’ he has been instrumental in building the European Studies Program as its former director (2005-2008) and taken a leading role in promoting European Studies in Canada. From 2004 to 2006 Oliver Schmidtke was the President of the European Community Studies Association Canada. During the academic year 2016-17 Oliver Schmidtke served as the Associate Vice President of the University of Victoria. In 2016 he also received the Faculty of Social Sciences Research Excellence Award.
Complementing his research expertise, Oliver Schmidtke is a scholar committed to public outreach and knowledge mobilization. Jointly with his wife Beate, he directs the Europe Canada Network EUCAnet project (www.eucanet.org) and appears regularly on national and international media. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Schmidtke and are excited to share a bit more about his life and career, starting with his current role as Director of the Centre for Global Studies at University of Victoria.
“The most exciting aspect of my job is that I meet all these amazing people from around the world, but also locally. The Centre attracts the most innovative, daring researchers that are keen on going beyond of what they normally do within their disciplinary confines. And they come to the Centre because they look for new inspiration and networks to play with some new ideas and engage with people from other disciplinary or professional fields. Normally we tend to hide in our departments; we are rather comfortable in our ivory tower at the university. With my colleagues at the Centre, we think creatively about new avenues for cutting-edge research and how we can make knowledge more relevant and meaningful to different audiences. How can one harvest the amazing knowledge that we have at a university in more fruitful ways and strive for having an impact beyond the immediate academic setting?”
Speaking to Schmidtke about his career path it is immediately apparent that he has pursued opportunities that furthered not only his academic interests and goals but also provided the chance for him to enjoy some of the most beautiful parts of the world. We asked if this had always been a plan he had in mind, and how he ended up at UVic.
“Often there are twists and turns in your professional career that you couldn't have predicted nor planned. I came to Victoria to teach a three-month class which has turned into a 20-year career at UVic. After I finished my PhD at the European University in Florence, I went to Berlin for three years at Humboldt University. My contract was up, and I took a short-term teaching gig at UVic, which eventually led first to a full-time faculty position at UVic. Without a doubt, there was some degree of surprise and unpredictability in this move to Victoria. I first came to Canada during my second year as an undergraduate student to study at Wilfrid Laurier University. So, I had some previous experience with Canada, but coming to Victoria was my first real exposure to the academic scene. The longer I stayed, the more I have come to appreciate what UVic and Victoria have to offer, both on a professional and personal level. Over the past years, I had a couple of good offers to go back to Europe. Yet, having raised a family here now, my wife and I have decided that the West coast of Canada is really where we want to be. Where else do you find such a good balance between quality of life and professional opportunities? Even though I arrived in Canada as a relatively privileged European immigrant, like other newcomers I had to reestablish my networks and gain professional recognition. Facilitating this process, UVic offered me amazing opportunities and I'm deeply grateful for that.”
It’s a refreshing perspective and Schmidtke speaks with a real fondness for his adopted homeland. As an integral part of the CFGS at UVic, he is often asked to appear on Provincial and national television to add his perspective on international news stories and politics. We took the opportunity to ask an expert what he thought the future of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor looks like on the global stage, and what that might mean for the smaller cities like Victoria in contrast to the economic powerhouses of Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.
“I think deep collaboration beyond the nation state is something that we very much need in an international economy and a globalizing society. I originally come from Europe where cross-border mobility and collaboration has become the norm. The European Union is a supranational entity with a historically unprecedented form of integration and joint policy formation at the European level. So, when we talk about Cascadia, I think we could harvest the opportunities for cross border collaboration far more forcefully and creatively than we have done in the past. We are trained to think of the nation state first, but to a certain extent the border between nations is an artificial dividing line. When it comes to communication, exchange, and economic innovation, we should think about how we can challenge the exclusionary meaning of national borders. Consider what the practice of open borders means in Europe and the Schengen Zone. If, for instance, you drive from the Netherlands to Germany now, you don't even know where the border used to be. This close collaboration across national borders has unleashed a great potential for innovation. I think that we can take some of those ideas and implement them here in the Cascadia corridor given our shared geographical realities and common culture in the Northwest. If you tap into this potential of the Cascadia region, it can be a real political and economic powerhouse. I think Victoria, playing it right, can use its relative peripheral geographical status and turn it into an advantage also as a meeting place between North America, Asia and Europe.”
In his 2019 paper, the “The Local Governance of Migration: Lessons from the Immigration Country, Canada” Schmidtke examined how cities in Canada have been proactive in utilizing immigration as a tool to address local labor needs. With travel restrictions being brought in across the world at both the local and international level we asked what effect he sees the pandemic having on local economies here in the Pacific Northwest.
“Studying migration is my passion when it comes to my research interests: I've been fascinated by the resilience and the resourcefulness of migrants. If you think about who is embarking on the daring path of moving to a new country and starting life all over again, these people often come with a huge degree of determination and stamina and, considering the challenges that immigrants regularly face, lots of courage. In my view, Canada has understood much better than Europe how important it is to appreciate the energy, talent, and creativity newcomers bring to their new home countries.
The resilience of immigrant communities, the determination to make BC their home has been really striking. Also considering Covid, and its impact and challenges, immigrants can contribute a lot. They often have a great desire to rebuild the community. And if you just think about what has helped us through the last couple of months, a strong communal life and mutual support has been crucial in this respect. Beyond the economic dynamism that immigrants regularly stand for, there is also this deep sense of rebuilding community and helping each other that in particular immigrants or refugees are prone to show.
My last book was about the inclusion of newcomers into the labor market, highly qualified people, and it was surprising to see that even in the Canadian context there are still some obstacles for example regarding the recognition of degrees and professional experience taken abroad. We should also think more carefully about the systemic obstacles that immigrants regularly face. Given Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism and the relative success of including immigrants into the fabric of society, I was surprised to see that racism and exclusion still play an important role also in the Canadian context.
