A new chapter in Victoria University’s history has begun! October 12, 2022, marked the official installation of Dr. Rhonda McEwen as Victoria’s 14th president and vice-chancellor, which took place as part of our Charter Day celebrations. The Isabel Bader Theatre was alive with excitement as students, staff, faculty, university officials, friends and family joined together to fete McEwen and honour the winners of this year’s admissions awards. Watch or read Dr. McEwen's full speech below.
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"Good evening, distinguished guests, members of my academic communities, well-wishers, friends and my family. My heart is so full of gratitude that all of you are here today as I officially embark on this journey.
It is true, that I have been in the role for a little more than three months, however, as someone from the Caribbean, I know how deeply meaningful ceremonies and ritual are in defining transitions. This is a very important day. I was supported by those who have walked this path before me to put on these robes tonight and special thanks to Chancellor Emerita Wendy Cecil and President Emeritus Paul Gooch. For your instant kinship and kindness, I am genuinely grateful.
As I walked with this esteemed processional and platform party (who now literally have my back), I was reminded about the power of these revered rituals, and take to heart the oath that I swore…that the character and influence of this institution is largely in my keeping, and that above all others the graduates and the community at large will look to me for the maintenance of this university’s principles and the promotion of its purposes. I take this oath with humility, care, and confidence.
These regalia also serve to remind us not only of the enduring traditions of learning, but also about the transformative effect on the wearer of the robes, and on the audience. In some ways, it reminds me of my beloved Carnival Traditions in my native Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad Carnival began as canboulay in the late 18th Century. Victoria University received its charter in the early 19th Century. A complicated and fascinating interweaving of timelines. In donning costumes and masks at Carnival, the community comes together to perform a transformation, and to reconnect with our shared and historical desire to produce something of our own. Something magical.
For a period of time during Carnival, it feels like barriers are broken, perhaps through the powers of wearing a costume, and we intuit that the world’s possibilities are at our fingertips. What in normal times feels fantastical, during Carnival, is real and alive. In theatrical terms, there is a suspension of disbelief in all who participate. In psychological terms, there is often a breakthrough – a re-understanding of something deep within.
Today, I have that same feeling…that no barrier is too high, no possibility unexplored, that this call to serve fulfils a purpose deep inside me. Today, I hope that you share my feeling that together, anything is possible.
I left a thriving career as a business consultant to return to academia 16 years ago. Among other things, I wanted to fully live my enduring belief in the power and promise of learning and discovery, my passion for higher education and research. During their time here, I hope our students can harness a belief that the things that may seem fantastical, or really out-there are within their grasp. It is our goal to provide an environment that supports this reach.
For me, that is what I am celebrating today – perhaps without a Carnival headdress, but I am deeply, deeply honoured to be wearing these robes and to have the privilege of calling you my colleagues and friends on this journey. Central to the reverence that we bestow on academic transitions since the Middle Ages is the promise that knowledge is passed on through generations from parent to child; skilled tradesperson to apprentice; teacher to learner, learners who can then pass on their knowledge to others.
I am grateful for and acknowledge the work of my predecessors at Victoria University for passing on such an incredible legacy for me to continue. In particular, I’d like to thank President Robins and everyone who worked on the student-centred Strategic Framework for Victoria University. It was launched in 2021 and provides us with an abundance of opportunities to shape our future that is anchored in the framework’s four key pillars.
The first pillar is Belonging: meaning we will build and foster a strong and inclusive community
The second pillar is Encountering: meaning we will sustain an inspiring sense of place on our beautiful campus
The third pillar is Exploring: meaning we will continue to have and create outstanding academic offerings
The fourth pillar is Transforming: meaning we will further develop signature learning experiences for everyone (students, yes, and also staff, librarians, and faculty).
Almost from my first day at Vic U, I’ve been asked to describe my vision for the University. The etymology of the word vision in the 13th century meant “something to be seen in the imagination” from the latin visio meaning sight and videre, meaning to see. Within the Strategic Framework, Victoria University has a well-articulated vision to continue to evolve as an outstanding place for students to pursue undergraduate studies in arts and science and graduate studies in theology.
