Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Presidential hindsight: Catching up with three of Camosun College’s past presidents

August 16, 2017 by Felicia Santarossa, features writer

Whether it’s coping with financial struggles, dealing with the aftermath of an impromptu speech that left some people offended, or facing an unexplained contract termination, serving as president of Camosun College is not without some havoc. Perhaps that’s why the stories behind three of Camosun’s former presidents—Lloyd Morin, Liz Ashton, and Kathryn Laurin—are so compelling. We recently caught up with all three and talked with them about their time at the college—from the highs to the lows—and what they’re up to now.

Through multiple interviews, these former presidents described their lives in rich detail. They each recalled their draw to Camosun and gave us a glimpse of their post-college lives. And their later endeavours—developing the Prior Learning Assessment service, focusing on show jumping, and strategizing Victoria’s symphony—are as distinct as can be.

From these interviews, I gained expansive, intriguing information about this very institution. I learned about the formation of the Nursing program, the reason for the scant number of four-year degree programs at Camosun, and the foundation laid for applied research at the college. Most importantly, I heard the stories of the people who helped bring Camosun to where it is today, and what they’ve achieved since.

LLOYD MORIN

Camosun College’s second president, Lloyd Morin, was with the college when it first opened its doors to students in 1971. Starting as the director of Instructional Development and Institutional Research, he helped plan course outlines and develop programs such as Criminal Justice and the now-defunct Applied Communications Program. After the first president—or, as the position was called then, principal—Grant Fisher, left the college for the Ministry of Advanced Education, Morin applied for the president position and was appointed in 1979. His decade-long presidency had him guiding the college through the recession of the ’80s, and he had to make decisions that sound very similar to ones the college still deals with today.

“I got a phone call to come to a meeting halfway through the fiscal year,” he remembers. “We were told to reduce all of our budgets mid-term, and that is very difficult to do when you have people under contract, and such a large percentage of budget went into salaries, but those were the days we were in. They were very stringent financial times; we had to look at every dollar twice.”

Ex-Camosun College president Lloyd Morin (photo by Felicia Santarossa/Nexus).

At 82 years old, Morin is the oldest ex-Camosun president; while he misses “the challenges and the relationships” at Camosun, he says he’s enjoyed retirement.

“What I do in retirement changes as years go by, but right now I seem to be mostly involved with family, other activities, church activities, puttering around in the yard. I have other projects that I work away at,” he says. “In my early retirement years, I did a lot of contract work. I’m not doing that now, but I worked for the [BC] Council on Admissions and Transfer [BCCAT] for quite a bit. Now, at my age, I don’t do that as much; I just kind of take care of things around here.”

Morin says that one noticeable change during his presidency was the formation of the Nursing program. At that time, nursing had always been in the hospital schools, but they were phasing it out, he says. Lots of time was spent working with the people from those schools, says Morin, and then hiring Thelma Brown to head up the college’s Nursing program.

“That was a big initiative because it required staff, it required labs, and it required money. At that time, there were three councils that controlled our budgets; one was the Academic Council. They wanted us to start the Nursing program, but it was difficult to get a commitment to the money to make it happen,” he says with a laugh. “And so we kind of held off until we were able to get commitment that there would be funding there for it. It’s been a really successful program; it was very well done.”

Morin doesn’t consider his presidency a one-man show. He says he had a “superb” group of senior administrators who all went on to have great careers elsewhere.

“These were just exceptional people, and I was so fortunate to have that sort of team to work with; that’s really what made my decade there most enjoyable. You can’t do it on your own. These men—as it turns out, they were mostly men at the time—were totally committed to their jobs. They worked very hard, they were very intelligent—I was just really lucky to get people like that. All I had to do was show up,” he chuckles.

While doing contract work with the BCCAT after his time at the college, Morin would chair committees and write discussion papers on various topics. One notable example was on Prior Learning Assessment, a service used by most BC colleges to identify what skills people have learned in a non-post-secondary setting.

“Yes, we did a lot of work on that,” he says. “We had a provincial committee. It took a while to get going, and it’s kind of become an accepted part of the system.”

Between periods of contract work for the BCCAT, Morin briefly served as president of Douglas College, helping them out through some tough times.

“Well, every college goes through those periods,” he says. “Right now it seems to be a high time for the colleges—there seems to be lots of money, lots of growth, lots of development—so it’s encouraging to see. I’m very impressed to see what Camosun has become since I left.”

Morin keeps in touch with his old Camosun colleagues through the Camosun College Association of Retired Employees.

“I still get together with many of the people in the administrative council from the 1980s that still live around here,” he says. “Six or seven of us get together once or twice a year just for lunch, renew acquaintances.”

Morin has left the hustle and bustle of the presidential life behind him, but he stays busy, even while immersed in retirement.

