The crucial role Ontario colleges play: provincial leaders to gather for first-ever symposium

By Perry King
May 23, 2023
Leesa Wheelahan
Professor Leesa Wheelahan is the current Davis Chair in College Leadership.

OISE is bringing together senior policy leaders and Ontario’s college leadership to reflect on their role in building the Ontario of tomorrow.

The first OISE Community College Symposium on June 1, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Education (CIHE), will also celebrate the ideas and accomplishments of distinguished alumni and current PhD students – today’s college leaders. OISE’s doctoral program for college leaders was established 25 years ago, and many past and current college leaders in Ontario are alumni of the program.

Professor Leesa Wheelahan, who currently holds the William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership, says it is about time that the colleges convened for this special symposium.

“It's important to consider the role that colleges play in the fabric of Ontario's economic, social and cultural life,” said Wheelahan. “And the symposium provides a good opportunity for the college sector to think about the role that colleges play and should play in the future.

“We [the CIHE] think that the social role of colleges isn't really understood or appreciated enough,” added Wheelahan, “and yet, they are fundamental to Ontario's wellbeing. And so, we think it's important to have an explicit conversation about that, to explain why they are fundamental, and to work out what we think they should be doing to support the future prosperity of Ontario, and its social inclusion as well.

For Maureen Adamson, the president of Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont., this symposium arrives right on time.

“I read the [upcoming] symposium material and realized it's about how colleges build a better Ontario and, frankly, that is exactly how I see my role as a college president,” said Adamson, a current OISE doctoral candidate.

Earlier this spring, Fleming held their own symposium, where thought leaders convened a disruptive conversation where they talked about improving the local and regional economy. This gathering put the college’s role in the region into tremendous focus – and that this is a crucial moment as central Ontario looks to build back socially and economically.

“Peterborough is in big trouble, it has the highest opioid crisis numbers in Ontario, the lowest median wage in Ontario, the lowest vacancy rate in Ontario, and the highest hate crime rate in Canada,” says Adamson. “I think it's really important for educators to start having those conversations, about how do we take part in rebuilding Ontario, because Peterborough is one of many rural towns that are facing all the same things.”

Ontario’s college leaders, coming together

Shannon Fuller, Ontario’s current Deputy Minister, Ministry of Colleges and Universities, will provide the keynote at the OISE Library on the morning of June 1. Adamson, along with presidents from Humber College, Niagara College, George Brown College and the Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute, will take part in a keynote panel discussing Colleges’ role in building the Ontario of tomorrow.

A number of smaller sessions will be taking place – showcasing the research of CCL graduates and current doctoral candidates. A panel of vice-presidents is also planned for the day.

“My hope is that participants will gain an enhanced understanding of the vital role of the colleges in Ontario’s educational and economic life,” said Professor Glen Jones, the Director of  CIHE. “The college system has changed quite fundamentally over the last few decades and it is clearly time to look forward, to consider how the system can retain its core ‘public’ character in the face of dramatic changes in funding, technological innovation, and the labour market.”

Jones is looking forward to learning from the many college leaders, “who will be sharing their ideas and perspectives at the symposium.”

“It will be an important opportunity to reflect on how the colleges have changed, but also to consider their role in the context of a dynamic environment,” says Jones. “As the role of government funding declines, there are difficult questions ahead in terms of their ability to serve the needs of the extremely diverse population of students who turn to them as a key postsecondary pathway.”

Leaders like Adamson are looking forward to having tough conversations with her peers, how they work together and commit to doing things that create necessary change. “It's one thing at a time, no one can boil the ocean,” she says. “I'm excited to hear from my colleagues, about their ideas on helping to rebuild Ontario.”

And to have these conversations at OISE, the ranked top educational institute in Canada, is really important.  “A place like the University of Toronto, the elite university of Canada, to hold to convene such a discussion and such a group of people to really have a disruptive kind of conversation is really important, and to be in higher education, that is the raison d'etre of leaders in higher ed,” she says.

“It seems to me to be a pretty special day with this pretty special lineup. I also find unique is that we're talking about colleges. So here we are the elite university of Canada talking about colleges. I think that's bold.”

A hat tip to Dr. Charles Pascal

All participants in this story acknowledged the impact and contributions of the late Dr. Charles Pascal, Professor Emeritus, who passed on Apr. 24.

Within OISE, Pascal was part of the team that developed Canada’s first doctoral program in college leadership, and he also helped to establish the Davis Chair in College Leadership – currently held by Professor Wheelahan.

OISE asked Professor Jones about Pascal’s influence on this upcoming symposium. This is how he responded:

“Charles spent much of his career working within and for the college sector. He left his position as Chair of the Higher Education Group at OISE to become President of Fleming College, and then became Chair of the Council of Regents of the entire college sector. In that role he led the Vision 2000 review of the colleges which reaffirmed their core mission but provided a vision for moving forward. His support of the college continued when he was Deputy Minister of Education and Training. We had hoped that Charles would participate in the symposium, and we have lost an important voice in this discussion. My hope is that there will be opportunities at the symposium to recognize his enormous contribution to the sector.”

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