My role as President and Vice-Chancellor is to really see, to really discover what has made Vic U such a special place for nearly 200 years, but to also see and anticipate the opportunities and challenges ahead. For example, to prioritize mental health for our students and staff. To contribute to our planet’s wellness. To work with the Board of Regents, and the senior administrative management team to determine the best risk versus reward ratios, communicate and implement the activities to bring the plans into reality, and in so doing chart the best possible path for the university in the years to come.
I played competitive chess in high school, so naturally, I enjoyed the recent movie The Queen’s Gambit. Chess players know that the queen’s gambit is less of a tactic to trip up opponents and that it is more about choices. Choices, hopefully, for the long game.
To make choices in times marked by turbulence requires another type of vision – it requires insight. Or what Northrop Frye termed double-vision.
Frye offered the thought that whatever we perceive is a part of us and forms an identity with us. In other words, we are not really perceiving until we recognize ourselves as part of what we perceive. In this way, the vision that I collaborate with the Vic community to construct, and the choices that I make, are also self-referential. In a literary sense, I now see myself as in this with you!
Over the coming months, we will embark on an exciting project that takes an even deeper dive into our four strategic pillars, and we will build an implementation plan that allows us to hone in on clear deliverables to serve our students. I envision animating (pardon the emerging media pun) Vic’s ambitions, dreams, goals and values, through the activities that we choose. Sometimes Queens’ gambit is accepted; at other times Queen’s gambit is denied (Black King’s pawn to E6). Choices.
I envision a Vic U that is well-known at home and abroad as a place where everyone can find a place – budding literary minds and young scientists; those who will deliver incredible pastoral care and those who will deliver us from climate disaster; those from the highest income brackets and those deemed to be at risk.
I envision a Vic U where there is even greater consultation for and transparency in the choices we make. We will track our progress, measure our outcomes (including through data collection), we will communicate our momentum, and we will celebrate our achievements (sometimes Trini style), but one step at a time.
As I embrace this energizing feeling that comes with new beginnings and being part of such a supportive community, it is not lost on me that we continue to live in challenging times, which we will need to navigate together.
When history tells the tale of 2020, tragic and awful, those of us to live through it may give witness to the fact that while we were all weathering the same storm, we experienced it in different boats. Some were in luxury liners, some in battered canoes, and still others were just trying to stay afloat on debris. We must continue to be responsive to the needs of our communities, who have been through so much. And as we feel the impacts of several barriers: financial market instability, threats to national sovereignty around the world, climate imperatives, and economic contraction and uncertainty, we will need make prudent, data-informed decisions and difficult choices. We will aspire, and we will achieve.
Aspirations are born from a foundation or the firmament in which you are raised. I don’t remember a time in my childhood when I felt there was an external barrier to my achievement – Neither as a girl, someone from the Global South, nor as a Black person.
Perhaps being in an all-girls high school environment where all subjects were fair game, I was less aware of a gender gap in the sciences. Or perhaps, it was my extraordinary parents, both of whom pursued international undergraduate and graduate degrees while raising two young, high-energy children.
In particular, I would like to acknowledge that my mother who is here tonight from Trinidad, was a strong model for me. She completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in short order while ironing my Brownie uniform, participating in every PTA meeting, helping with homework, grabbing passports in the run from Midwestern tornadoes, and navigating sleepover party protocols that were foreign to her in Menominee, Wisconsin. My brother and I are very privileged to have hard-working, creative and intellectually brilliant parents.
It wasn’t until I entered university, and then the workforce, that I recognized that I was one of very few women focused on science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM. And my newly felt status as an outsider in the field was amplified as a Black woman. It was the first time I understood what the word minority felt like.
