BY MICHELLE BILTON
Sheridan’s new president has a lot of experience with problems students can face.
Janet Morrison became president of Sheridan this year. She previously assumed the role of Sheridan’s Provost and Vice President in 2016. President of 23,000 full-time and 18,500 continuing and part-time studies students is not exactly a simple job. Morrison underwent many experiences to get where she is today.
Morrison says she has many roles, besides her most prominent one as president.
“I am a mom and a life partner and an educator. I would like to think of myself as a leader, as a change agent, through some of my experiences, a survivor and an advocate,” she says. Despite all the roles she has, the one that is most important to her is parenting her two children and working in a partnership with someone who co-parents with her.
She often looks back on the post-secondary experiences that helped her grow into the person she is.
“My undergraduate experience was horrible, it wasn’t what I want any student’s transition to college or university to be like. That one was hard. It required resilience and persistence. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t immediately make connections, I didn’t really have a strong sense of purpose.”
Nevertheless, she found a way to succeed despite these challenges. Three things saved her: her family, varsity sport and four senior women who refused to let her flounder.
Fortunately, her next experience at the University of Guelph was better. “I knew what to do to self-advocate and position myself for success. I made a more conscious choice about a program of learning, that really interested and inspired me,” she says.
She had mentors who challenged, supported and coached her which led her to earn a terminal degree at Bowling Green State University in higher education.
“I spent that time studying college and university students. How they learn, what promotes versus what inhibits their learning and what type of environments are more conducive to learning in a positive school experience. It was great and I continue to use the content from that experience,” she says.
She hopes that each of her experiences influences what she brings to her leadership today. Although, she says her PhD program challenges her thinking every day from physical plant, building, organization, furniture, to kinds of development and professional activities faculty should be afforded.
Before coming to Sheridan, Morrison spent 17 years at York University doing various roles, her most recent one being vice-provost. For her, it wasn’t about the change from university to college, she was open to moving to an institution committed to quality.
“I loved that job, I’ll probably reflect on the opportunities it provided me for all of my working days. But, I knew if I someday wanted to be a president it was really important that I spent some time as a chief academic officer and Sheridan was a good place to do that because our commitment to quality assurance is so high. It’s always good to learn from the best,” she says.
She believes that while Sheridan and York are two different schools, they have their similarities. “Learners are amongst a multitude of choices, choose Sheridan or choose York. Not a day goes by where I’m not impressed by a student at Sheridan and that was very similar to my experience at York,” she says.
Despite this, she says their identities are quite different. “What I would say about York is that its identity is really grounded in constructive discourse. There’s lots of debate and discussion. That really characterized how people talked to each other, it’s how you engage with each other, it’s not for everybody, I found it an opportunity for growth and development,” she says.
“The prominent characteristic about Sheridan is a sense of kindness and compassion and real community engagement. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s different. I love it, it’s a good fit for me,” she adds.
After around 90 days as president, she says that while priorities change, she knows where immediate action needs to be taken. She wants change, not just within Sheridan, but around how post-secondary education and credentialing is organized.
“The example I always give to folks is that you can earn a four-year honours baccalaureate degree at Sheridan which has been duly evaluated and assessed as equivalent to an undergraduate degree in the university sector. Yet you can’t be systematically be admitted to graduate school. I think these are in many instances holdovers from a bygone era where colleges had a discreet place in one side of a continuum and universities were at the other,” she says.
She believes Sheridan is more in the middle between what Canadian colleges and universities are defined as.
“The last piece is ensuring that people are first and for me, that means putting learners at the centre of everything we do, the decisions we make, the hires we make, how we live a commitment of being student-centric,” she says.
Also, she emphasizes how Sheridan must make faculty and staff feel valued and duly celebrate their accomplishments.
She has a plan for the next five years. She believes her job is mainly one of facilitation and Sheridan needs to decide what it wants to be and where it wants to go. To achieve this, Sheridan’s invested in a strategic planning process.
“There are faculty, staff and students involved in shepherding that process but the goal is to be highly consultative so that every member of our community, students, faculty, staff and our external partners has an opportunity to share their voice. I’m really excited about that and the outcomes of that should be in front of community February or March 2019,” she says.
She also hopes to get students more engaged in the democratic environment of Sheridan due to only 135 votes in last year’s SSU election at Trafalgar. “I’m disappointed when anybody, any cohorts, students or others decide not to avail themselves of that right, we need to remind ourselves as well as all of our students that our curriculum teaches us about global issues. Not everybody has that right. Students I think need to reflect on if or why they would fail to embrace that,” she says.
She encourages students to be more involved in decisions by organizing focus groups and including students on hiring panels. She says the rest is up to students, “students need to step up, accept, acknowledge and embrace their obligation as citizens in a democracy,” she says.
With five years to go, Morrison’s impact on Sheridan will be seen in time. She’s hopeful for the future.
“I enjoy crucial conversations, I like the nuts and bolts of collaboration, I am committed to consultation. I think if we can harness the collective capacity of Sheridan learning community the next five years are going to be awesome and so I’m really, really excited to get started,” she says.