One-on-one with Shannon Dea
Q: What did you used to do?
A: My degree is in philosophy but I actually had a big nine year gap between degrees. I dropped out of school twice before I found my footing and started grad school. In the gap between high school and my undergrad and my undergrad and grad school I was a school photographer, a server for many years, an autoglass dispatcher, a yoga teacher, a physiotherapy aid and a whole bunch of other things. I have a much more varied CV than your typical dean.
Q: How are you settling into Saskatchewan?
A: I am finding it strangely familiar. I lived in Ontario my whole life except for a couple of years in Quebec when I was a little kid and then a year in England for when I was on sabbatical three years ago. I wasn’t sure what the shift would be like but I actually grew up in rural Ontario and am struck by the similarities. Certainly there are fewer trees here and a different landscape but I’m in love with Regina, the green space, the lake, the Ledge. I’m discovering the curry and the pizza and stuff I like, so it’s exciting, but it feels strange that I am having lots of new exciting experiences while everyone else is finding life like a slodge [sic] because of COVID.
Q: What made you decide to take this position?
A: So there’s a couple of things. I am passionate about Canadian universities. I do a lot of work on the principles of academic freedom and collegial government as part of my research and part of my public scholarship and something I have learned over the years is the Canadian university system is head and shoulders about any university system when it comes to things like collegial governments – that idea that the university should be directed in its academic vision by scholars rather than managed like a bank is managed. Most of that world has gone for that bank management structure but Canada still has that strong collegial governance approach and I think that is crucially important to depend [upon] right now.
I like academic administration. I’m good at it. I’m at the career stage where I feel like I’m at the right time to throw myself in it in a big way, that aligns with some values I have about academia. With respect to Regina I love the diversity, and I love the comparative size of the faculty [of arts]. This is a university where arts is still very much an influential faculty and one that the university takes very seriously and we’ve got two senior administrators and the president and the associate vice-president academic who are both from the arts as well so its an extraordinarily arts-centric and diverse faculty with lots of folks who apply the research they do in the community and are committed to social justice.
As well it’s the only university in the country where both official languages and Indigenous peoples have institutions that are partnered together so it’s a microcosm of what the Canadian university should be.
Q: What was your first impression of the University of Regina and the Arts Department?
A: I arrived the day COVID did so I had an unusual impression. I arrived on March 16 and it was normal and by the time I arrived on campus for my interview and my public talk on the 17 everything had stopped due to COVID. I was amazed that people were so supportive and enthusiastic and flexible in dealing with this prospective dean on a day when all hell was breaking loose. Catering was cancelled so a few of us crammed together in a lunchroom and had a sandwich and a coke and it meant that I felt like I was in the mix right away. It removed any kind of feeling of distance and formality so I felt comfortable right away.
Q: Goals for the Faculty of Arts?
A: I have a few. We have 13 departments, some of them quite small. Every department needs to have a head [and] once you’re a head of a department you do less teaching and less research and no one ever went to grad school to become a head. They went to grad school because they’re passionate about history, or Japanese. I don’t think collegial governance should be set up in such a way where we punish people who fulfil the leadership roles by making it impossible to pursue their passions. So I’m trying to find a way to distribute the workload so being the head of a department isn’t such a burden.
I would also like to find ways to support an increase in research intensity and graduate education. In a very small department, it can be really hard to have a graduate program and not having a grad program can limit the kind of research you can do. I’m interested in thinking about creative ways to support graduate education and research even if it means having small diverse departments. And we need to support interdisciplinary [studies] in departments.
The big thing I want to do is try to create opportunities for students, staff and faculty to come together and develop their own visions for the faculty and find ways to put those visions into practice, I’m more interested in that rather than giving down orders from on high. I want to set up lots of opportunities for workshops and informal meetings.
I think there is an opportunity right now is some frustration with obstacles and I think having a new dean from outside the university gives everybody a chance to press the reset button and have new conversations of what the faculty is like so lets have these conversations and see what faculty we can build together.
Q: Views on the gutting of the humanities departments?
A: It’s the biggest challenge affecting the Faculty of Arts today. We are seeing less enrolment in the Faculty of Arts. We have seen government targeting arts scholarships and arts programs. We are seeing a world shift so it’s not something we can deal with at Regina alone. One of the big world historical factor is the rise of neoliberalism where everybody has to be thought of in what types of profit they can turn out instead of human beings. The arts is closely associated in peoples’ mind with soul building and we are at a point in time where society disvalues that kind of thing.
Here’s my optimistic thought though: we have more and more people in university who aren’t wealthy and who view university as a vocational training, to be able to get a job to put food on the table and that’s a good thing, that university is no longer just the providence of the wealthy. But it’s important that the art faculty shows students why they can be confident pursuing an arts education, showing them why they don’t have to be afraid of it.
Q: Thoughts on the precarious employment of academics, especially sessional teachers?
A: There’s a widening gap between tenure and session scholars. This is one of those things where there is a world historical shift and we have to do the very best to hold on to what is good in the face of issues much larger than just the U of R.
Q: Do you have any plans for improving enrolment and engagement in the Faculty of Arts?
A: That’s something that is best started as a conversation among students and alumni and faculty and staff and look for who we’re failing to reach out to and who we’ve succeeded reaching out to. I would love to find a way to connect with alumni to show examples of what can be done with an arts degree. Somehow we’re not getting the word out to art students and prospective students and we need to do a better job at that.
Q: What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge of taking on this role?
A: Trying to keep the vigorous healthy collegial government that is the hallmark of the U of R while trying to build off that sense of community of shared identity, it’s hard to do vigorous governance if you all just agree. So I think striking that balance in having a shared identity and shared visions while keeping that really fruitful disagreement and robust government. It’s a really hard but important balance to strike. But the biggest challenge for any dean of arts right now is the combination of fiscal constraints and dropping student enrolment so realistically that’s the huge challenge.
Q: You position is sure to be stressful. What do you like to do to relax?
A: I’ve decided that if I’m going to be a COVID dean in a city with a long hard winter I need to get into some good habits so I bought an exercise bike and have been exercising on it. I’ve bought a house with a fireplace because I find it super relaxing to sit in front of a fire. I cook when I can and I find that really really relaxing. And this is the nerdiest thing ever but I bought a waterpik because it makes me so happy when I have healthy gums! So I’m hoping the combination of wood fires and healthy gums and cardio and cooking and maybe some caffeine will help to keep me a happy balanced, low-stress dean.