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Demographics at the top

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Two of Manitoba’s seven public postsecondary institutions are now headed by aboriginal women.

I’m not suggesting anyone set out consciously to do that, but it has to be a good thing.

Stephanie Forsyth is the incoming president at Red River College, officially starting her job in September. Denise Henning is president of the University College of the North.

Forsyth is coming from Northwest Community College in the northern interior of B.C., where she’s been president for 10 years. During that decade, Northwest has tripled its enrolment and its aboriginal student population is closing in on half.

The campus in Terrace, B.C., has bilingual signage, totem poles — check the website — teepees and a longhouse. Forsyth says aboriginal people have a different world view than does the Canadian mainstream, and Northwest CC respects and incorporates that.

Forsyth comes here knowing all about the postsecondary participation rates among aboriginal people, the shortage of skilled workers, and aboriginal students annually becoming an ever-greater proportion of the student population.

RRC already has a national and international reputation for its encouragement of First Nations education, said Forsyth.

She’s got quite the tough act to follow. Jeff Zabudsky, who left in the winter to take over Sheridan College in the Toronto area, did some significant things while he was here and had ambitious plans for even greater expansion.

The Union Bank Tower renovation and construction project is well underway, featuring student residences and a culinary arts school and restaurant. Skilled trades are running at capacity, the Notre Dame campus saw major improvements in heavy equipment, transportation and automotive programs. Red River took over the old Massey Building within a stone’s throw of the Princess campus and Union Bank Tower, it has a campus in Steinbach now.

Zabudsky was also talking a third campus in the southeast, oodles of sophisticated new classrooms for the trades, and RRC getting its mitts on the Public Safety Building to launch an allied health sciences program near to the Health Sciences Centre and U of M’s medical school.

But Zabudsky didn’t just limit himself to physical growth.

During his time as president, Zabudsky worked tirelessly to convince students, parents and high school guidance counsellors that a college education should have the same respect as a university education. He developed an alumni network and plastered billboards around the city touting Red River grads who’d parlayed their community college education into successful careers. RRC now can grant degrees, it conducts applied research and receives research grants, it recruits international students.

Quite the challenge ahead for Forsyth.

When I met Henning in The Pas a few weeks ago, she told me afterward that she’d expected a tougher interview. I told her it was our first interview, a get-acquainted talk, and that she should ask her buddies, UM prez David Barnard and UW prez Lloyd Axworthy, what the 18th or 24th interviews would be like.

We’ll see how Forsyth handles her challenges ahead — the track record looks pretty good.

For those keeping score at home, Brandon University has its first woman president, Deborah Poff, Raymonde Gagne is president of College universitaire de Saint-Boniface --- so women are in the majority as postsecondary presidents here -- and Assiniboine Community College should be getting near the end of its presidential search.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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