For new Niagara College president Sean Kennedy, events such as the one he attended last Friday morning are indicative of what he sees as his main role in his new position.
He returns to his new office following an opening ceremony for a new smudging space to support Indigenous students at the newly-named Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-
“It was really powerful,” says Kennedy. “It reminded me of the importance of working to always put student success and supporting our students front and centre.”
After 25 years with Patterson in the role, it may be difficult to envision anyone being able to match the enthusiasm that “Dr. Dan” brought to the job. But if anyone can do that, it’s Kennedy.
Now in his third week at the helm, having succeeded the campus namesake as the sixth president of Niagara College, Kennedy took some time to reflect on where the post-secondary institution has been, and where he sees it heading.
The search for Patterson’s successor was a five-month-long process. Through it all, Kennedy felt his dedication and commitment to the college positioned him as a good candidate. Being offered the job in January, says Kennedy, brought him “a sense of absolute excitement and a feeling of being very honoured to lead this amazing college that I love so deeply.”
John Scott, chair of the Niagara College Board of Governors, says, “our recruitment process attracted exceptional candidates from across the country, but in the end, it became very clear that Sean brings the ideal combination of energy, experience, vision and community connections, that will help him lead Niagara College into the next chapter of its remarkable history.”
Born in Colorado but raised mostly in Alberta, Kennedy has been at the college since 2006. Prior to Niagara, he held various positions at Red Deer College and his alma mater, the University of Alberta.
Since moving to Niagara, his responsibilities have included developing branding and community engagement strategies, enrolment and registration, student and alumni services, and recruitment. Most recently, as vice-president, international, he was involved with the development of Niagara College campuses in Saudi Arabia and South Korea, as well as consulting and training agreements in Malawi, Vietnam and the Caribbean.
He was also responsible for attracting an ever-increasing number of international students to both the NOTL and Welland campuses. Today, Niagara is host to students from more than 90 countries, largely due to the efforts of Kennedy and his International team.
Taking over from Patterson, with whom he has worked closely for 14 years, is an honour, he says.
“Particularly in my years as VP of Student and External Relations, I was out engaging with employer and government officials alongside Dan,” he says. “I don’t know if there can be a better mentor for that type of stakeholder engagement than Dan. We’ve always had a really strong working relationship, and I know he’ll always take my call when I seek his advice.”
Moving forward, Kennedy feels those internal and external relationships are a key to the continued success of the college.
“I don’t know whether I can possibly shake as many hands as Dan has over 25 years, but that commitment to student success is something I share with him. I expect that continued engagement with our students, as well as our external community. Relationships have been the cornerstone of the success of Niagara College, and I fully expect to continue that.”
He’s still settling in to the NOTL office space vacated by Patterson. He promises it won’t be as full of daily newspapers and documents as it was with its previous occupant.
“It’s probably a result of my last few years travelling so much,” he says. “I’m so used to working on my tablet, or computer, at the airport, and that means I am more comfortable working digitally than Dan was.”
Kennedy has also established an office at the Welland campus, and plans to spend equal time at each location. He feels both NOTL and Welland will continue to play important roles in their communities.
One of the things he says Niagara has done better than any college in Canada is capitalizing on its learning enterprises. Kennedy sees opportunities to expand on those at both locations.
“The Welland campus houses our dental hygiene clinic, and we have clinics for seniors, and there are opportunities to expand on some of our community and health programs, so we’ll be looking at that.
“And at this campus, a particular area of future growth would be our environmental programs. In 2020, with climate change front and centre in people’s minds, we have this remarkably strong set of programs, and we’ve just created a dean of environmental programs, so we can focus on finding ways of growing that and recognizing the importance of this to the future of the region, and the country, as well.”
Research has been a big focus for Niagara in the past few years. Last fall, the ribbon was cut on the Marotta Family Innovation Complex at the Patterson Campus, designed to be a centre for research in the agri-food industry.
“We’re number one in the country in applied research funding amongst colleges,” he points out. “Clearly we have a strong track record, and we want to continue to leverage that reputation for areas like food technology, agriculture and advanced manufacturing. But we also want to look at expansion in business areas, to work with local employers to find ways through our applied research to help them be more productive, to innovate, and help them solve their problems.”
Kennedy holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta, and a Master of Public Administration earned at Queen’s University. He has found it necessary, though, as he learns the ropes of the president’s job, to take a leave from his current doctoral studies in leadership in education at the University of Toronto.
His first three weeks have been a whirlwind of meetings with student and business leaders, government officials, local mayors and other stakeholders in the region. It’s a huge part of the job, and Kennedy is ready for it.
He adds that his wife, Kerry, a Niagara College graduate herself (2009 post-graduate studies in ecosystem restoration) is ready for it as well. “She’s a proud alum of the college. I think that makes a difference. She knows the college, and loves the college, and she’s very much an extrovert, which is helpful in the role that I’m undertaking, because we will be out together, often for evening functions, and she enjoys it.”
In that way, Sean and Kerry Kennedy plan to carry on the legacy left by Dan and Saundra Patterson as the president and “first lady” of Niagara College.
And, Kennedy adds, “if we put that true, genuine commitment to students front and centre, and take that from Dan’s legacy, Niagara College will continue to be successful.”