On July 1, 2017, Bonnie McElhinny took over from Yves Roberge as principal of New College. We caught up with her between meetings, research and writing to have a brief conversation about her impressions of the new role and about what lies ahead. 

Upper-body portrait of bespectacled blonde woman in blue coat wearing a pearl necklace in front of a lake

Dr. Bonnie McElhinny

Question: While you are of course not new to New College, it’s been three weeks now since you’ve assumed the position of principal. Congratulations again. In a few words, how would you describe the first few weeks on the job?

Answer: Exhilarating. The environmental journalist Michael Keating says that if you want to know the watershed you’re in, you have to get your feet wet. It’s a philosophy I’ve adopted — for the classes I teach, but also for this new role. I ask students, and myself, to step outside their comfort zone, and outside the classroom. A college is a living, learning, working community, and my job these past few weeks has been to meet with as many people as possible, learn their portfolios, hear their hopes and dreams and share some of mine. It’s hard to communicate what this job encompasses to people unfamiliar with the U of T structure, but the best metaphor I’ve come up with is that it’s like being the mayor of a small town.  In fact, this community is larger than my home town (which had only 2,100 residents!). We have more than 5,300 students, about 730 of whom live in residence, and the largest percentage of international students of any college, and we are thinking about every aspect of their university experience. So, in the past three weeks, among other things, I’ve learned about the strategies we use for and ongoing discussions about:

  • Constructing a sense of place — and “heart” — here at NEW, whether in thinking about the latest specs on our plaza project or about living and learning community in residence or as a commuter student.
  • Cutting-edge techniques in supporting our undergrads, no matter if we’re talking English language instruction for international students or the development of positive learning strategies (dealing with time management, stress, new knowledge) for everyone. We also like to link these questions to responsible global citizenship.
  • The interconnection between the prevention of sexual violence and discussions about consent that we incorporate into our new student orientation sessions.
  • The plans that the directors of our four academic programs — African Studies; Buddhism, Mental Health and Psychology; Caribbean Studies; Equity Studies — have for expanding and renewing their programs, already each notable in their fields.
  • Questions of sustainability, so that we can meet the latest environmental standards in our facilities, as well as broaden the discussion to concerns around food equity in the college and beyond, for example.

Each of these questions is linked to aspects of my research and teaching work, but in the position of principal I have an opportunity to think about how we make institutional changes that take into account New College commitments to social justice and sustainability. I am deeply and truly impressed by the depth and breadth of thought on these questions among ALL the people in this community — students, staff, faculty, instructors. This is a talented, passionate, hardworking group!

The words "New College" cemented into a brick wall overhund with ivy.

Q: New beginnings often mean fresh perspectives. What has been the most unexpected thing you have learned about New College in the past three weeks? You can give us some fun facts too!

A: In my work on water, I think about place-making. Here, at New College, I’ve been thinking about space and place too. So I visited nooks and crannies of the college that I had never seen, though I’ve been at the university since 1993, and a member of the college since about 2000! On my list of what I never knew about NEW, therefore, are a number of artifacts or places at the college that many faculty members have perhaps never seen or spent much time in.

I was amazed, for example, by the collection of work by Indigenous artists from Manitoulin Island that is scattered around the college — in the Senior Common Room, my office, and others, but most visible to the community on the lower level of the library. I am hoping to find ways to re-exhibit these, to discuss their history and meaning for New College and beyond. I also for the first time really took note of a mural marking foment and transformation at the college and elsewhere in the 1960s, opposite the principal’s office.

What else? A scrap of an angel, putatively from 1379, that is a gift from New College Oxford (embedded in the wall in Wetmore Lounge). Two award-winning hanging gardens that are part of the residence space in 45 Willcocks. And, if we want to be pragmatic, views from the New College Student Council on the best place to have a nap in the college if you are a commuting student! I also discovered a fascinating debate between two well-known Canadian intellectuals about what makes an integrated university that actually had an impact on the spatial design of Wilson and Wetmore . . . but I won’t say more about that just now, because you can read the details in the upcoming issue of our alumni magazine Re:New. Keep your eyes peeled for it in October!         

Watercolour in hues of brown, white, and black depicting prominent figures of the 1960s and of New College. The face of Martin Luther King Jr. dominates.

A watercolour detail of the mural by Dilliana Popova (New ’10) gracing the wall opposite the principal’s office.

Q: These first few weeks mark the beginning of a five-year journey at the helm of New College. What would you say can the community expect from Principal Bonnie McElhinny? Are there any particular projects or areas of focus you wish to bring to the forefront? Anything you’re especially excited about?

A: There’s a lot, of course, but let me briefly mention three particular foci. I’d also like to stress that I don’t decide on these matters by myself. It’s always a discussion with various groups and individuals in the larger college and university community.

  • I want to continue to support, and build out, the social justice/decolonial work done at the college, with particular emphasis on support for Indigenous resurgence/reconciliation, work challenging anti-black racism and thoughtful approaches to supporting the increasing number of international students at New College and U of T.
  • I wish to build on the college’s well-developed efforts around global food equity to incorporate further work on land, water and sustainability.
  • I have begun thinking with professional managers and staff, architects, planners, students and faculty about place-making initiatives at New College — sites in the college that need some love, or more or better uses. Some of this work is capital-intensive; some of it simply requires ingenuity! And all of it will tie intimately to questions of well-being at NEW — physical, mental, emotional.