Nova Scotia·Q&A

New NSCAD president takes on role following controversial firing of her predecessor

Peggy Shannon has taken over the helm of NSCAD and says a strategic plan will be developed for university after consultation with all stakeholders.

Peggy Shannon arrives from San Diego State University in California

Peggy Shannon was named the new president of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in December. (NSCAD University)

The new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University has officially started her five-year term.

Peggy Shannon's appointment was announced in December of 2021, more than a year after the controversial ouster of previous president, Aoife Mac Namara who held the post for less than a year.

The board did not provide an explanation for firing Mac Namara — a decision that was condemned by the faculty union. 

Correspondence obtained by the Globe And Mail newspaper in 2021 indicated that Mac Namara  was being pressured by the board to sell historic campus buildings to a Halifax developer. 

Shannon, who arrived in Halifax at the beginning of July, has over 20 years experience as a professor and administrator, most recently at San Diego State University.

Since being hired on December 1, she has been having phone, virtual and in-person meetings with members of the faculty, staff and board, Shannon told CBC Radio Information Morning Halifax host Portia Clark.

This is a condensed version of their conversation that has been edited for clarity and length.

The Nova Scotia Art and Design University is welcoming a new President. Peggy Shannon arrives with 20 years of experience as a professor and administrator, most recently at San Diego State University. Portia speaks with her, about stepping into a role that's been fraught with controversy.

Did you yourself have questions about the board?

I did, during the interview.

I had done my research and I wanted to understand from their perspective, and certainly I knew there were issues of confidentiality, whatever they could tell me.

I was leaving a very good job and I wanted assurance that if I left my job and came here, that this was something that was not going to end in nine months or a year.

So we did have some frank discussions about that.

What is your plan for building bridges between your office in the union and the board? How are you going to go about that, given the relationship as it stands now?

I pride myself on being a bridge builder. That's been something that I've done throughout my career.

I am a communicator. I will be setting up lots of meetings. And one of the things I want to do in the fall is do a welcome back that invites the board, the faculty and the staff, and let's just start fresh.

Let's get to know each other. Let's move forward and let's look to the future.

I will be finding ways to bring people together just to have serious, deep conversations. And I do plan to do a lot of listening as well during the fall.

The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was founded in 1887. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

What have you heard so far that guide the way you set up those conversations?

The last time I was here in town was in April, and I was here for the launch of the NSCAD Film Festival, and I was able to meet with members of the executive committee of the faculty union, It's called FUNSCAD, and I heard from them concerns about wanting to be sure that they were included in decisions, that they were heard, that they were welcome to the table, to the conversations.

I heard that, I repeated it back, to let them know that I heard what they were saying to me and I will continue to do that. 

You're hearing that maybe they didn't feel as included before, and it's really important for them to be?

I think after what happened two years ago, and again, I wasn't here and I was not part of that, I think there are some perhaps residual concerns that, as we look to the future, I hope will dissolve with time.

And if they don't, I understand, but I do hope that they do.

The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design has been under financial pressure for several years. (CBC)

Last we heard, NSCAD was not going to be joining the art gallery of Nova Scotia at the new building on the Halifax waterfront, which has also been much talked about. What's your opinion on selling the historic campus and relocating the school?

I think that buildings need to be accessible and if there's a way to bring the NSCAD community of students, faculty and staff together in some way, I'm for that.

I don't have enough information.

I know that there have been ongoing discussions at the port. I think there have been discussions possibly with others, again, before my time.

I'm hoping that as we move forward as a community, that everybody will feel comfortable with the next direction. 

And inclusive in more ways than one. That was something that the previous president was quite focused on. I'm wondering about your opinion about making NSCAD a welcoming space for all students and faculty.

In my own professional life and personal life. Inclusivity, equity, diversity are front and centre. So in everything that I do personally it's key. 

Well, my husband is African-American. My children are biracial. So in every day of my life we are looking at issues.

We have very spirited discussions around the dining room table over the years.

On a personal level, I understand as much as I can, as a white woman, some of the issues that my husband and my children face on a daily basis.

Now translate that into my professional life. And I am very aware of the needs of a range of students and faculty and staff. 

it's one thing for universities and programs to have diversity initiatives but it becomes only a slogan unless you have an initiative that when people come, they feel welcome. 

I don't know that as much work has been done in the 'how people feel welcome' piece. And so I will be very focused on that.

How are you laying out your priorities? 

NSCAD needs a strategic plan. It does not have one. 

I have not come here to create a strategic plan on my own for this university. There's going to be a year long planning process that engages students, faculty, staff, alumni, the board and community at large.

I want to hear from people what the priorities are for this university going forward, because my focus is on the future. 

Under the strategic plan will be pillars of what's important, and each pillar will have themes, and then we will have deliverables and timelines and action items and all those things that you have in a strategic plan.

But we're going to do that together, and that is my big priority, and that will address communication. It will address residual, possibly hard feelings and move us forward.

Can I just say I think this is such an incredible moment in time for Halifax, for NSCAD in its history and in my own life.

There's just this sort of convergence of exciting possibility going forward.

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With files from Information Morning Halifax

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