The strength of the communities in BC and the Pacific Northwest is something that Schmidtke is keen to emphasize, and to highlight how important it is to connect with our neighbours. While he acknowledges that Victoria can be a “sleepy town” he attended the Discover Tectoria, a tech exposition held by Viatec in Victoria in February 2020 and was enthused by the number of young tech entrepreneurs and their products on display.
“It has been highly impressive to see the young people and startups that have come here. My understanding is that the tech sector has grown quite substantially in Greater Victoria. From a personal level, I think it has reinvigorated Victorian society and has brought a new form of professional and social vitality to our town.
Considering the economic impact caused by the Covid pandemic, there are sectors of the economy that will benefit and others that will suffer. Clearly technology is something that we all rely on in terms of communication, moving goods, and services. So, I can see that Cascadia, with its strong emphasis on innovative technologies could be a net winner once we will come out of the pandemic. In Victoria and the Northwest more broadly, we have a great potential for growth in our knowledge-based economy. Despite the rather pessimistic outlook that we might have at the moment, I feel rather upbeat about the prospects for the Cascadia Corridor as a place of innovation and creative knowledge production.”
As an experienced and well-respected member of the community we asked Schmidtke how he would describe his leadership style and what advice he had for other aspiring leaders or leaders in the region.
“As much as it sounds like a platitude, I am convinced that listening and engaging in a collaborative approach are at the core of effective leadership. Authority in leadership comes from learning from and with your team as well as convincing colleagues not from simply telling them what to do. In this respect, you have to communicate well and make sure that your team understands the rationale for decisions. If people are simply told what to do, they become demotivated quickly. At the same time, leadership means the ability to take the difficult decisions, justify them, and accept responsibility for them.
Always a busy man, Schmidtke has had a hand in many books and articles on a range of topics over the years - and his work does not stop there. He has taken on a role in policy consultation for the BC office for Human Rights, something which he describes as “a great opportunity” and will involve helping to shape the framework for baseline study of human rights in BC. As his career has taken many twists and turns over the years, we asked what three key things were he’d learned along the way.
1. In order not to be disappointed in your professional life, it is important to set yourself goals that are achievable and at the same time ambitious. You do not want to set yourself up for failure. Our society is strongly shaped by the desire to become famous, - if possible instantaneously. Yet, in my experience, having realistic goals and a plan to get there is far more promising as a strategy guiding you through your professional life.
2. To be successful and to move through your professional career, you should work closely with others. Sure enough, in our society we rely heavily on this image of the geniuses that make the world go around and can be credited with all the outstanding achievements. Granted, at times it takes some individual ingenuity to make substantial progress but success and achievement come mostly with the help of a team-based approach. We are part of a collective at work and once you have endorsed this basic fact, it becomes far easier to work with others and exploit the productivity of genuine collaboration. There will always be a moment of competitiveness, but in a way, a collaborative approach to life is more rewarding professionally and socially.
3. Be daring and innovative and challenge yourself with some fundamentally new projects. Push yourself in this respect and open yourself up to new opportunities without getting lost. We have our reassuring routines, and we need to break out of them once in a while to push ourselves.
Looking back on his career and the key lessons from everything he has worked on to date prompted Schmidtke to look forward to what might lie ahead. He recently began the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, and I asked whether his background in political science and more recent involvement in human rights legislation had led him to thoughts of being involved in politics.
“I'm not sure how good political scientists are at actually being politicians themselves. As political scientists, we have the privilege of analyzing the world and time to look more deeply at what drives politics. Yet, sometimes academic take on political roles. Andrew Weaver, whom you also interviewed, would be an example. Realizing the existential threat of global warming, he simply said; ‘look, we can't sit on the sidelines anymore, we need to do something.’ There's definitely this kind of temptation. As political scientists, we tend to have a rather critical view of politicians but then, once you get into it, you realize that the world of politics has its own challenges and follows very different rules than the world of academia. While considering politics as professional opportunity is always tempting, I'm not sure I would be made for that kind of a career.
I started off telling you the story about how, at the Centre for Global Studies, we tried to push ourselves, making our research more relevant and meaningful. This ambition might not be directed at politics, but primarily at influencing policy decisions. For example, we have one project looking after ecological governance at the Centre for Global Studies. They've been directly involved in rewriting the water bill in DC. That was a good example of an academia-policy partnership. It’s good to have informed policy decisions because with the rise of populist politics, there is growing skepticism and a declining willingness to listen to science and hard facts. In this respect, I'm passionate about a science-based approach to tackling problems in society. For instance, I've been active in promoting the Canada Europe Network (www.eucanet.org), trying to think across national borders. The task of developing good policy should involve learning from other parts of the world. Globally we face very similar problems and issues. And it makes sense to keep your eyes open and think creatively about taking on insight from other contexts.”
Closer to home, he is passionate about his work at UVic and enriching the community in Victoria. Speaking to Schmidtke he is a calming presence, who speaks clearly and with real vigour about the work he does and is generous about sharing his insights on the world.
“I feel passionate about internationalizing the university and Victoria as a city, I think we have all the resources and now the technological infrastructure in place to strengthen Victoria as a vibrant local community and at the same time as a place to raise global citizens. This is how I would also describe the role of the university. In a time when we see the resurgence of nationalism and intolerance towards others providing space for open-mindedness and engaged citizenship are important goals. That's definitely one of the passions that I have being here in Victoria and contributing to the local community.”
You can find out more about Dr Oliver Schmidtke, and the University of Victoria Centre for Global Studies here: https://www.uvic.ca/research/centres/globalstudies/