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Power and the woman president

An excerpt from a new memoir by University of Prince Edward Island’s first female president.

By ELIZABETH ROLLINS EPPERLY | SEP 11 2017
Dr. Rollins Epperly. Photo by Jessica Brookes-Parkhill.

In 1995, Elizabeth Rollins Epperly became the first woman to lead the University of Prince Edward Island. It was the writing of Lucy Maud Montgomery, says Dr. Epperly, that initially drew her to the island from her home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

“I decided I would attend Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown,” she writes in her new memoir, “because Montgomery had gone there. I applied – only there – and became in the fall of 1969 the first student to register at the newly created University of Prince Edward Island” (created when Prince of Wales College and St. Dunstan’s University amalgamated). She would end up teaching at UPEI for 22 years, where she founded the L.M. Montgomery Institute and served for three years as university president until 1998.

Dr. Epperly says she decided to write her memoir, Power Notes: Leadership by Analogy, to explore how power is perceived and to illustrate how it works “in the everyday and ordinary moments where we make decisions.” In this excerpt from her new book, she recounts some of those moments during her three years in the head office.


How is a woman president different from a man president? How did it matter that I was UPEI’s first woman president? I wasn’t sure. I did know I had plans for large changes, including organizational restructuring across the campus, but I suspected the small things, after all, would make the greatest impact on the way we did business. How many of these small things would be a result of my being a woman?

One rude reminder of gender difference surfaced in my first week. While my secretary and I waited for the refurbishing of our offices, we toured every corner of the campus, making detailed lists of what needed attention. When I approached the security office, with its trained staff of campus and regular blue-uniformed police, I was told I could stand at the doorway, but I could not come into the locker area. I stared, disbelieving, at the officer who spoke.

“Is someone taking a shower? I’m not going into the men’s washroom, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said as I started through the door.

He blocked my way, politely but fully. I looked up at him and he looked down at me.

“What is it you don’t want me to see?” I asked, inching forwards.

His face reddened and he leaned over to whisper, “It’s some of the posters. You might not … like them.”

“You have posters in a locker room on a university campus that your woman president cannot see but you don’t think that is an issue?” He shifted his feet and swallowed hard. I had not whispered.

“We’ll take ’em down. We just didn’t know you were coming today,” he pleaded.

“And don’t you have one woman officer? What about her? Isn’t this her locker room, too?”

“She doesn’t mind,” he said, still whispering.

“You’re sure about that?” I asked. “And besides, that’s not the point. You’re promoting a negative way of thinking – a sexist way of thinking – about more than half of the student population. Not to mention one of your own officers. Or your president.”

A young male officer stepped around the screening wall of lockers now and smiled at the other officer and at me.

“All clear now,” he said, nodding to his buddy and taking off his hat to me. “Madam President,” he said, walking past me, not quite smirking but not just smiling either.

The thumbtacks that held the corners of the posters were still there, with bits of paper left behind when they had been yanked down.

“What’s in the basement if your locker room is here?” I asked after glancing around the rows of lockers and the one large mirror at the end of the wall.

So relieved was the young man that he answered cheerily, “Oh, just some storage and Owen’s room.” The second the words were out of his mouth, he looked stricken.

“So, that’s pretty well it for this building,” he cleared his throat and tried to steer us down the hallway to the front door. Instead of following him, I put my hand on the stair railing and began to walk down.

“Please!” He called down to me. “You can’t go down there!”

“Another place on campus the president is not allowed to enter?” I called back up to him. He and my secretary hurried down – she, to keep up with me with the clipboard for notes and he … to do what? Block the doorway again? What exactly was “Owen Flint’s room?” Did one of my key administrators have a private office in another building?

I was almost through the doorway, similarly screened as had been the one upstairs, when the officer caught up with me and put his hand on my sleeve.

“Please, Dr. Epperly. You don’t want to go in there.”

“Why?”

“It’s private. It’s Owen’s private room. No one goes in there.”

Just then, an officer in T-shirt and shorts walked out of the room, wiping sweat from his face and arms on a towel. Embarrassed, he ducked his head and apologized for coming so close to me in his sweat-drenched clothes.

“What kind of room is this? No one is allowed in, you said.”

The young man hung his head again, “No women are allowed in. It’s a weight room.”

I turned to my secretary, who was craning her neck to see around the screen of lockers.

“Please make a note: there is a private weight room in this building when there is already a weight room in the gym. Please remind me to find out why the woman officer is not allowed to use this room but other male officers are.”

“I won’t go in there today,” I said, turning back to the young man. And then I added, to my assistant, “Please make an appointment with Mr. Flint as soon as possible.” I stilled my features, not wanting him to see how clearly I could imagine the high fives upstairs when they would say I had not dared to go into Owen’s special room. Well, let them crow, I thought. The space was more potent as a symbol of what I was going to change if I did not force my way into it.


