“It was nothing like I imagined it would be.”
I recently had the opportunity to interview the President and Vice-Chancellor of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Vianne Timmons, about her first year at Memorial University.
“It is going to be a year on April 1st,” Dr. Timmons tells me, “and I remember being so excited. I am, of course, still excited, but I moved here right when the lockdown happened. I lived in an Airbnb for five weeks to self-isolate. I started not even able to be on campus. That was a challenge. I think the biggest challenge for me, and I’m sure you can relate to this, we do these jobs because we love education, and we love students. The biggest challenge to me is the inability to see students and to walk the halls of campus. There is a real sense of loss without the students around.”
Dr. Timmons joined Memorial University after 12 years as the University of Regina’s President and Vice-Chancellor. As a Saskatchewan resident myself, I had heard of Dr. Timmons’ many accomplishments, which are recorded here in her official biography, including her listing as one of the 10 most influential women in Saskatchewan in 2009.
“I hope so,” Dr. Timmons tells me when I ask the question on everyone’s mind. “I have my fingers crossed that [we’ll be back on campus this fall]. We’re in such unprecedented and unpredictable times, so I have stopped making predictions.”
Dr. Timmons expressed concern for her students, especially those just out of high school beginning their university experience. Those students are missing out on experiences unique to the first year of university, which grant students a sense of independence. “I hope that if they had a real tough year, they don’t question their ability or that they don’t question if university is right for them.”
Dr. Timmons: “[In Regina,] I worked very closely with students. I went to as many of the sports games or musical performances of theatre as I could to hear the students and see the wonderful talent on the University campus. It is very much part of why I love my job; being able to see the students. I used to just walk the halls so I could feel the energy from the students, and that would give me a boost. If I was having a day where I was not feeling the energy, all I had to do was walk the halls, and it definitely would [give me a boost]. It’s a really important part of a University for me. Well, it is the University for me, the students.”
Charlotte Baxter-Smith (CBS): “How did having that connection change your approach to your first year at MUN?”
Dr. Timmons: “I had to figure out a way that students would know who I was, even faculty and staff, because I wasn’t able to meet people in person. I had never done a Twitter video, but I decided to. My first day, I did a Twitter video. I did it by myself, outside the Airbnb I was at. I actually slipped while I was doing it, I must have done about twenty-five takes, but I slipped doing one of the takes. I sent it to one of my children, who said, ‘mom, you need to post that too.’ I posted my first April 1st video, and then I posted the blooper. It just started a way for me to connect with students in a different way than I ever imagined. So I continued it. I actually started Tales From the Road, MUN. During my presidency, that has been a way that helps me feel connected. Students will tweet back or chat with me online. All of that is really important to me, and that’s been a really positive experience.”
“If I was walking through the campus, and I would see students, I’d rush right over and introduce myself, ask them how things were going. If I was visiting places around the province, I always tried to meet students and chat with them, and students found me, which was fun.”
While speaking with Dr. Timmons, the conversation consistently returned to her passion for creating a diverse campus. Her time at the University of Regina was especially notable for this. Dr. Timmons broke the record for student enrolment growth and increased the diversity of students, faculty, and staff. She considers this her most significant legacy, and she hopes to continue this work at MUN.
Dr. Timmons said this on the subject of inclusivity and diversity:
“[In Regina,] I’m most proud of the push towards an inclusive campus. I think we accomplished a tremendous amount in that process, not only increasing international students, students from indigenous backgrounds, but a large increase in students with disabilities. I think it changed the campus in a very positive way. That would be the legacy that I am the most proud of, is the change in the demographics of the campus. Coming here, I have so many aspirations. That being one, to see our campus even become inclusive here and to increase the diversity of our students. Not just increase the diversity, but make sure that we are a welcoming, accommodating environment for students from all different backgrounds, religions, genders, disabilities; that’s really important for me and help. I’m hoping that that will be the legacy I can bring here.
[Truth and reconciliation] is also a passion for me. Making what was once invisible, visible is important to me. I’m very fortunate to have Senior Advisor on Indigenous Affairs, Captain Anderson, who’s exceptional. Memorial is so committed to truth and reconciliation Indigenization of campus that that means a lot.
I’m of Mi’kmaq ancestry; that was hidden and something to be ashamed of. I want to make sure that people today don’t feel that shame that my father felt. It’s like trying to find your story that somebody hid from you, not just hid from you, but changed for you. We’re so proud of our heritage—Italian Canadian, French Canadians; but when it comes to my father, being Indigenous was not something to be proud of, it was something to be ashamed of. That is heartbreaking.”Dr. Vianne Timmons
This past summer, while restrictions were lighter, Dr. Timmons drove across Newfoundland and Labrador, visiting all MUN’s sites. They put over 8000 km on the car. “It was fascinating and wonderful to see how Memorial’s tentacles touch every aspect of this province.”
Dr. Timmons’ excitement is contagious, and hopefully, everyone can share in her plans for Memorial’s future.