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Joan Foley: Looking back at 50 years at U of T

(photo by Johnny Guatto)

1963. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. John, Paul, George and Ringo sang “She Loves You.” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their long and tempestuous on- and off-again relationship on the set of Cleopatra. The average income was $5,600 and you could buy a house for $12,500. And a young Joan Foley joined the University of Toronto as a special lecturer in Psychology.

More than 50 years on, Kennedy, the Beatles and Cleopatra are distant memories. But Joan Foley is still going strong at U of T. Currently the  ombudsperson, Foley has served in a number of roles at the University, including member of the Governing Council, chair of the Department of Psychology and of the Division of Life Sciences at Scarborough and associate dean of Arts and Science. She was U of T’s first female principal (UTSC), and first female provost.

Foley has been honoured by the University – the Joan Foley Hall student residence at UTSC is named in her honour, as is the annual Joan E. Foley Quality of Student Experience Award. And recently she spoke with writer Terry Lavender about her time at U of T.

You retired from the University in 2001. Why did you decide to come back as Ombudsperson in 2007?
I wanted to keep involved with the University, and the attractive thing about this particular position was the great diversity of matters that come to the attention of the ombudsperson – which are unlimited – anything to do with the University of Toronto – and the clientele – who can be students or faculty or staff.

As was the case when I was the Provost, the position reaches into all parts of the University, which I found most interesting – the fact that you were working with all the different parts of the institution. It’s a role in which one continues to learn and therefore one still feels one's alive.  At my age I'm lucky to have that opportunity to still learn things about this institution that I didn't know and to try to solve problems or help people to solve their problems.

What exactly does your office do?
The core mission of the Office is to function as a critic of the way in which the University operates. A university administrator is never short of critics, and some might wonder why it would be considered necessary to institutionalize such a role. But some sources of criticism are limited in their perspective and may not include proposals for improvement. We understand our charge to be to help the University to improve the way it operates by providing criticism that is not limited to personal or particular interests but can be concerned with any area of its business. If it is to be useful, this criticism needs to be supported by careful research of the issues. Above all, our criticism must be constructive.

What are the challenges of the role?
The Office of the Ombudsperson has no decision-making power. That’s both a blessing and a challenge – the role is purely advisory so the challenge is that when one feels that something needs to be looked at or to be reconsidered is to put together a case for why that is the appropriate thing to do, but always recognizing that the person you are making a case to doesn't necessarily have to accept it. I find that administrators generally do take very seriously the recommendations that the ombudsperson makes and that's of course gratifying.

Your office fields a lot of complaints. Do you ever get discouraged?
Some people may think that working in a complaints office must be a dispiriting experience. Sometimes it can be. But the rewards come when a student drops in to tell us that she has successfully completed her program and will be graduating at the next convocation. Or a staff member lets us know that with the help of the information we provided, his workplace problems have been resolved. Or when I can report to Governing Council that measures have been taken to make the University a better place for everyone who works or studies here.

What would you like to accomplish in the remainder of your term as Ombudsperson?
Well, my term has been extended to June 2015. One area I’d like to explore relates to the Civility Guidelines (the Human Resources Guideline on Civil Conduct, adopted in 2009 regarding the standard of civil conduct that U of T employees should maintain in their dealings with each other).

We’ve often drawn the attention of staff to these guidelines because of complaints about problems that are happening in the workplace between employees and their managers or peers. I'm not too sure how often the procedures laid out in the Guidelines have been employed and with what results. Are they being used? When are they used? Do they improve the situation? Are people satisfied with the results of those procedures? That's something I'd like to take a look at before I leave office.

Beyond superficial changes in technology and fashion, have students changed at U of T over the past 50 years?
Students today have had different upbringings. I remember the first class I ever taught – the men students all wore tweed coats with leather patches on the elbows and ties and the women all wore skirts and cardigan twin sets. Their life experience, just as mine, was very different from students today, expressed not just through their dress. At the same time, I still find that most students are really just trying to improve themselves through being at the University, to make something more of their life, and it's wonderful to see them succeed.

The institution itself is very different. We used to do the budget in the dean's office in the Faculty of Arts and Science when I was an associate dean in the seventies on a hand calculating machine and we would calculate the one-sixth and five-sixth of a faculty member's salary for the budget year because it didn't correspond with the time of the increases and so on, all by hand. Now there's a whole office full of people to handle the financial side of a large Faculty's business.

So there are huge changes in the institution but I think in the end it's all about people – the people in the University still have the same objectives, the same problems, the same needs for support and so on.

Looking back over the past 50 years, what stands out for you?
It’s [kind of] difficult to identify any one thing. I think I've been really fortunate to have had such a variety of roles in the university and I've found them all really great. Whether at the department level, or the faculty level, the campus at Scarborough, the Provost Office, these jobs are all different.  I think the whole thing has been a great experience and I'm pleased to think that even now some people think I can make a contribution. I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to do this job before I really retire.

(Read about Foley's latest ombudsperson's report.)