When university president Dawn Russell took over her post from interim president Dennis Cochrane this past summer at St. Thomas University, it was a bit like coming home.
STU has changed dramatically since Russell graduated from here in 1977, both physically and in its course offerings. Yet Russell still felt a sense of comfort in returning to her old stomping grounds.
Three weeks into Russell’s first year in charge of the school she once attended, she sat down with campus media and STU spokesman Jeffrey Carleton on Wednesday to talk about her plans for STU, her upbringing on the Miramichi and how STU became a part of her family.
The middle child of six children, Russell comes from a tight-knit, Catholic family. Growing up in Chatham Head, a few minutes from Miramichi, Russell’s family would often play games and go camping together.
“We didn’t have a lot of money but we would get in our car and get our tent,” she said.
Her parents didn’t go to university, but always promoted education to their children.
Around 1964, Russell’s older sister applied to STU, which was in Chatham at the time. After the school relocated to Fredericton, Russell’s family wasn’t sure if they would have enough money to send her sister away for school.
What changed their mind was a visit from then-STU president Monsignor Donald Duffie and his presidential successor, George Martin.
“They said, ‘We want to encourage you to send your daughter to university because she has a passion for learning, she has a fine intellect and she should go on to university.’
“They offered not only a full-tuition scholarship but also, when they realized living away was a problem, to cover her residence costs.
“That was the beginning of making my parents realize that it was possible for us to have a university education and it became a goal for the rest of us.”
Four siblings from Russell’s family would end up attending STU, three with full-tuition scholarships. Russell would also later meet her husband at STU.
The president remembers meeting friends pretty quickly after starting her first-year, with memories of joking around and stapling course packs together in the cafeteria for now dean of students Larry Batt.
Performing with Theatre St. Thomas under the guidance of Ted Daigle, who has an auditorium in Edmund Casey Hall named after him, was also a highlight during her time as a student.
“I had great mentors here too that not only taught me here but also were concerned about what I might do early on.”
Russell liked STU so much that she returned to teach in the English program for two summers while studying law at UNB.
With the STU she knew more than 30 years ago in mind, Russell has an appreciation for the value of a liberal arts education and STU’s small campus feel.
She wants to keep the closeness of the university intact by growing the campus modestly.
“I don’t think there’s anything that we’re going to do in terms of growth or the type of programming that we have that would be a disjunct with our tradition. I think it will build on our tradition and our existing strengths,” she said.
“Although we want to have a sustainable level of student body, we don’t have plans for growing our student population to be too large. It’s really more of a slight growth to return to a level of a few years ago, which was around 2,700 or so.”
In order to return to this level of enrolment, Russell wants to grow the school’s international population and reach out more to Ontario and western Canada. It’s a strategy Russell sees as necessary with fewer students predicted to graduate from high schools in Atlantic Canada during the next few years.
One of Russell’s top priorities is to enhance the school’s reputation, which could help it appeal to students from afar.
She also envisions the university taking cues from other liberal arts schools.
“We have to take a hard look at development in liberal arts universities in North America and look at the development there and make sure we’re on the leading edge of that.”
The past two presidents have had to deal with the daily difficult decisions leaders must make in addition to a strike, the murder of a professor and the death of a student.
Russell plans to face her own tough decisions by building a strong network of people around her and listening to the university community, possibly through town hall meetings. She often held these meetings while serving as dean of the law program at Dalhousie University.
“Good decision-makers are people who are willing to listen and make sure they’ve identified all of the important aspects of the problem before they make a decision.”
When Russell’s family attended STU, it was a place where there were opportunities for people who worked for them, such as the opportunity Duffie and Martin gave her sister.
Russell wants STU to retain this type of value-based community.
“Part of a liberal arts program is to encourage all [students], and I was encouraged to do so when I was a student, to think about your own values, to explore them by exposing you to the thinking and values of others by making your own choices.”