Trinidadian Dr Rhonda McEwen will be the first black woman president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University, a college in the University of Toronto, when she takes up the position on July 1.
She said one in five university presidents in Canada are women, and living in a predominantly white country, she is possibly also the first black woman to be president of a university in Canada.
Someone, she said, had to crack the ceiling.
“It’s a massive honour to be invited to even interview. It was wonderful to get the call that they wanted me.
She says " Vic," as it's known, is a community "where teaching and learning are driven by curiosity and conscience through outstanding academic offerings and signature learning experiences, and whose students and faculty embrace inclusive education."
Despite that honour, she told Newsday she still had to consider the offer carefully. She felt she still had a lot to do in her position as the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus (UTM) vice-principal and dean.
There she had oversight of all academic programmes, planning and policy, faculty, teaching and learning, and academic experience for over 16,000 students.
“This opportunity is a very different job. Being president takes me in a different direction, not just in charge of academics, but also all the operations of a campus – all the government relations, fundraising, financials, etc. So I had to think carefully about whether that’s a role I would be interested in and do well in.”
McEwen, 51, was the campus’s first special adviser to the vice-president and principal on anti-racism and equity; director of the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (ICCIT); and was on the steering committee of University of Toronto’s Black Research Network.
She also holds a Canada Research Chair in Tactile Interfaces, Communication and Cognition and is considered an expert in her area of study. She explained that she held that chair for five years and was recently renewed for another five.
“It’s hard to get it the first time, and to get it renewed you have to show that for the first five years, you really knocked it out of the park. With that I learned that I can do it (the new job).
“It takes a lot of organisation, keeping in mind that when I’m working on research, that’s my research time. I protect it carefully. When I’m focusing on university administration, I focus on that above all else. When I’m focusing on my family I make sure there’s time and energy for them.”
That family includes her husband, Stuart McEwen and their two children, her parents Ronald and Erlene Benjamin. who both have masters degrees and are an inspiration to her, and her brother Rondel Benjamin. who is one of her closest friends now that they are both parents.
Between her family, her research and her job, she has to carefully compartmentalise and be disciplined.
RESEARCH & HISTORY
McEwen’s research focus on how using technologies like mobile phones, tablets, virtual reality, and smart home devices like Alexa affects the way people think, learn and retain information.
“I’m interested in how our brains grapple with all of these new technologies and new ways of accessing information. There is a new field called learning science, and this is the area I work within – looking to see how humans and machines communicate and how we have had to adapt our lives, or not, to this and whether it affects us in a positive or negative way.”
How did this topic become a passion?
She said growing up in Tacarigua, she attended St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph, where she studied sciences before going to UWI, St Augustine to study chemistry and management.
In her management course there was emphasis on management information systems, which she enjoyed, but it made her want to understand people as well, so she switched from chemistry to sociology.
“That started my lifelong quest to understand technologies, how people use them and how their lives are changed.”
She graduated in 1994 as the valedictorian with first-class honours and then worked at TSTT for two years before receiving a Chevening Scholarship. She went to City University of London and graduated with a master of business administration in information technology management in 1997.
By the time she finished her degree, she was fascinated by the technology, which, at the time, consisted of T9 mobile phones which had actual keypads with raised buttons.
“At that time the technology was all mobile phones, and text messaging was really taking off. I was interested in how text messages were changing the way people were socialising. When texts came along, it was a totally different way we set up connecting with each other.
“In a way, our brains created a new schema or a new way to think about writing, and we did it almost unconsciously. I was fascinated by how touch, as a sense, was being used to support new learning using a new technology.”
With that in mind, she needed to understand the engineering behind the technology, so she went to the University of Colorado in the US, where she studied for an MSc in telecommunications.
By the time she graduated in 2000, she had learned to appreciate the history of technology and how it changes people’s behaviour.
She was hired by Deloitte, a professional services firm offering audit, advisory, tax, and consulting services, working in the area of new technologies and communications.
For her first project she was sent to England, where she met Stuart, who was from the company’s Toronto office. They decided they should move to either TT or Toronto so they could be around family. So when the Toronto office offered her a position, she accepted, and moved to Toronto in 2003.
However, she wanted to do one more degree. She said companies think about their product and its new capabilities, but not how it would change people’s lives.
So she went to the University of Toronto, where she received a PhD in information for her dissertation, A World More Intimate: Exploring the Role of Mobile Phones in Maintaining and Extending Social Networks. She examined how mobile phones affect young people and their social networks when they begin attending a new university.
“It was the first time anybody had studied anything like that.
"I finished in 2009 and started teaching as a sessional instructor or contract professor, and from there I just continued in the academic side of the house and left consulting.”
She was the associate director of ICCIT before becoming the director, and got tenure in 2016 while teaching introduction to IT consulting, social media and business, and human/machine communication.
She later applied for the dean position and in 2021 became the first black person on campus to be a dean.
She admitted that she had a comparatively fast rise at the university, accomplishing what it usually took others decades to achieve. But she believes her career in consulting helped, as she has business skills, knowledge of finance and economics, knows how organisations run, how to manage people, and always thinks strategically.