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Our New Provost

Equity, access, excellence: these are touchstones for Shirley Neuman

There are two notable things about the office of new U of T provost Shirley Neuman. One: The fragrance of flowers – yellow roses in a plump glass bowl, a bouquet of fresh-cut rainbow lilies, and others – is so strong, the room smells like a church on a wedding day. Two: The office is tidy – make that impeccable.

The date – July 4 – explains both the fragrance and the orderliness. Neuman is a mere two days into her new post as provost, or chief academic officer. The flowers are gifts of congratulation from colleagues. And the tidiness is confirmation that the full gust of demands, crises, queries, deliberations and other headache-inducing situations – and the resulting papers, files and disarray that accompany it – hasn’t yet blown in.

But Neuman is someone who can handle plenty of headache-inducing moments. The native Albertan has just returned to Canada after a three-year post as dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a professor of English and women’s studies. An academic administrator, scholar and professor, Neuman recognizes that each of these three roles will be of value in her new appointment. “I think that those sensibilities lead into each other; that if you want to do this job, it serves you well to have done scholarship, to have been a teacher, to have had all that academic experience,” she says.

As provost, Neuman is responsible for the university’s academic and budgetary affairs and also constructs the framework for U of T’s overall budget. She oversees and works with the principals, deans and directors of faculties, colleges and schools to set academic priorities; she also oversees the chief librarian. And to help ready the university for the incoming tidal wave of students that will sweep into the university – resulting from the elimination of Grade 13 in Ontario, and growing population and immigration trends – Neuman is working with the president and vice-president on issues such as faculty recruitment and capital planning. (The large influx of students will start in September 2003, but the trickle began this September.)

One of her main priorities will be continuing the university’s mission to ensure that every able student, regardless of financial situation, has access to the University of Toronto. The issue of accessibility has strong personal roots: growing up in Onaway, Alta., on a 320-acre mixed grain and cattle farm without running water, a telephone or electricity, the voracious reader and her family didn’t have a budget for books. But the University of Alberta maintained an extension library that loaned reading material to people across the province; the government subsidized postage for those who couldn’t afford it. “It was before the days of pervasive television, so it was really a commitment on the part of the province to enable literacy across the province,” says Neuman. “A lot of books came into the house that way – everything from John Steinbeck to Zane Grey to The Odyssey – so I read a lot of trash and I read a lot of good literature, more or less indiscriminately.” So enthusiastic a reader was Neuman that when her mother became pregnant with her brother-to-be, “I subscribed the baby before he was born so I could have another couple of books,” she says.

Neuman also points to her own access to a university education. She went to the University of Alberta in the 1960s, during the rising crest of the baby boom – a time when the federal government funded universities quite well, and tuition was low. It was only because of these low fees – tuition was about $400 per year – that Neuman was able to attend university. She went on to earn a BA, an MA and a PhD in English, all from the University of Alberta. “Governments don’t have the money now to fund universities as well as they once did,” she says. “As a consequence, universities charge higher tuitions – which is important because you do need money to teach well – so the financial-aid programs that this university has been putting in place are incredibly important initiatives. They ensure access in a different way than when I was young, but they do ensure access.”

After earning her PhD, Neuman worked her way up to professor of English at the University of Alberta, and also became the university’s first director of the Women’s Studies program in 1986. She later served as chair of the department of English, then moved on to the University of British Columbia to serve as dean of the Faculty of Arts. In the late ’70s, Neuman was also a founding member of NeWest Press, a regional press in Edmonton that places an emphasis on Western Canadian writers. It was during this time that she became interested in Canadian literature as an area of study, publishing such books as Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Other scholarly work focused on autobiography as a literary genre. “It’s really about how you construct a self…. When I started doing this work, I don’t think I could have told you why I was personally so interested in it, but many years later I came to realize that it probably had something to do with being a Western Canadian woman in an English department,” says Neuman, noting that the one Canadian literature course available during her graduate year focused primarily on Toronto and Montreal writers. “There’s a wonderful book by Toronto author Austin Clarke entitled Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, and it talks about what it was like to grow up in a British educational system in which you read English literature, and what does it mean to read English literature if you’re a kid from the Caribbean? How do you see yourself represented? You don’t find an understanding of your own world in that literature. In a much more modest way, that was my experience.”

This lack of literary representation seems to have informed a later decision at the University of Michigan, where she enabled the establishment of the Global Ethnic Literature Seminar. Michigan’s study of ethnic literature was strong within individual divisions, she notes, but this program allowed a variety of departments – from anthropology to Asian Languages and Culture – to create a strong overall focus on ethnicity in literature. Neuman also helped build up the Center for African American and African Studies, increasing the faculty from six to more than 20; and she increased the number of Native American faculty within the college. “Throughout her career, she has shown commitment and sensitivity to equity issues and remained unrelenting in her commitment to excellence,” says U of T President Robert Birgeneau. It is a commitment she intends to uphold.

Even if it means a messy office.

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