When Brescia’s Principal, Dr. Susan Mumm enters the front doors of the University’s historic Ursuline Hall each day, she stands for a moment in its peaceful rotunda and says the same prayer: asking for wisdom, courage and strength. She believes that without wisdom you can’t lead, without courage you can’t make important decisions and without strength you buckle. It is these three distinct qualities that differentiate Dr. Mumm, who has led Brescia over the past four years, including through its Centennial year.
From her childhood on a sheep farm in Saskatchewan, to an academic career which has taken her across the globe, Dr. Mumm has always believed in education as the prime good in life. She brings this belief to her leadership at Brescia, and in empowering its bold students to focus on their education today in order to become the leaders our world needs tomorrow.
Why did you choose to take on the leadership role of Brescia’s 12th Principal?
I originally learned about Brescia when I was completing my undergrad in British History at the University of Saskatchewan. As someone who was always fascinated by – and now actively studies – women’s place in society, I remember thinking how amazing it was that there was a school in Canada solely dedicated to educating women.
Before taking up the post of Principal at Brescia, I was fortunate to work at five wonderful post-secondary institutions across the world, where I held roles as both faculty member and Dean. And, while I was very happy in all my previous positions, when a new opportunity presented itself, I often said ‘yes.’ In the case of becoming Principal at Brescia, this was an opportunity I could not turn down as it truly felt like the stars were aligning. Not only did Brescia, and its mission, align perfectly with my research interests, studying women’s place in society – really, it was the only place in the country where I could live and breathe my research – but it was also a remarkable opportunity to learn and lead.
What path led you to your role at Brescia?
I was raised on a sheep farm in Saskatchewan, with my many sisters and one brother. While my parents always valued education and loved reading, they left school at the age of 14 and thus always wanted better for their own children. And, while I had enjoyed school, I was not always confident in my intellectual abilities. Although I was intimidated by the idea of university, after completing high school, I decided to study a double major in English and History at the University of Saskatchewan. After my first few weeks in the program, and some incredible lectures, my confidence began to build and I realized that university can be a transformative experience. It is one of the reasons why I entered into academia and have remain to this day – I want others to have that experience as well.
Following my undergrad, I won a Commonwealth scholarship to study at the University of Sussex before beginning my academic career as an Assistant Professor at York University. Following this, I spent a decade at the Open University in England, a few years at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as Dean of Arts and Science, and five years as Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, New Zealand.
Before taking on the role of Principal at Brescia, I was Dean of Arts and Science and Professor of History at Queen’s University. While I was enjoying my tenure in Kingston – doing a job I loved, with fantastic colleagues and learning from phenomenal leaders – when the opportunity at Brescia came up, I couldn’t turn it down. I don’t know if it’s my strength or my weakness, but I have always believed that when someone opens a door for me, I like to go through it. And, in the case of Brescia, I was ready to run right through that door. I think this is very similar to something that the Ursuline Sisters say to me a lot, which is that we go where the spirit leads us.
What are some of the most important learning that you have been able to take away from your experience at Brescia?
There are two major things that stand out for me. The first being that Brescia has really brought home to me the importance of a university’s mission in shaping the University and how it operates. It is very possible to work for a great university for one’s whole career, but never know or care what the university’s mission is. At Brescia, to varying degrees, we try to live the mission and actually try to demonstrate it in our actions and in our decision-making. So, coming to Brescia taught me that the mission can be so much more than words on a page; it can be the motivating factor in dedicating yourself to the education of the next generation.
The second take-away has to do with Brescia’s small environment. I have mostly worked in very large universities, the largest having a quarter of a million students, and coming here has allowed me to see close-up how finely calibrated and how inter-dependant all our functions are. And so, it is our interdependence that results in the whole being greater than the sum of our parts. If you took each of our functions separately, they wouldn’t be able to do much because they are too small. But, somehow our interdependence and the dance of give-and-take that we do with our colleagues actually makes us able to do more than what we should be capable of. On paper, you think it should not work – but it does!
Like many women, I suffer from imposter syndrome. If you were to ask me, I would not necessarily think I am successful. However, I do attribute where I am today to a person and a set of attitudes that she bequeathed me. My mother, Doreen Campbell, left school at 14, yet she always had an attitude of optimism: the belief that she would be capable of handling anything that came her way, despite a very hard life. That attitude of optimism, and of looking forward with eagerness and not dread, I got from her. To be unafraid of risk, especially for women leaders, is very important. In higher education, you will find that fewer and fewer women are in the system as you go up the hierarchy of roles, because they increasingly say no to the opportunities above them. And, I just can’t see prioritizing my own psychological comfort over the opportunity to grow. We constantly tell our students that discomfort is part of becoming an educated and well-rounded person. So, how can I not live that example? After all, if it was all comfortable and easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.
I would ask our students to focus on their ultimate values. We all know that beauty will fade, money slips between your fingers and relationships will come and go, but no one can ever take your education away from you. That is one important thing that belongs to you until you take your last breath in life. So, what does that tell us about where it should be in our priorities?
Additionally, similar to what I have already said, if we focus on life’s big picture and our ultimate destination in a values-enriched way, we won’t get bogged down in petty failures and disappointments. And, most importantly, we won’t give up. At the end of the day, it does not really matter if we fail a test or get fired from a job, we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn from it, and keep on going.
6. How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?
I recently attended a Universities Canada conference, and one of the speakers discussed the difference between men’s and women’s résumés – even at a Presidential level. For instance, a man’s résumé will say they are team-builders, where a woman’s résumé will say “team player.” Women so often don’t ascribe leadership to themselves, even at a senior level. So, when I really grappled with that idea, for me the central facet of leadership became about creating opportunities for others to grow and flourish. I have always rejected the idea of “hero leadership” or a leader being bigger than everyone else. In my mind, leadership is about being the catalyst that makes everybody you work with able to do their jobs better, more creatively, and with freedom.
7. What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?
It is my belief that Brescia remains today because of so many strong, future-forward decision makers. When the Ursulines created Brescia, they planned for its longevity and made many more good decisions than bad. Thinking of this, my hope for Brescia is that everyone who works here, in whatever capacity, is building for the future – not just for today. I sincerely hope that we are planning for our students and their needs 50 or 100 years from now.
100 years ago, there were more than 100 women’s Catholic colleges in North America, now there are only a handful. Brescia has survived because the Ursulines built Brescia to last. They made decisions for the long term, so if we are doing our jobs right, we too should be actively thinking about the future.
I also hope that as Brescia moves into the future, that it keeps its unique mission. Perhaps the words may change, but I hope that the spirit and sense of its mission remains the same.
Finally, I hope that by our next century, when students come to Brescia they know that they can become far more than their families, cultures or self-images have taught them to think they can become. I want them to run through the doors of opportunity that open before them.
Become Part of Brescia's Living History
How do you encapsulate 100 bold years of women leading? By sharing the stories of those who lived and breathed it. Become part of Brescia’s living history by adding to our Online Memory Album.