“We’ve done a lot of travelling and so on; my wife [Caroll] isn’t as able to travel now as she once was, and so we probably won’t do as much travelling. We enjoy following the pursuits of our grandchildren,” he says.

As for what’s next, he’s taking a break from the big-picture hecticness to deal with one of the most ordinary—and non-presidential—tasks of all.

“One thing I need to do,” he says, “is sort out my pictures from all our trips.”

LIZ ASHTON

When we get together for our interview, Liz Ashton has just come back from a horse show up island. Before that, she had been to several show jumping competitions in Ontario and Alberta. Ashton—who was Camosun’s president from 1994 to 2009—now competes in equestrian show jumping, something she did before her time at the college. While she stills follows the college, show jumping takes up all her time these days.

“I always tried to plan on retiring early enough from the college that I would have a few years to do horses full time,” says Ashton. “Never in my whole life, even the years I rode in the Olympics, I never got to train or anything full time; it was always working and trying to do it on the side. I always figured maybe I’d get three years competing after finishing; it’s extended to eight or nine now. It’s been fun.”

Before her time at Camosun, Ashton had a history that involved both post-secondary education and horses. Upon receiving her bachelor’s in Physical Health and Education from the University of Toronto, Ashton was hired to direct the Equine Studies program at Toronto’s Humber College. She gradually made her way up to chairperson for a number of programs before being recruited as vice-president, academic at Peterborough’s Sir Sandford Fleming College. After that, Ashton was headhunted for presidency at Camosun, which corresponded nicely with her dream of living out west, she says.

Ex-Camosun College president Liz Ashton (photo by Felicia Santarossa/Nexus).

“I’d always had that desire—but it was never going to be a reality when I was younger—because I had wanted to continue to compete internationally, and most of the main horse competitions are on the east coast, not the west coast,” she says. “But by that point in time, I was winding down from competing internationally, and it was a wonderful opportunity to come to Camosun. It was such a fabulous college; I really just felt privileged to be headhunted to go there.”

During her 15 years at Camosun, the college system was rearranging itself, with many colleges beginning to provide bachelor’s degrees. Camosun, however, became the exception, says Ashton.

“It was the start of the rise of the regional universities and the number of colleges wanting to position themselves as universities in the future,” she says. “The interesting thing—why Camosun is such a strong college—is the staff and faculty, I was quite surprised, were absolutely committed to the community college mission and were not interested in becoming a regional university. They wanted to continue doing what they were doing well.”

Ashton credits her leadership team in helping her to make the impact she had at Camosun, particularly through the development of the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence (PISE). Ashton says that PISE put Camosun College on the map.

“Our athletic teams had no gym,” she says. “There was no way government was ever going to provide the money to build a gym, and here we were, one of the biggest institutions in the province, with no facilities for our teams. PISE kind of filled that but at the same time provided a home for all the new exercise- and health-related programs, plus a home for the national teams to train in. I think every administration will have its impact; through the time that I was there, there were some huge changes of both culture and modernization that had to take place at the college if it was going to move forward.”

Ashton says that change wasn’t easy, and a lot of administration took it to the chin, but the college changed for the better. Otherwise, she says, we’d still be living in the ’60s.

“When I came there, there was so much that hadn’t been modernized,” she says. “When I looked out my window at registration time, the students would be lined up for miles down the front road, and I said, ‘Come on. There’s got to be a better way. This is the 21st century; there’s something called technology.’ There was a lot of that that needed to happen, and did happen, but it wasn’t easy; it was very much an uphill fight in a lot of cases, because, as everybody knows, most people don’t necessarily like change, and sometimes it’s painful. You know, hopefully, it’s a better place as a result of the impact of a lot of people over time. Things need to keep moving forward.”

Even after leaving Camosun, Ashton is still striving for change. She helped start up and is the chair for Capital Region Equestrians, a local advocacy group that aims “to speak on the behalf of equestrians to local governments” over matters such as the paving of Lochside Trail. I note to her that she’s kept her administrative skills sharp; she notes that when it comes to advocating, it’s about working with the government.

“Working with government is an important thing,” she says. “So many community groups think it’s just about going and fighting the fight in front of committees, and it’s not; it’s about working with the staff within. I’ve worked long enough with staff at the college; that’s where the ideas and work come from. [As president] you’re in many respects a figurehead, and when it comes to the nitty-gritty work of making things work and the planning on how to achieve things it’s the staff that do it. Recognize the expertise and bring them into the picture, not ignore them; that’s silly.”

And now, for the elephant in the room: in March of 2008, Nexus published comments Ashton made at a private function for college faculty and staff. During an impromptu speech, she said, “…the students that come to us, initially, they’re not the best and not the brightest in terms of their academic standing.” She defended her comments at the time, and today she says she regrets the way people took the comments, because, she says, it wasn’t meant the way people thought it was.

