By Sally Szuster
The words “Because she who dares, wins” do not just adorn Dr. Rhonda N. McEwen’s website—they underpin every part of her decision-making process as president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. She is the first Black woman to lead any university in Canada. As the Canadian Research Chair in Tactile Interfaces, Communication and Cognition, she is also the first president at Vic U with an academic focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
McEwen is among a rare breed of academics who worked in industry prior to assuming leadership roles in a university. For over 15 years, she worked as a management consultant in telecommunications for Cable and Wireless, IBM, and Deloitte, in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
Known for her bionic-level work ethic, her outstanding academic credentials and her charismatic ability to engage students, faculty and staff to pursue innovation and ambitious goals, McEwen’s reputation during her tenure as University of Toronto Mississauga’s vice-principal (academic) and dean preceded her.
Her arrival at Vic U in July 2022 catalyzed ambitious capital plans to expand the University’s iconic campus and discussions about growing academic programs and research have begun. McEwen is working with her team to expand EDIA (equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility) initiatives, and in so doing she is delivering on the ambitious strategic framework developed by Vic U’s leadership prior to her arrival. She has also sought a more integrated connection between Vic U’s two colleges: Victoria College and Emmanuel College.
“Year One of a presidential tenure is special because it is about listening deeply to students, faculty and staff to understand the rich history of Vic U, and where our community sees opportunities and challenges. But now, even as I continue to listen, the rubber hits the road,” she says with a laugh.
With its 187-year history and reputation as an incredible place to study, McEwen asks, “how can you continue to be an elite academic institution, one that values discovery and research and excellent teaching and experiences, but avoids becoming elitist?
“For me, the difference between elite and elitist is service. A diverse student body brings exciting new ideas about how we can serve our world. A key goal is to foster a sense of belonging across our community, even for students who never envisioned themselves walking the halls of Old Vic,” says McEwen. Vic U is collaborating with guidance counselors, principals and neighborhood organizations to invite a broad cross-section of high school students to consider Vic. Through the fundraising campaign Defy Gravity: The Campaign for Victoria University, McEwen hopes to secure more bursaries and funding opportunities for students facing financial and social obstacles.
During her installation ceremony as president and vice-chancellor, she told the packed audience in the Isabel Bader Theatre that “we must be relentless in our pursuit of knowledge—and equally relentless in our commitment to making that knowledge accessible to all.”
McEwen comes to her passion for academia honestly. Raised by parents who were academics in Trinidad and Tobago, McEwen watched them pursue their master’s degrees while raising her and her younger brother. McEwen followed their lead, finishing her doctorate with a focus on mobile social networks in record time while raising her two children.
“How can you continue to be an elite academic institution, one that values discovery and research and excellent teaching and experiences, but avoids becoming elitist?”
Her academic focus has put her at the forefront of a pressing discussion around artificial intelligence (AI), and she is regularly invited to speak at conferences about the threats the fast-moving technology may pose. In a Toronto Star op-ed published a few weeks after the academic world was shaken by the launch of an AI tool called ChatGPT that students were using to write their essays for them, McEwen wrote: “Instead of focusing on how to distinguish AI-generated papers from traditional methods, we all need to take a seismic leap into a future that will demand an even more creative and analytical approach to information.”
The intensity of McEwen’s own research has informed her passion for supporting research at Victoria University. “We have such a wealth of academic talent here in our professors and fellows. Research ignites curiosity in our students, and we should be so proud of the research taking place here. And I think we can do even more!” she says in her characteristically “go get them” voice.
“We must be relentless in our pursuit of knowledge—and equally relentless in our commitment to making that knowledge accessible to all.”
Walking through campus, McEwen reflects on the University’s sense of place in one the busiest parts of the city. “So many members of our alumni community tell me that they first chose Victoria College or Emmanuel College for their degree because of their long histories of academic excellence and the beauty of campus. The time has come to think expansively about our campus and how it can best serve students’ needs today.”
Victoria University launched its Capital Plan prior to McEwen’s arrival, which includes a new student learning centre with state-of-the art classrooms, a consolidated student services hub which includes mental health and wellness supports, and refurbishing existing buildings to make them more accessible. McEwen has accelerated those plans and is expanding them to address pressing needs such as affordable student housing.
“We have to be courageous in thinking about our campus and what our students need. Building is a big endeavor, especially in our current economic climate. However, we must play the long game, as generations of students will feel the positive impact,” explains McEwen.
“When our alumni come back to campus for events, they recall conversations with their professors, hijinks in the residences, and meeting some of their closest friends—including spouses—in the quad. When I tell them about our plans for the campus, many respond right away with ‘how can I help?’ I feel confident that our Defy Gravity fundraising campaign will come through for our students and help build the campus they deserve.”
Tied to McEwen’s vision for the campus is a commitment to sustainability. “Our students have told us loud and clear this is a priority for them. We must contribute to minimizing the effects of climate change and other environmental threats,” says McEwen. She has worked with the Board of Regents to commit to the divestment of fossil fuels from its investments by 2030, a process that began before her arrival, and joined the Blue Communities Project with its focus on water sustainability.
President McEwen is leading Victoria University through a transformative period of growth and development, aligning it with the ever-evolving landscape of higher education. “By far, the best part of this job is engaging with students. They are brilliant, creative and thoughtful, and are driven to make a positive difference in the world. Every single member of our community—faculty, staff, librarians and alumni—is focused on helping them achieve their dreams, and I am so proud to call Victoria University my academic home,” says McEwen.
Learn more about how you can support Defy Gravity: The Campaign for Victoria University, along with President McEwen’s ambitions for our students and campus.