Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Image of Norma Mickelson Leading the way
By Marianne Scott
Photography by Rob Kruyt

Norma Mickelson found better methods to teach kids to read and helped change the way the university treats women. Near the end of her chancellorship, reflections on an educated life.

When Norma Mickelson completes her second and final term as university chancellor at the end of 2002 she will have given the ceremonial tap on the shoulder to more than 20,000 UVic graduates. For her, the convocation ceremony is the best part of the chancellor’s job. “Graduations are happy times,” says Mickelson. “Students have such a sense of accomplishment. I always attend the receptions afterwards and have witnessed so many poignant moments. I met a couple who’d flown from Singapore to attend their daughter’s graduation, the first family member to complete university. Tears flowed as they expressed their pride.”

UVic’s eighth chancellor—first elected in 1996—has spent nearly half of her life in association with the university. Born in Victoria, Mickelson learned the value of education at home. “During the Depression, my dad was unemployed for seven years. I decided to quit school to help earn income. But my dad was adamant. ‘I don’t care if we starve first,’ he told me. ‘You’re finishing your education.’”

That edict shaped Mickelson’s life. After attending Victoria College, she taught elementary school from 1945–66. In the early 1960s, she finished her BEd at UBC before receiving her master’s from UVic and her doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Washington.

She specialized in reading and language acquisition, subjects that still stir her passion. “I’ve always focused on how children learn to read, on how kids use language to express themselves and determine who they are, and on finding ways of helping those with reading difficulties.” Mickelson fought hard to change teaching techniques that labeled, discouraged and demeaned children. She became a reading expert who published more than 140 scholarly articles and a book, gave countless workshops and conference presentations in North America, Australia, Europe and Asia, and prepared a series of popular video courses. All her work focused on providing teachers with the tools to teach reading in an encouraging and supportive manner. If some women today believe we no longer need to worry much about women’s rights, it’s because we fought for them.

A trailblazer, Mickelson achieved a series of firsts: she was the first female academic dean (Faculty of Education) at a major Canadian university and the first woman president of the UVic Faculty Association. She became the university’s first advisor on equity issues. And she’s UVic’s first female chancellor—the titular head of the university who confers degrees, chairs convocation, and is a member of senate and the board of governors.

She’s modest about her accomplishments. “It was mostly timing. Literacy and reading skills were in vogue in the ’70s. And when I joined the Faculty of Education, my colleagues gave me great advice. ‘Concentrate on good teaching and get your research in order.’ Education Dean George Peterson asked me to be his associate dean so I learned about administration. George also gave me his recruiting philosophy. ‘Norma,’ he told me, ‘sign up the best people you can—even if they’re better than you—and then get out of the way and let them do the job.’ That certainly has worked for me.”

Mickelson also cites timing when discussing her ground-breaking gender equity work. “Equity was a hot issue in the ’80s and I had a mandate to review how women were treated at UVic. We started with language. Everything was ‘he’ and ‘his.’ We introduced gender-neutral words, but it was hard going. Many strongly opposed using inclusive language. But a group of accomplished women helped me raise consciousness about these issues. We also insisted women should be asked the same questions as men during interviews. And we pointed out that the résumés of women scholars might have gaps not because they lost interest, but because they took time to raise children.” Mickelson left her academic work for most of six years when her own son and daughter were small. She was able to return to full-time teaching only because her husband Harvey shared child-raising duties and the children’s grandmothers pitched in regularly.

The equity work was the most challenging of her career, and it brought rewards. “We changed many practices women now take for granted,” she says. “If some women today believe we no longer need to worry much about women’s rights, it’s because we fought for them.”

Social Work Professor Barbara Whittington, who was in the equity trenches with Mickelson, says the university may never know the complete impact the chancellor has had behind the scenes. “Norma saved people’s careers. She righted wrongs. She did it in confidence, quietly. She’s been the first to do many things at UVic, but she made sure she wasn’t the last.”

Those equity battles led to one of many honours bestowed on her. In 1991, she received the first Sarah Shorten Award, recognizing her commitment to the advancement of women in Canadian universities. She was a given the Victoria Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. She’s a recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. And the alumni association named her one of UVic’s Distinguished Alumni.

“I’ve seen the university grow from a college without a campus into a world-class university,” Mickelson says. “But it’s remained a manageable size, a personal place, a great place for students. My years here gave me a chance to serve students—to serve education. I could not have had a better opportunity.”

Marianne Scott is a Victoria writer and regular Torch contributor

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