“I think the comment was something about that not the best and the brightest always come to the colleges,” says Ashton. “Usually, if someone is a 90s student, they probably should have come to the college; they’d probably get a better education. But they tend not to—they go to the university—and so I think that says something about the best and the brightest. That they took tremendous offense with, and it was a misuse of words, but I was only implying that if you take students coming out of high school, the top x percent will usually go to the university, and then the next group will probably look at the college system.

“And yet, at the end of the day,” she continues, “what I was saying with the accomplishments of those students, at the end of the post-secondary education, who are the most successful? And it’s the college-educated—whether they transfer to university later or not—students who are extremely successful. It’s amazing how things will hang on like that; that wasn’t meant in the way that somebody took it and just basically broadcast around the college what I had said as an insult to our students, and it sure as hell was never meant to be an insult; it was actually praise for the students, for the choice that they made, and for how successful they were at the end of it.”

KATHRYN LAURIN

Kathryn Laurin surprised me. The most recent ex-president of Camosun, Laurin was here from 2009 until 2014, when her contract was suddenly terminated under a shroud of secrecy from the college, who still won’t explain to the public why the president of this public institution was fired for reasons that Laurin at the time said were “completely unjustified.” But Laurin has picked herself up.

She still won’t comment on what exactly happened at the end of her time here. When pressed for a statement about her termination, she said in an email, “My quick comment is that life moves on, and it is important to seize each and every day and make it your best,” and wouldn’t comment further.

But it makes sense that Laurin doesn’t want to dwell on negative events in the past.Utilizing her background in music and administration, she became the Victoria Symphony Society’s CEO in June 2016. The role is similar to her previous position in that everything falls on the CEO’s desk.

Ex-Camosun College president Kathryn Laurin (photo by Felicia Santarossa/Nexus).

“When I was at Camosun, ultimately you have responsibility for all the academic programs, but you also have responsibility for fundraising and what we call development: trying to cultivate support from your stakeholders in the community, and trying to fundraise, and so on,” says Laurin, “so, responsibility for that and the financial piece as well. So, yeah, there are some commonalities across the board for sure.”

With the Victoria Symphony Society, she collaborates with the music director on the symphony’s programming while keeping on budget; she also fundraises and gets sponsorships for the symphony.

Laurin is an administration veteran; she was the president of Halifax’s Mount St. Vincent University before she was headhunted for Camosun. During her time as Camosun’s president, the development of her administration’s Strategic Plan was, she says, a major part of the college’s evolution.

“That was a pretty important process for us,” says Laurin. “We tried to involve as many people across the college as possible, and once we completed the actual plan—which I think was a really strong plan—then the challenge was trying to implement it and trying to make sure that you’re aware of the directions of the college, so that you’re in alignment with everybody across the college. That’s the big challenge with strategic plans—a lot of organizations will create a plan but won’t necessarily execute on the plan, so I would say we did a pretty good job of making decisions and moving the college forward, all in alignment with what we put forward in the Strategic Plan.”

Additionally, the Strategic Plan’s development and execution “would be an important piece in terms of impact,” Laurin says about her administration. She also points to their strong fundraising for the Centre for Trades Education and Innovation building at Interurban and to their focus on applied research, which Laurin feels is an area that is growing to this day at the college.

“When I arrived, the applied research area was in early days, if you will, so we worked hard to provide opportunity and support there to allow that area to develop, and so I also think that area had impact across the college,” she says.

Laurin would use similar strategic planning after leaving Camosun, as she was part of Royal Roads University’s senior consulting team, helping the senior executive team determine future directions for the university.

“They weren’t doing, say, a formal strategic plan, but they were working on a document, future directions for the university, and reviewing and business planning,” she says. “I helped them with that, which was great, actually; I really enjoyed that.”

Laurin says that today she doesn’t follow what’s happening at Camosun too closely because she’s removed from the post-secondary world with her current job.

“I kind of keep my eye on the post-secondary sector to see what’s happening,” she says. “On a weekly basis I’m just taking a look to see what’s happening in the general sector, so that’s how I kind of stay in touch. It’s hard to stay up on the latest developments; you’re just out of hours in the day.”

Laurin has some short-term plans to play more golf, but she says that long-term plans are not on the table.

“What I’m going to do five years from now, I don’t worry about it. I’ve learned now at this juncture in my life that I can’t control those future bits, so I don’t worry about it,” she says. “Sometimes future opportunities and directions show up when you least expect it. I think the important thing is to seize opportunities when they’re important and meaningful and just do your very best you can each and every day. That’s my mantra, my personal motto: get up every day and be the absolute best you be.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Thelma Brown as Elmer Brown. We apologize for the mistake.

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