In the Footsteps of the Sisters

Halifax magazine, Sep 1, 2011
By Marjorie Simmins

Ramona Lumpkin is an atypical president for a most atypical university.

“I am fascinated by the idea of a feminist nun,” says Dr. Ramona Lumpkin, with subtle Southern cadences in her voice. Installed as president of Mount Saint Vincent University in October 2010, she is neither a nun nor a Roman Catholic, as numerous presidents before her have been.

But like the nuns, the Tennessee-born feminist has worked as an advocate for women’s issues and women’s education throughout her life. She admires the university’s early and enduring achievement. “We were the first degree-granting institution for women in the Commonwealth,” she says.

Tucked high on the wooded hillside overlooking Bedford Basin, Mount Saint Vincent (or “the Mount”) may lay claim to being the most proudly subversive university in the country. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in 1873, it began educating women long before they had the right to vote. It has never had a male president.

“Many of the nuns came from poor families,” says Lumpkin. “Young girls coming into the order could get BAs, MAs, PhDs and could then work as teachers or professors.” As other professions opened to women, such as nursing, secretarial science and home economics, the nuns expanded their programs, “because these supported women’s economic independence.” The Mount was also an early leader in distance education, which served the displaced homemakers of the 1950s and ’60s, among others. “The Mount has been shaped by the sensitivity and awareness of the Sisters,” she adds.

The Mount was an all-women’s university until 1967. Today, 80 per cent of its 4,000-plus students are women. Some are quick to tell Lumpkin they’ve chosen the Mount “because it’s feminist.” Others view it as a safe place, or attend because they want the independence of studying primarily among other women.

And the male students? Lumpkin smiles. “We tend to attract young men who like women.”

The Mount is a long way from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where Lumpkin gained her PhD in English Literature.

“I married a Canadian,” she explains. Her husband, retired geologist Bill Blackburn, is a St. Francis Xavier graduate who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then taught at the University of Kentucky, where the couple met. He was there for 21 years, Ramona for 13.

“He was more homesick with each passing year,” she laughs. “He is the most Canadian Canadian I’ve ever met.” Lumpkin, who lived in Japan as a child and later was a Fulbright Scholar in England for four years, says she was always prone to “wander-lust.” So when she and Bill married in the ’80s and he wanted to come home, that was fine with her.

In 1989, the couple moved to Ontario. In the 1990s, Lumpkin began a five-year position at the University of Windsor. During these years she met another American-raised academic, Dr. Jacquelyn Scott, then at the University of Toronto and later the president of Cape Breton University. They’ve been friends ever since.

“Ramona is a true renaissance woman,” says Scott, who is currently a professor in the business school at Cape Breton University. “She’s wonderfully well-read and educated and has the capability to inspire… She is also very much the steel hand in the velvet glove!”

“I’ve been a Big Sister for 29 years,” Ramona Lumpkin says. “And I still consider myself a Big Sister. My ‘Little,’ who is now in her 30s, always says ‘Hey Big Sis’ when she writes to me or emails me…”

Cathy Urquhart is the CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of London, Ontario, where Lumpkin served first on the board of Big Sisters and then chaired the new board after the organizations merged. She agrees with Scott.

“Lumpkin leads very strongly but with a soft touch,” Urquhart says. She credits the success of the two-year unification process to Lumpkin’s “respect and honouring” of both organizations.

“I hadn’t known Lumpkin longer than two minutes when she flipped open her wallet to show me a photo of her Little Sister,” says Urquhart. “[That] spoke to who she was. She deeply believes in our great human potential.”

Big Sisters has been a significant part of Lumpkin’s life. “I’ve been a Big Sister for 29 years,” she says. “And I still consider myself a Big Sister. My ‘Little,’ who is now in her 30s, always says ‘Hey Big Sis’ when she writes to me or emails me. She lives in Kentucky and we’re very definitely in touch. I attended her wedding a number of years ago and see her every time I visit Lexington.”

Following her stint at the University of Windsor, Lumpkin spent four years at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, and nine years as the Principal of Huron University College, in London, Ontario. Then a search committee from Mount St. Vincent contacted her.

The committee learned that Lumpkin already knew all about the Mount.

“My sister Linda, a Grade One teacher in Nashville, came to a summer institute here at the Mount while Bill and I were still in Windsor,” says Lumpkin. Her sister loved her time at the Mount and had been enthusing about it for years. “She came to my installation and wore the same T-shirt she’d bought 20 years ago at the Mount,” Lumpkin recalls. “It’s a wonderful family connection.”

Halifax wasn’t unknown to Lumpkin either. “We’d been to Halifax several times, before coming to live here,” she says. “The Maritimes reminded me of the American South-something about the lack of pretentiousness, the openness and the friendliness, warmth.” She finds Halifax “more like my part of the States than anywhere else I’ve lived in Canada.”

Lumpkin wants to continue reaching out into the community to welcome groups currently underrepresented on campus. “I want the Mount to be a more inclusive place for Native students and for black Nova Scotians,” says Lumpkin. She also has ambitious plans for fund-raising. Project 2012, launched in May 2011, aims to raise $12 million by December 2012 for the university’s first new academic building in 40 years. The five-storey building will be a teaching, research and learning centre, linking the upper and lower portions of campus.

At a time when universities compete hard for students, Lumpkin is pleased with the Mount’s performance. It currently welcomes students from 60 different countries.

“We have such a life on campus,” she says, referring to conferences, poetry readings, art gallery shows and more. She stresses that the university also welcomes the general public, offering speakers series, meditation and prayer series and a fitness centre.

There is also the enduring Mr. Mount competiton. “That’s our annual cross-dressing beauty contest,” explains Lumpkin. “It’s for both genders, actually. This year’s winner was a cross-dressed rapper, a woman.”

Levity aside, she sees the event as a clear illustration for the school’s purpose. “Inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity, love and dignity,” says Lumpkin. “This is what the Mount is all about.