Things are changing, but perhaps not as fast as we’d like. When my new appointment was announced, I received hundreds of messages. One was from an undergraduate student who shared that she had never had a teacher at any level, who looked like her. And she wanted to know if she could come to my office to meet me one day. Such a simple ask.
I’ve already met so many students at Vic U with big dreams driven by a hunger for knowledge and fueled by curiosity, who are determined to break down barriers. Some of those students are with us this evening, celebrating their admission scholarships. I am immensely proud of the work that both Emmanuel and Victoria Colleges are doing with grassroots organizations, to target under-serviced students and invite them to consider Victoria University as their academic home. Thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends, our student awards and bursaries are among the best in the country.
Victoria University uses the word community a lot to describe ourselves. It is a key characteristic of how we support learners, and each other. And like any other community, we are stronger when we invite and include diverse people to share their unique and lived-experiences, ideas, cultural and religious backgrounds, abilities and histories.
For me, the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues such as those in the Black Research Network at the University of Toronto (the first network of its kind in Canada) has made me feel more optimistic about the transformative power of coming together to build a more inclusive, and representational community.
It is my sincere hope that my status as the only Black woman serving as President in a university in Canada, will not be long-lasting. My professional work and academic research foci is how emerging technologies impact human behaviour and cognition, including both neurotypical and neurodiverse populations. The questions that I’m asking as a STEM researcher, are technical and also deeply human, and philosophical. Which is why the opportunity to lead a university mostly known for its academic offerings in the humanities is so inspiring and exciting for me. The thing that has always driven me, is the art in the science. The human impulse to create, discover and understand.
There is a tendency in academia, and probably more broadly, to silo arts into one bucket and science in another, creating a false dichotomy. Some students mistakenly think that they have to go in one direction, or the other. My research and work is an example of how integrated art and science are - they are extensions of one another. Studying the great poets and philosophers can shape our approach to technology and our future. Even Northrop Frye spoke about cyborgs!
I am very excited to share that I will be opening an emerging technology and the arts research lab to our campus here. I believe our academic focus on liberal arts will propel the work in interesting directions.
There are so many to people to thank. I spoke about my village in the video earlier, and today my village feels like an entire nation! My parents Erlene and Ronald Benjamin. My professional mentors. My academic mentors. My academic and administrative collaborators throughout UofT, in particular at the UofT Mississauga. The Vic University community who welcomed me so warmly. The Board of Regents. All of the staff who worked tirelessly on this wonderful event, and I know she prefers the backstage, but I must name our Vic U Registrar, Yvette Ali for her leadership, sheer willpower, and hard work on producing a phenomenal installation. Our alumni community who gives so much back and makes us so proud. Our donors who make so much possible for our students. And of course, our students who energize and inspire.
Importantly, I want to thank my little family, our children LinTai and Ashe. Thank you for challenging me to be the best person, teacher, and mother to you both. I love you more than you will ever know. I will always be your biggest cheerleader. And for my husband, Stuart. Today is our 20th wedding anniversary (happy anniversary – look at the party I organized!). I stand here today because of the spaces and life that we created together. You are the best person in my world, and I am so grateful that you are walking alongside me on this amazing journey. All the feels and all my love.
Now, this is the fun part! The celebration doesn’t really happen until we honour our incredible students. Historically, Charter Day provided an opportunity to celebrate scholarship winners from across Victoria University, as a way to highlight student achievement, and also thank the members of our Vic community including donors who make these scholarships and bursaries possible.
The commitment to making an educational experience at Victoria University accessible to all who seek it, is entrenched in our culture, and we continue this important mission. Joining us this evening are students who are in their first year of study who received Admission Scholarships when they were accepted to Victoria College. These incredibly talented students excelled in high school and extracurricular activities and volunteered in their communities.
Admission Scholarships are just one of the many scholarships and bursaries we offer thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends who have made it possible to offer one of the best awards and bursary programs in the country.
Please join me in offering a very big congratulations to all of our students who have received scholarships!"
– President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda McEwen