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Exit interview with Brescia principal

Outgoing principal of Brescia University College Colleen Hanycz reflects on challenges facing women’s colleges.


When Colleen Hanycz was appointed principal of Brescia University College, an affiliated college of Western University, in 2008, the institution was in a precarious position. Enrolment tanked in the fall of that year and the future of Canada’s only remaining all-women university looked dire. Today, as Dr. Hanycz prepares to take her leave, enrolment at the small, Catholic, liberal arts and sciences school is growing again and its course offerings are expanding.

Dr. Hanycz was recently named president of La Salle University, a Catholic institution in Philadelphia, becoming La Salle’s first woman president and the first full-time layperson to hold the title. She’s leaving with mixed emotions: “I’ve put my heart and soul into Brescia for seven years and it will be very bittersweet to walk out of here for the last time,” she says. “I’m a different person than I was when I arrived.”

Dr. Hanycz, 48 years old, completed an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and a law degree at Dalhousie University. She did a master’s and PhD in law at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, working as a securities litigator in Toronto and then as assistant dean and associate professor of law at Osgoode before taking up the position at Brescia.

She spoke to University Affairs shortly before her departure and reminisced about her time at Brescia, the challenges that await her at La Salle and issues that confront women’s colleges today.

UA: What changes have you seen at Brescia over the past seven years?

Dr. Hanycz: We’ve seen huge changes in that time as our sector reeled from the economic tsunami of 2008. For many families, at the least the families we serve in this area of southwestern Ontario, higher education became a luxury that simply could not be afforded any longer amidst job loss and other economic challenges. At Brescia, I arrived July 1 [2008] and by September we knew that we had missed our enrolment numbers by a very significant amount. We did what Brescia has done again and again for a hundred years and we transformed ourselves. In the spring of 2009 we completed a comprehensive branding process that identified leadership and the role that leadership has had in Brescia’s history and really defined that as an enduring rallying point for the future, which I think helped to ensure our place in this higher education landscape. Many changes have come out of that.

UA: What sorts of changes?

Dr. Hanycz: We started thinking about ourselves through a slightly different lens and we started consolidating our leadership activities. So [we placed] a greater focus on the Institute for Women in Leadership; we saw the development of an academic program in leadership; we saw some spinoff programs created to start looking at girls at younger ages and start talking to them about leadership. Whether it was our Take the Lead public speaking contest which we started in 2009 or our Girls LEAD camps which we started at around the same time and which have expanded significantly, where we are talking about what it means to be a leader to girls as young as eight years old.

UA: And did those things help turn enrolment around?

Dr. Hanycz: I think it was a whole combination of things. When we started talking expansively about leadership in that way, what we experienced was that young women wanted to hear more about that, had a real appetite for that, wanted to be in a place that positively supported them in trying to choose leadership in that way. Our enrolment really started to turn around overnight. We built a gorgeous residence and dining pavilion that is almost two years old now. We doubled our residence spaces. It filled almost immediately and there’s a waiting list now for that space.

Our enrolment has jumped. For first-year students in Ontario coming directly from Grade 12, that group has jumped by more than 60 percent over the last five years. We had significant growth last year and even larger growth the year before in students applying to us as a first choice. We are now at about 1,500 students overall, including graduate students and part-time students. That number would have been under 900 in 2008.

UA: Have you started to recruit foreign students as well?

Dr. Hanycz: We have been actively recruiting in the Caribbean since the 1940s. So Brescia has always had a significant portion of international students. Over the last five years, that slipped a little simply because our base has grown so much. … We have many Muslim women who are studying with us. Our international proportion hovers around eight to ten percent every year.

UA: Brescia was founded in 1919 by the Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order of nuns, at a time when not many women attended university. Are all-women colleges still relevant today when women outnumber men at most campuses?

Dr. Hanycz: When I arrived here in 2008 it was a question I had. I wasn’t so sure that they were relevant because the original mission of the Ursulines was to educate young women who were otherwise not going to get to school. They served largely rural families around this area, Catholic families where you might have many children and there was a priority given to the boys. So the Ursulines addressed that need. Does that need still exist today? Thankfully, not in our society. Certainly if you look globally there is a huge ongoing need to educate girls and young women who are not being educated. But if you think about first-world communities, you’re right, women are participating in higher education in far greater numbers and succeeding in higher education in greater numbers than their male counterparts.

However, I think the need has shifted. So it’s not so much about access to education anymore. It’s about creating an environment that is empowering and that prepares young women for a world around them. It’s about giving young women that period of opportunity in their lives when they are intellectually growing and maturing at a rapid pace to surround themselves in an environment where optimizing their learning is the key goal. At Brescia we are completely convinced based on emerging literature in the sciences and the social sciences that women learn differently than men. We make sure that our classrooms are geared specifically at optimizing learning for young women.

