A conversation with Dr. Susan Mumm

Written by: Pat Morden

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July marked a new era for Brescia University College, as Dr. Susan Mumm arrived to take her place as Principal

Dr. Mumm’s scholarly work is focused on nineteenth century British social history. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, she has published three books and is completing a fourth. Her academic career has taken her to The Open University in England, York University, Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, and Massey University in New Zealand. Most recently she was Dean of Arts and Science at Queen’s University.

Why Brescia?

I found Brescia’s emphasis on forming women as leaders very appealing. Many universities have walked away from any interest in the formation of character, but it’s important. Smaller universities like Brescia can legitimately and unselfconsciously say: ‘We’re here to educate the whole person.’

What were the important early influences on your life?

I grew up on a sheep farm in northern Saskatchewan, the fourth of five children. I had a lot of freedom and lots of opportunity to try things and use my imagination. My parents were also an important influence. They both had to leave school at 14 and they taught us that education was the most important thing we could pursue.

Why Nineteenth Century British history?

My mother used to tell us stories of getting strapped at school for surreptitiously reading Charles Dickens during math class! We had lots of 19th century classic British literature in the house. I started reading these books very young and I fell in love with a world that was both familiar and very different. As I got older, I was attracted by the optimism and self-confidence of the era. And of course, the element of costume drama was irresistible.

What makes you proudest as a scholar?

One moment stands out. I wrote a piece on people trafficking in the 19th century for the Independent in England. A gentleman wrote to me and said the article had persuaded him to donate his estate to anti-slavery work. That simple account in a newspaper may have bought hundreds of children out of slavery. How many historians can say that?

Why university administration?

I didn’t intend to do it. Years ago, I attended a departmental meeting. The Head turned to me and said, ‘We’ve voted and you’re the new Head!’ But I found that I liked it. I absolutely believe in the value of universities and the transformative, life-changing work we do. And I’ve seen the difference a good leader can make in academia.

What is a good leader?

A good leader is someone who can help others to become equally committed to the cause – to see their commonalities and realize the power they have together. It’s as much about the ability to unlock potential as it is about the ability to strategize.

What are the challenges you see ahead?

The primary challenge is finding new, creative and smart ways to reaffirm our value and place in the higher education landscape. It’s a job that’s never fully complete and each leader approaches it somewhat differently.

What are your plans for the first 100 days?

I plan to listen, analyze and learn. As I learn I will be able to listen better, and analyze more deeply. And eventually I will begin to test ideas, discard the ones that don’t work and implement the ones that do. It’s a feedback loop that will probably continue throughout my tenure

Where do Brescia alumnae fit in your plans?

A university makes its alumnae while they are studying, and then our alumnae make us in the wider world. We have to put our arms around our alumnae and show them how much we need them. Given the wholehearted commitment we invest in them as students, alumnae should have us on their list of the top 20 things they care about in the world.

Beyond your scholarship and administrative work, what are you passionate about?

I’m a very keen and semi-successful gardener. There’s something so satisfying about varying elements in the environment to see what helps. It’s a lot like being an academic administrator. I also have five cats. You can’t really herd cats, but you can
get them used to the sound of the can opener.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I’d like to invite my four grandparents. I never met them, and I’d like to know what motivated them to leave Europe for the new world.

Favourite book?

Middlemarch by George Eliot. The whole book is full of profound insights into the tiny everyday choices that make us more or less human. But I don’t like the ending – I think Dorothea marries a jerk!

Favourite movie?

I have two. My serious movie pick is Groundhog Day. Most people don’t think of it as serious but it’s a film about redemption. The main character learns to stop trying to find love in all the easy ways, to fight his demons and to begin to love others, and that releases him from his time prison. My comic favourite is Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labours Lost. He set the play in 1939 and made it a musical. It’s joyous and delightful, but the shadow of World War II is there.