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Canada Academic Marsha Hanen inspired other women in higher education

Marsha Hanen in November, 2018.

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Upon receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Brown University in Rhode Island, Marsha Hanen brought her toddler daughter, Amy, to a social gathering hosted by the departmental dean. It was a moment to take stock and revel in her accomplishment – until the dean’s wife pointedly looked down at the little girl’s shoes and said: “They’re on the wrong feet.”

It was a story Dr. Hanen told often because her path did not always follow a straight course as she climbed to the highest reaches of academia in Canada, eventually becoming president of the University of Winnipeg. There were mistakes and omissions as she juggled her roles as a wife, mother and professor, somehow finding her way through to devote the time required to whichever one needed her full attention at the time. And yet, in an era in which women were expected to remain at home and raise children, she had to learn early to shrug off the implicit criticism and never waver from her goals.

“Mom had a sense of where things were important and where they weren’t,” said Dr. Hanen’s younger daughter, Sharon Abra Hanen. “She had perspective, even when she was scrambling to fill a role.”

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Amy Hanen recalled her mother’s precise use of language. “It wasn’t just, ‘If you clean up your room, you can go out,’ ” Amy Hanen said. “It was, ‘If – and only if,’ just so she could be sure her message was understood.”

Her mantra, the elder daughter continued, was not “Can this be done?” but rather, the more precise and positive “How can this get done?” It was an approach that Dr. Hanen, who died on April 13 at the age of 82 in her Victoria home after a long-term battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, fiercely applied to both her personal and professional lives; anything was possible as long as there was the interest and a vision. Tiny, with dark hair, glasses and a wide, determined smile, she carefully, doggedly and creatively paved the way for those who would follow.

Through a PhD from Brandeis University, through academic positions and fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Dalhousie, as a professor at the University of Calgary who would co-found the faculty of general studies in 1981 and later serve as its second dean, and as the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg from 1989 to 1999, she always could bring people with divergent opinions together because she was interested and able to listen.

“Marsha’s agenda was quality,” said Dr. Annette Trimbee, UW’s current president and vice-chancellor. “She was the second woman in Canada to serve in this position [after Pauline Jewett at Simon Fraser University in the 1970s] and I am so grateful for her leadership because she showed it could be done.”

Last spring, on a glorious June day set for the university’s 113th convocation, Dr. Trimbee was at her predecessor’s side when Spence Street, a major corridor on campus that graduating students pour out onto with their families and caps in hand, was renamed Marsha Hanen Way. “It was sheer joy to get her back into the UW community, on the best day of the year, where the best things were happening on campus,” the vice-chancellor recalled. “Wearing her president’s robe, Marsha was in heaven.”

Dr. Neil Besner, who retired as the university’s provost and vice-president of academics, said that his friend and former colleague was never given to grand pronouncements: “Marsha was a subtle but powerful proponent of a civil and collegial university life for the whole academic community, and she emanated a cheerful dignity that was as striking and unique as the unlikely wedding that ‘cheerful dignity’ advises.”

Marsha Pearlman was born in Calgary on Sept. 18, 1936, the elder of Ben and Rowena Pearlman’s two children. Her father owned a soft-drink plant with his older brother and her mother was a teacher; their home was filled with books and music, and young Marsha learned early the importance of an education and the advantage of being able to stand on her own two feet.

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The parents, who’d emigrated from Russian shtetls in the early 20th century, were instrumental in the founding of Calgary’s I.L. Peretz School in 1927, where the public-school curriculum was taught alongside Yiddish, Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Mrs. Pearlman herself defied the custom of the day by becoming the school’s first kindergarten teacher – a working mother who was proud of her children’s academic performance and fully supported her daughter’s aspirations to study further.

“There was never any question or hesitation because she was a girl,” said her brother, Ron Pearlman, the associate dean of graduate studies at York University and a professor in the biology department, who was five years younger. “We were encouraged to pursue an education, period, and Marsha was my role model and mentor. And you could see her style early on; she never just told me ‘Do this’ or ‘Go to that university.’ Instead, she worked towards a consensus, pointing out the positives and negatives. It was always a conversation.”

At 19, she married her first husband, Harold Hanen, then a future architect and city planner with whom she would have her two daughters.

“Both my sister and I felt that we had a much more interesting childhood than most kids our age,” Amy Hanen said. “When I was quite young, for example, and she didn’t have a babysitter when she was a teaching assistant, she’d just take me to class, sit me down in the back and let me listen.”

In the mid-1960s, before completing her PhD in the philosophy of science at Brandeis University, Dr. Hanen moved with her family back to Alberta and began to teach philosophy at the University of Calgary. Every spare moment, she worked on her thesis; once, her younger daughter, who was still a preschooler, was sitting on the floor by her mother’s work table, playing with some of the supplies.

“I had pencils and discarded yellow legal paper and Scotch tape and scissors with pine green handles,” Sharon Abra Hanen recalled. “I scribbled on the paper, cut it into strips, shuffle the strips, taped them together, then held up the result and I’ve been told I triumphantly declared, ‘Look, Mom, I made a tee-thiz!’”

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Other lessons the daughters learned were that things can been seen from many perspectives; that friendships can last a long time, no matter how physically far apart the friends are; and that music, books and argument are all good for the soul. Their mother, who sometimes signed her professional articles as M.P. Hanen, with “Pearlman” as her unofficial middle name, believed in the rigour of science and the importance of ethics and individuality.

“As a child, I knew the word ‘interdisciplinary,’ and I had a fascination with how things connect because she did not subscribe to the notion of artificial barriers,” Sharon Abra Hanen said.

In the 1980s, after divorcing her first husband, Dr. Hanen married Dr. Robert Weyant, a professor of general studies at the University of Calgary and a jazz aficionado. Together, they moved to Winnipeg in 1989 so she could take up her post as president and vice-chancellor at the university. Years later, before the dedication of Marsha Hanen Way, she would recall that she’d had no interest in previous similar job offers but somehow, UW was different, a small, mostly undergraduate university that because of its size was able to concentrate on quality.

By the time she and Dr. Weyant left UW for Victoria, she had advanced the institution’s growth and development strategy to better fit into a more complicated world, helped to bolster its reputation for strong undergraduate programs and laid the groundwork for many campus landmarks, including the transformation of a former Salvation Army building into the university’s department of theatre and film.

In Victoria, Dr. Hanen continued to work hard. Until 2006, she was president of the Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, named for Sheldon Chumir, the founder of the Alberta Civil Liberties Association. An accomplished pianist, she also became involved with the Victoria symphony, serving as president of the board and chair of the musical director search committee.

Along the way, she sat on numerous boards, including the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and the National Council of Historica. Her numerous accolades include an Honorary Doctor of Laws from York University and in 1999, she became a member of the Order of Canada for being an “inspiration to women in education, encouraging attitudinal change and innovation among academics, business leaders and lawmakers.”

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In addition to her brother and her two daughters, Dr. Hanen leaves her daughter-in-law, Shari Novick; stepsons, Stephen and David Weyant; three grandchildren; and extended family.

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