Sara Diamond, president of the Ontario College of Art and Design for the past five years, hops around her Toronto office, barely slowed by the hefty cast on her left foot. The diminutive 56-year-old university administrator shattered bones by leaping from a flaming passenger train in December and falling down a three-and-a-half metre embankment while on a working trip to visit the Argentine Ministry of Culture and a museum in Tigre, near Buenos Aires.
"I had no choice but to jump," Dr. Diamond says recalling the accident, which was the result of an electrical surge. "A workman carried me a half-mile to safety. I was amazed by the generosity of the people around me and the way I was treated by colleagues and strangers. I love Argentina and plan to go back."
Born in New York, she attended Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a progressive private school in Manhattan, before her family moved to Toronto in the 1960s. She ended up at SEED, known as a "free school" for street kids as well as wealthy kids from Rosedale and Forest Hill who were dissatisfied with their education.
"We wanted an environment that was interdisciplinary, highly interactive and engaged with the world around us," says Dr. Diamond. At 15 and 16, she navigated the Toronto Board of Education and helped organize SEED into an officially recognized school. "The SEED experience was fundamental to who I am now and the kind of skill sets I have."
Dr. Diamond, who holds a degree in digital media theory and a PhD in computer science, has had multiple career deviations on her path to OCAD. She's been a historian and an art teacher and has had her own television production company. A stint on a federal government cultural task force brought her to the Banff Centre, where she was later asked to become director of the television and video program. In 1995, she founded the Banff New Media Institute which has grown to become internationally renowned. When she was invited to take the top spot at OCAD, she saw it as an opportunity to come full circle.
"As a child, I dreamt I would be an education administrator," Dr. Diamond says. "I really did. When I was 11 or 12, I was a guest on the TV show This Hour Has Seven Days with Laurier LaPierre, who was interviewing students who had spoken out about education. He asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, 'I believe education is the most important thing in the world. I want to change the nature of education in this country. So I will lead an educational institution.' There was some part of me back then that wanted to be exactly what I am now."
An early adaptor of technology, Dr. Diamond was one of the first of anyone she knew to have a laptop computer. At that time, she says, it was exciting to be able to work outside or in a café, and not be tied to the notion of the workplace. The flip side is a 24/7 relationship to work, another adaptation she admits she made early.
"Mobility has always been a critical side of my lifestyle," says Dr. Diamond, who travelled extensively during her 14 years at the Banff Centre, often leading her programs from different parts of the world through the Internet in the 1990s. "We've seen revolution after revolution with the facility of the mobile device," she says. "So many services of the future will be flowing through that device."
While she admits to checking her BlackBerry consistently, she tries not to "indulge in a compulsive lifestyle" where she has to respond to every e-mail immediately. She believes that the immediacy of mobile devices sometimes undermines critical responses or thought, so it's valuable to think through responses first.
The best advice she ever received was to look at herself in the mirror every day and ask, "Have I done the right thing? If this was my last day on Earth, would I be proud of what I did that day?" It's something she still does.
The advice she gives to OCAD's grads is to look at environmentally sustainable practices; stay engaged with the world and make it a better place; and be entrepreneurs. "If you can bring those three values together, you can change the world."
OCAD also works a great deal with small- and medium-sized business. "We have a centre called the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre that brings together mobile companies with big companies like the folks who deliver networks and technologies," Dr. Diamond says. "Small companies in Canada have the opportunity to link up with universities and colleges and look at the kind of creative work they do. Often they're innovators at the edge."
She stays in close touch with OCAD students through frequent dinners at her house called Dining With Diamond, organized by the student union.
"I do the cooking for about 25 to 30 students at a time," says Dr. Diamond, who's just signed on for her second five-year term as OCAD president. "I make delicious, low-budget, healthy meals and we have a chance to really talk. It's so pleasurable for me."