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Saturday, July 13, 2024
New interim president aims to revitalize Willowbank
Dr. Faisal Arain, the interim president of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, is leading a one-year review and revitalization of the school’s unique program. TIM TAYLOR
Dr. Faisal Arain, the new interim president of Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, ponders the school's future from his unrestored office in the historic estate, overlooking Queenston. TIM TAYLOR
DR. Faisal Arain and his wife, Sarwat Faisal. TIM TAYLOR

School of Restoration Arts not accepting first-year students, for now


When the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology wanted a chair for its first-ever bachelor of science degree in construction project management, it turned to Dr. Faisal Arain.

When Niagara College needed someone to set up and manage five remote college campuses in Saudi Arabia, it hired Dr. Faisal Arain.

When Willowbank School of Restoration Arts needed a leader to drive a review and revitalization of the school’s programs, it chose Dr. Faisal Arain.

He started his new job in Queenston in August.


From his office at Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, perched high above the village of Queenston, overlooking the Niagara River, Dr. Faisal Arain ponders the challenges ahead for the school.

Arain is the new interim president of the unique education institution, housed in a Greek Revival stone mansion, saved from the wrecking ball in 2003 and forged into a private career college, accepting its first students in 2006.

The school is not taking in any first-year students this year, an effort to give Willowbank breathing space to make productive change happen. Second- and third-year programs are continuing normally. 

“We know it is fundamentally a good program,” Arain says.

“Over 95 per cent of our graduates get employment in the field. Our students love the way we have offered the program and the skillsets they have learned.”

“In the last audit by the Ministry of Education, (Willowbank) was asked to look into certain areas,” Arain says. “We need to be structured a little more to meet the requirements of the ministry.”

In a communication to Willowbank stakeholders, board chair John Scott said, in part, the new president’s “immediate task will be preparing to welcome returning students to their second- or third-year terms at Willowbank as well as ensuring the standing of the school with the private career college administration.”

For some, Arain may appear a curious choice to lead what he calls the “revitalization” of the school’s comprehensive program to graduate students who will contribute, literally, to the fabric of the country.

He’s come a long way — figuratively and literally.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan and educated in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, the 50-year-old holds an architectural degree and a master of science and PhD in construction project management. 

He is an academic with 13 books and more than 120 research papers to his credit. He is an administrator — including leading Niagara College’s foray into remote campuses in Saudi Arabia. And he is a professional construction project manager, having been involved with projects around the world.

“I’ve worked hard to make sure my academic side and professional side are moving on a parallel course,” he says.

He pauses a moment when he considers how far it is from Karachi to Canada. 

“It some ways, the changes are dramatic,” he says. “We moved from plus-45 degrees Celsius to minus 30.”

“I think the whole life is like that. It flows on its own. We try to plan. But I think there is a greater plan. It takes us where we have to be.”

“My father was a civil engineer. When I was a boy, he moved our family — mother, three brothers and sisters –  to Saudi Arabia, where he owned a construction company. That’s where it started.”

Arain’s wife, Sarwat, a former architectural classmate from Pakistan, and their two children — a son, 15, and daughter 20, now a third-year University of Toronto law student — have followed Arain around the world. They now live in Oakville, at least until the interim posting is completed.

In some ways, his recent experience makes him particularly appropriate for what lies ahead at Willowbank. He has spent the last few years as vice-president of academic and administration for the three campuses of KLC College, a private career college headquartered in Kingston.

As interim president, Arain has one year to realign the school’s curriculum and learning process to conform with the requirements of the province’s regulations for private career colleges – schools that offer certificate and diploma programs in a variety of fields — health services, information technology, electronics, trades, and so on.

“Our core principles are well-considered — the living lab and so on — are perfectly fine.” 

The term living laboratory refers to the use of the actual building and its surroundings for the hands-on experience of the students and, at Willowbank, the students are slowly restoring the school using heritage methodology taught by renowned artisans and subject-matter experts.

“The faculty are wonderful in their field. And they come in and deliver what they are good at to the students. Over the three-year program there are 63 distinct modules. They range from half a day to many days,” he says.

“Now we need to establish the connections and prerequisites. We need to demonstrate how it all fits together.”

Arain views his efforts as a revitalization of the program.

“We know we will never have a cookie-cutter program. And the (private career college) process allows for a lot of flexibility,” he says.

“We are offering a credential that meets the needs of the industry. When our students graduate and go to work on a project, they are ready to go. They don’t need additional training.”

He is committed to connecting with everyone involved with Willowbank in the effort — “graduates, government, students, our community and the industry that will embrace our students’ talents.”

Arain appears to inhale the sense of history that permeates the 190-year-old former estate.

His office on the second floor is a large, high-ceilinged room that still feels the ravages of history. Unfinished, like the challenges of the school. Ready, when the time is right to be part of the living lab, that is a mantra of the school.

“It changes your perception altogether, when you are actually working in a living lab.”

“From my perspective, Willowbank is here to stay, and I think we have a very sustainable program. We have all the right puzzle pieces. Now we just have to put them together.”

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