Dawn Russell – Cautious change

University president Dawn Russell says she is proud of hiring Lily Fraser to take over as vice-president finance and administration from the now-retired Lawrence Durling. Fraser started the job this semester. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Dawn Russell just wants to get things done.

There’s no question she wants change, something the university undoubtedly needs after a polarizing strike during the 2007-08 school year.

“When I came to St. Thomas, I understood there was a concern about climate and transparency and decision-making.”

But she knows she can’t rush important decisions. She needs to listen and weigh her options.

“I realize that sometimes in my haste to get things done, I want to move and accomplish things and can try to pressure others to move quickly. Sometimes I get [pushed] back or create tension with people by doing that.

“That’s never good for relationships. I have to make sure that things are planned and time is taken into account.”

Russell’s first school year as university president is almost finished.

She said it’s been a hectic year, spent trying to re-acquaint herself with the university she attended many years ago.

Much of her year has been spent attending events – graduation functions, public lectures and formal dinners. She regrets she couldn’t attend even more events.

But the stamp Russell has put on the university during her first few months is more than the mementos and degrees she’s decorated her new office with, an office that’s been occupied by three different people in the last three years.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the names on the offices around her fourth-floor Margaret Norrie McCain Hall spot.

Russell was part of hiring former civil servant Lily Fraser to fill the gap in administration left by veteran vice-president finance and administration Lawrence Durling.

“She’s got tremendous experience in managing both people and budgets and she understands that need for accountability and being able to explain our decision-making.”

And soon, she’ll have to fill another hole, left by Larry Batt, dean of students. Batt, who has spent close to 50 years in some capacity at St. Thomas University, is retiring at the end of June.

As part of the internal restructuring Russell is spearheading, Batt was set to become assistant vice-president (student affairs) until he announced his retirement earlier this semester.

When the restructure is complete, the university will have a dean of social sciences and a dean of humanities.

There will be a lot of new names in higher offices. Russell laments losing Batt and Durling to retirement, but embraces the new leadership team. She sees the restructure as an accomplishment of her first year as president.

“It will lead to a strong, academic leadership within the university, which is something the community is thirsty for.”

Russell’s looking ahead to next year and has a laundry list of things she wants to accomplish that students can weigh in on.

The university will delve further into building its strategic plan, which will map out the university’s direction for the next five years and beyond.

From the community feedback the university has received so far, Russell said people want the university to focus more on improving the first-year experience for students and maybe changing the first-year curriculum. One in four students who begin studying at STU won’t finish here.

“We need to deepen the number of people involved in student advising [and] not just the registrar’s office.

“We need to make sure that there is a helpful and friendly attitude.”

For Russell, her work to gain the university’s trust is just beginning. People have been very welcoming, but they’re also guarded and cautious, she said.

Even if she did everything right from the beginning, she knows there will still be people out there who aren’t sold on her.

“There’s a willingness to give me a try, to try to help out and support. I know from experience and I know in terms of my relationship with a new leader that I have to deal with that building trust takes time.

“[But] I think there is a strong desire to move forward.”

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