Cannon positions U of C for the future
Elizabeth Cannon is excited and on course. So, too, she adamantly believes, is the university she presides over.
Getting lost isn’t in her vocabulary — the closest she came was almost three decades ago during her first day as a University of Calgary student.
That was back in 1982 after she’d moved from the Maritimes to finish her engineering degree.
“I remember landing on campus and a friend of mine walking me around. It was very different to what I was used to in the East and a little bit overwhelming.”
“But I came with the mindset that I was going to like it here and enjoy my experience and of course I’ve never left,” said the woman who has been the university’s president for the past 15 months.
Rising from the student ranks to become president of the same university isn’t a career path heavily followed in academia. In fact, it is almost unheard of.
“No, it’s certainly not typical. In the academic sector, in many cases, if one wants to move up through the ranks one usually has to move around,” said Cannon, still on an emotional high from launching the U of C’s five-year “Eyes High” vision earlier that day.
The ambitious plan aims to turn the university into a top-five research campus by 2016 — which coincides with its 50th anniversary. Cannon said the U of C is now ranked about seventh or eighth in Canada in the amount of research funding generated.
The entire university, as well as alumni and city leaders, took part in the planning process and Cannon is determined to see results.
“We are aiming high. Our eyes are high. Like the City of Calgary we want to gain that prominence that we believe we deserve.”
“The university is an anchor institution and we want to be seen also as a key part of what makes this city great,” she said.
Cannon has made a life for herself by staying on course.
While climbing the academic ladder she also became recognized as one of the world’s renowned experts on global positioning systems.
After obtaining her engineering degree in 1984, Cannon first became involved with what was then a fledgling industry.
“I went to work in industry in downtown Calgary and that’s where I got real exposure to GPS technology.
“At the time there were some satellites in space and there was some technology to receive signals, obviously much bigger equipment than what you find in your watch today.”
“Nobody knew what it was then. If you said you worked with GPS they’d give you this funny look.”
“At that time the oil and gas industry embraced it because it could be used for offshore rig positioning.”
“I thought ‘this is going to be revolutionary. I don’t know what its full impact will be, but I know it is going to be big.’”
Intending to forge ahead in this new industry Cannon returned to the U of C to earn her Masters and PhD.
But when she took advantage of a national push to get more women involved in teaching science and engineering she found a permanent home at the university.
“I decided to join the faculty here in Calgary in ’91. There were 86 professors in engineering at that time and I was the second female,” she recalled.
For the next 20 years she combined her teaching with research into the frontiers of GPS development, winning countless honours, including the world’s most prestigious satellite navigation prize: the Johannes Kepler award from the U.S. Institute of Navigation.
In July of last year, Cannon was appointed the university’s eighth president.
“There’s a very rigorous process for the selection of a president and no stones get unturned.”
“Obviously having a history here that others can challenge and can question, then the fact that there was confidence in selecting me as president, well I am very proud of that,” said Cannon.
“I am very passionate about the university. I know its potential and am obviously very loyal to the institution and to the citizens of Calgary. This is where we raised our family,” she added.
Cannon has two children, Sara, 23, and Rene, 20, and is married to U of C geometrics engineering professor Gerard Lachapelle.
“We met in industry. I came back and joined the faculty then he joined the faculty.
Throughout our careers he’s been the boss, I’ve been the boss, so we’ve flip-flopped a few times. It works either way,” said Cannon.
Having been a U of C student herself Cannon believes she has more insight into what young people face when they join the campus, which now supports 31,000 scholars.
“We can talk about the residence I stayed in and other things that we might have shared in common. I think that brings down the role of president to something a bit more accessible to students,” she added.
“Of course when I came as a student back in 1982 I had no sense that I was ever going to be president,” she added.
Cannon, raised in Charlottetown, travelled to Calgary on her own almost 30 years ago.
“I had a brother and sister living in Calgary at the time and there were other people from the Maritimes living here. That seems to be the thing to do when you’re down East is to move West and what a great place to go to university. I never thought I would settle down here forever, but I love the Calgary spirit.”
It’s that spirit she believes will drive the university to greater heights.
“When I talk to my colleagues around the country they see Calgary as a hotbed of activity and influence and they see the university really starting to emerge.
“I don’t think we’ve captured all our potential yet. We want to see the U of C and the City of Calgary viewed as a ‘go to’ place in both this country and internationally” she said.
Sounds exactly the right challenge for an expert in global positioning.
Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary.
Dr. Elizabeth Cannon was installed as the U of C president in 2010. She’s one of the few university presidents in North America who run the school they received their undergraduate training at.