Can­non po­si­tions U of C for the fu­ture

Calgary Herald - - PEOPLE - CHRIS NEL­SON

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.

Ted Rhodes, Cal­gary Her­ald

El­iz­a­beth Can­non, pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Cal­gary.

Cal­gary Her­ald Ar­chive

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.

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