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From the admin chair

Universities need to ensure equity and access for all

“What I’ve found the most rewarding about administration is the opportunity to bring about systemic change.”


Boozhoo. Kwe kwe. Greetings. Bonjour. This is my first column for University Affairs and I’m honoured to have been asked to take it on. It’s a bit intimidating to think about writing a series of columns about being an administrator. I wondered: Where to start? What to write about? Importantly, I thought about what I could contribute that might be helpful as others contemplate entering administration. After much reflection, I thought I’d start by introducing myself and telling you a bit about how I arrived in my current position.

I’ve worked in academia since the early 1990s. When I embarked on my academic career, the furthest thing from my mind was administration. In fact, I’d just come from a stint working in management at a local college and had decided to focus on teaching and research.

In my transition to university, I hoped to make a meaningful contribution to increasing Indigenous student success as well as contributing to the emerging field of Indigenous social work. I did that work for just over a decade and contributed to teaching, research and community engagement. I especially enjoyed being at the forefront of establishing Indigenous social work on a national level. When I reflect back on my early years in academia, I realize now that I always found myself being drawn to administrative duties, challenged by committee work and work that focused on moving the broader issues of access and equity forward. It may be in large part what led me to administration.

I have spent the last decade or so providing leadership in the Indigenous portfolio, which has included strengthening relationships with our Indigenous advisory council, developing strategic action plans, fundraising for key initiatives within the Indigenous portfolio, and ensuring an Indigenous presence across faculties in the university. In addition to the Indigenous portfolio, I found myself taking on an expanded academic role that included university faculty relations.

What I’ve found the most rewarding about administration is that it has provided me an opportunity to assist with bringing about systemic change for Indigenous learners, not only to the university where I’m employed, but at the provincial level. For example, I’ve been able to contribute to raising the profile across the province of Indigenous peoples’ needs for education.

On the other hand, I’ve found it challenging to juggle administrative work with teaching and research. I suspect many academic administrators experience a similar struggle keeping one foot in each camp. I have since had to make the decision not to teach, but I still manage some limited research, academic writing and graduate supervision. I find that staying involved in research and supervision has helped to keep me balanced and has allowed me to maintain links with the faculty.

In my mind, I’ve always remained an academic – although I’ve learned that is not how all my colleagues view me. To many, I am a senior administrator, part of that group that has crossed over to what folks refer to as the other side. I was never really sure what that meant, as I always felt we were all on the same side.

From time to time I’ve asked myself, “so why do I stay?” The answer isn’t always as simple as “wanting to make a difference,” and sometimes I’m ambivalent about staying. Despite my love for teaching and research, I’ve remained a senior administrator primarily because I do love the challenges and also do love to see when strategic directions come to fruition.

On the more challenging days, I still miss the loss of freedom associated with being an academic. For the most part, though, I honestly enjoy the more regulated hours of work and the clarity of a plan. I enjoy resolving issues and moving other issues forward. There is a sense of accomplishment when one looks back each year.

On a more personal note, much of my passion for my work rests in my personal lived experiences as an Indigenous woman. In my heart and being, I strive to ensure places and spaces of equity and access for all, and especially for Indigenous peoples. In academia, I feel I can make a difference. As a result, I have found my career in administration quite rewarding. Having just gone through the renewal process for my position, I’m looking forward to the next five years.

And I look forward to sharing with you my experiences as an academic administrator over this next year.

Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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  1. Christine / September 9, 2017 at 10:11

    I really enjoyed reading about your journey. Looking forward to your other posts!

    • Sheila Cote-Meek / September 27, 2017 at 10:55

      Thank you Christine!

  2. Jan Hill / September 28, 2017 at 11:42

    Nyawen’ko:wa, chi’miigwetch Sheila. I value and appreciate your story and thoughts as I begin my foray into senior administration. You continue to be a role model for those of us following in your footsteps. I look forward to your future columns.

    • Sheilas / October 9, 2017 at 21:55

      Miigwech Jan! And congrats on your new post!

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