UA: Sweet Briar, a women-only college in the U.S., will close this fall because of financial troubles which it blamed in part on declining enrolment and fewer women willing to consider single-sex education. Does Brescia face some of these same challenges?

Dr. Hanycz: Over the years we’ve had periods of declining enrolment because it’s a bit of a perfect storm. In the U.S. in particular, a women’s college is also by definition small and focused on the liberal arts. The impact that we have seen on the liberal arts is not something that is specific to women’s colleges but it is inordinately felt at women’s colleges because they are typically focused on the liberal arts. For Sweet Briar it was a combination [of things]. Certainly it was an enrolment challenge that had gone on for several years. You also have private schools in the U.S. where the tuition rates are so high that it also becomes nearly unsustainable. At Brescia, I was pretty darn worried in 2008 when I saw our numbers fall off as they did. But we started focusing a little more tightly on what it is that we do best. I think we made some very good decisions at that time in how we marshal our resources and making sure that our education continued to be rigorous and empowering.

UA: Another issue that women’s colleges in the U.S. are dealing with is the whole issue of transgender students. Has Brescia had to deal with this?

Dr. Hanycz: [Gender identity has] become a much more fluid concept. That becomes challenging not just for a women’s university but also for other organizations that are trying to be women-only. For Brescia, we have this year passed a policy on transgender students. If you identify as a woman you are welcome to study here. We’re lucky in that our new residence is constructed and organized in a way that would be easy to accommodate someone who identified as a woman but might not appear so to others. There aren’t dorm-style washrooms for example. It’s much more private than that. I have watched some of my peers in the U.S. not deal as cleanly I think with this issue. For Brescia, it’s very important to us that we empower women, we empower students who see themselves as women. And that doesn’t mean that is the same way as society necessarily views them or that they were viewed at birth but for whatever reason they now see themselves as women and we want to support that.

UA: What if they were admitted while they identified as women and then transitioned to men?

Dr. Hanycz: That would be more challenging and that would be a conversation we would have to have on a one-on-one basis and make sure that we were behaving in a way that was not only in keeping with Canadian law but that was compassionate and that recognized the interests not only of the transitioning student but of the entire community around that person. Our strong thinking underneath all of this is [a student’s] identification as a woman. If you no longer saw yourself as a woman then there would be some real challenges to you continuing here.

UA: Brescia will launch in the fall a new Non-profit Management degree, the only one of its kind in Canada. Why it was introduced and how does it fit with Brescia’s other academic programs?

Dr. Hanycz: It’s a form of a business program. It strongly ties to Brescia’s mission around social justice and advancing the common good because what we have learned is that many of our students who graduate, often they gravitate to the not-for-profit sector. I think it’s because traditionally we have attracted women who want to make a difference in the world and change something. When we work with our partners in the non-profit sector, what we hear is that they need graduates to arrive with that background rich in social sciences and community development and so on, but there’s also a whole other skills set that is not traditionally encountered in those degrees that would make it a lot easier for them to do well in the non-profit sector. When we developed this program we collaborated with a countless number of community organizations in how we structured it. Students will come out having had some accounting, some HR, some business pieces, and they will have spent time at a placement at a community organization.

UA: In July you will become the first full-time layperson and first woman to serve as president of La Salle. How does that feel?

Dr. Hanycz: I’m so honoured by this and it’s clearly a historic moment for the La Salle community. When it was announced the media interest was just overwhelming. I gave at least 25 interviews. The overwhelming media interest was [in my being] the first woman president, and what does it feel like? I would have expected more excitement about what are you going to do as the first layperson. La Salle is a school that until recently was all male. It’s maybe 50 years ago that they started admitting women and now they are 60 percent women. It’s 153 years old and it serves a very underserved population. Just to be part of that mission is in many ways an extension of my time at Brescia.

UA: What attracted you to the position?

Dr. Hanycz: It’s that historical role in its environment that La Salle has had that is similar to Brescia. For over 150 years it has provided access to education to some who would otherwise not have had access. [Also], La Salle is a Christian Brothers school and I was educated by the Christian Brothers in high school. So I had seen firsthand their focus on building authentic community and that was a focus that stayed with me from my high school days and certainly caught my interest when this position was brought to my attention. I wasn’t thinking of leaving Brescia this year to be quite honest. But I think La Salle is facing some of the same challenges that Brescia was facing in 2008. I’d like to think that I have some value to add to that based on what I have learned.

Postscript: The Attorney General of Virginia, Sweet Briar College and Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae organization that had fought the closure of the Virginia-based all-women college, struck a deal June 20 reversing an earlier decision to close the college.

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  1. Kate Ward-Gaus / June 18, 2015 at 09:38

    Thank you University Affairs for a great interview with a great leader in Higher Education! I am excited that I will have the opportunity to work with Dr. Hanycz when she comes to La Salle