While I was bound [as a woman university president] to meet die-hard opposition and inherited prejudices downtown as well as on campus, I had stepped into power when the federal and provincial laws and customs were changing. Prince Edward Island was changing along with the rest of Canada and other parts of the world.

I have a photograph taken during convocation that is a marvelous piece of history – unique in Canada, so far, and probably in the world. In the picture, I am posed in my presidential robes with the honorary degree recipients and these government officials: a woman Lieutenant Governor, a woman premier (the leader of the opposition was also a woman), a woman minister of higher education, and a woman chancellor of UPEI. The women in this provincial government had even organized a gathering of influential PEI women, including the UPEI president and her newest woman dean – women principals, business owners and entrepreneurs, health professionals, powerful women in the federal government department housed on PEI, women from the PEI government, and women visionaries – for a weekend-long workshop to create a network of PEI women leaders who could call on each other for help and inspiration. Lightheartedly, we called ourselves the “Dangerous 33” at the end of that life-changing weekend, suspecting we could affect some real changes if we worked together and knowing there were men and some women who would indeed regard us as dangerous if we did help each other.

(Unfortunately, the next provincial election removed this government from power and the “Dangerous 33” gradually disbanded as well. While it lasted, it was wonderful to have such support over so many sectors.)

On paper, UPEI had already made progress towards gender balance even before I took office, in addition to having the famed Doris Anderson as UPEI’s chancellor. A federally imposed equity study of the campus had been completed and a gender equity policy had been approved by senate and the board. There was already one woman dean; there were rumors that some female faculty were thinking of running for chairs; union representation was no longer always male. The new employment equity policy stipulated that for the time being, until some gender equity was achieved at UPEI (with one of the lowest percentages of tenured women in all of Canada), faculty hirings would – all things being equal – go to a strong woman candidate. With the retirement package and with this policy on the books, we would almost certainly be hiring more women in a very short time, and enjoying a change in atmosphere for them and because of them.

On my first day in office, before renovations, I sat in the huge leather throne that had always been the president’s chair, and my feet could not reach the floor. I laughed and pointed this out to the woman who cleaned my office and to my assistant. A few hours later, the head of maintenance brought me a small wooden box for my feet. I thought the box itself, as an unsolicited gift, would someday be a very good symbol for what it had once meant for a woman to lead in a traditionally male-run university. She was expected, literally, to step up; there was no thought of changing the throne itself. Several months later, when I was officially installed, the chancellor addressed a breakfast gathering of friends and officials saying, “A large city where I lived for years once had a tiny perfect mayor who surprised everyone by doing some great things. I think UPEI has chosen a tiny perfect president, and I look forward to watching the surprise on people’s faces with the changes she’s going to bring in.”


Some male colleagues who asked for advice prefaced their remarks with something like, “Since you’re a woman I thought you might …” not recognizing there could be any possible insult behind their saying this or thinking this way. Interestingly, very rarely did a female colleague assume I would support her simply because she was a woman. I did not have any formula for dealing with gender trouble but I was conscious I was building on years and years of work by women activists whose sole aim it had been to clear some of the pathways I was now able to walk with relative comfort, thanks to them. I’d always tried to get rid of gender discrimination by confronting it openly when I could, or circumventing the obstacle when I could not. I relied, as always, on my gut instinct to tell me what was genuine and fair. And I relied on symbols and measures to make my points with others.

The virtually round table my assistant and I had chosen for the presidential meeting room made an immediate difference in how we conducted business. A long table with a definite head and foot is the perfect shape for a hierarchy that prefers to keep the ranks and boundaries rigid and visible. The managers from the old system I had inherited were accustomed to using the “table” to bluster and to stonewall. In private, these same people would talk very reasonably about everything and matters could be settled within minutes. But the president then had to be the acknowledged master, the peacemaker, the hand of patronage and private control. This I would not have. This was the kind of private control that had, to my mind, weakened the campus most. … If I had once begun this practice, the table itself would quickly have been only a place to posture and rehearse what would be truly acted out in the privacy of the president’s office. I encouraged, instead, open exchange – often I did have to intervene and settle the matter then or agree to settle it later and bring back a decision. But the underlying currents, I believed, needed to be acknowledged at the table, and not hidden there.

In my first months, those leaders not supportive of or not schooled in a more participatory model such as this found the exposure of sitting in a circle too threatening. Some were used to using their bulk to block another’s view of the head of the table or to command full attention by simply leaning forward. Others threw tantrums and expected to be soothed away from the table. What had sometimes been left to body language alone now needed to be put into words. A year later, very few of those who were allergic to a circle were still sitting at that table.

Gradually at first, circles began to form and reform and expand all over the changing campus, with men and women working together.

Excerpted by permission from Power Notes: Leadership by Analogy, by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly (Rock’s Mills Press, Oakville, Ontario, 2017).

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