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Q&A with Gary Hepburn, new dean of The Chang School of Continuing Education

Continuing education leader talks about what inspires him and what’s next for post-secondary education
By: Emily Graham
February 07, 2020
Gary Hepburn

Gary Hepburn joined Ryerson as the new dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education on January 1, 2020. Photo Credit: Daniil Novikov.

What's the one thing you'd like the Ryerson community to know about you?
I think what I’d like the Ryerson community to know is how happy I am to be here. Ryerson is really unique in the Canadian university landscape: in the type of programs it offers, the institutional DNA where it’s come from, and especially where it’s going.

Ryerson is highly integrated with the city. It sees itself as a city builder and really emphasizes innovation. I think people at Ryerson sometimes don’t realize how different it is. Coming from the outside, there is something quite different and unique about this and I really wanted to be part of it. I’m very enthusiastic, excited to have this opportunity and look forward to working with everybody.

What attracted you to this opportunity at Ryerson?

The particular opportunity in The Chang School. If you’re in Canadian continuing education, everybody knows The Chang School. I would say it’s among the best in the country and it’s quite unique. The Chang School is a more integral part of Ryerson than most CE units in other universities. Ryerson really pushes the boundaries in continuing education.

What's a vivid memory or lesson from your time at university?

An important moment I remember from my undergraduate is going to a lecture of a well-known academic researcher. It just blew me away. School and university had really been so much about course work until that point. Then I realized, it’s really about ideas. The further you go with your education the more you focus on learning about ideas. That was a real turning point for me and it was when I felt I was in the right place. 

Is there a professor or teacher who had a profound impact on you?

I played soccer when I was in high school and was captain of my team. The coach, Charlie Hunter, had a real knack for taking people aside and telling them what they needed to know at that particular time, or giving them opportunities they needed at a particular point in their development.

I’ll give you an example. One time we were in a tournament – and sometimes in tournaments two games are scheduled very close to each other. I was sitting with some of my teammates complaining about the fact that we had to play two games in a row. He took me aside and said, “As captain of the team, how do you think this complaining is going to prepare everyone for the next game?” And it really took me aback, but it was a lesson in leadership. As you can see, I’ve never forgotten it. There’s a saying that when the student is ready the teacher will come. I really believe he had a knack for that. 

As a student, what was the largest obstacle you had to overcome?

Probably myself. I think as you go through your education you really do learn what you want to be. This has extended beyond being a student into my professional career. Very often our biggest limitation is what we think we’re capable of or what we think we should do. There’s a point where we can move on and become more aware of our own potential. In fact, we can do many things. It’s the sort of awareness that increases your confidence and your ability to take on challenges. Although you’re learning about other things, you’re also learning a lot about yourself as you do so.

When and why did you decide to do the work you're doing now?

I worked at Acadia University for about 11 years as an assistant professor in the School of Education, and had a real interest in technology and online learning. I had an opportunity to be the director of what is now Open Acadia, the continuing education unit at Acadia. And I loved it from the very start. I got to apply much of what I taught about and researched, but I also learned a lot. I have endless enthusiasm for continuing education and online learning. It was at Acadia that I began to get interested. 

My interest in online education led me to the University of the West Indies in the Caribbean. I lived in Trinidad for a few years. I was in a leadership role with UWI’s Open Campus, developing capacity to deliver online programs to the region. After that I was in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba, where I was dean of Extended Education focusing on continuing education programming. And then here, at Ryerson. It’s all been an interesting path that I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to follow.

You've spent time at universities coast to coast. Where is home for you?

Nova Scotia was where I was born and grew up. In Cape Breton there’s a place called Ingonish, a village where my mother is from. I’ve never lived there permanently but it’s likely the place I’d most identify as home. It’s right on the edge of a national park and has lots of beaches and hiking trails. It’s where I feel most relaxed and feel like I’m in the right place.

You've been at Ryerson since the beginning of January, what is the best or most surprising thing you've learned thus far about Ryerson?

I came in knowing Ryerson was an innovative university that positions its continuing education unit quite differently. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that although I thought Ryerson was really good when I came in, I’m quickly discovering that it’s actually even better.

What is your favourite part about living in Toronto/GTA?

What I notice about Toronto is the energy. Living and working centrally means that you can’t help but see that the city just keeps going and going. There’s a drive. I feel Toronto, and the people of Toronto, want to be the best, and they want to innovate. There’s an expectation that this is a world class city and they want to do world class things. You see it in sports teams but it applies to other areas like education, the business community, and social innovation. It’s always on the move.

What do you see as the emerging trends in higher education?

Responsiveness. It’s always struck me that we don’t know enough about our students. There has always been a traditional model in the way that education is delivered and I don’t think that works as well as it once did. Historically, we often thought about traditional students as undergraduates who come to school during the day, take their classes, and usually have the summer off. The non-traditional student would be the adult learner who has other responsibilities: jobs, families and may be commuting to campus.

When we look at students these days, this distinction isn’t useful anymore. Undergraduate students, especially in urban centres like Toronto, are often balancing multiple responsibilities and require their education to be delivered in a more responsive way. Thus, the term post-traditional can be used to reconsider how we think about students, where we move beyond that distinction. This is where we have to think about all students in terms of what their needs are, so we can deliver their education in a way that really suits them and their lifestyles, without compromising academic quality or the quality of the overall experience. Whether that means flexible modes of delivery like online learning or courses that are part online and part classroom-based. Also consider initiatives like zone learning at Ryerson. These are all new approaches that respond to students’ learning needs and I think that responsiveness is probably one of the most important trends we are seeing today.

What is the last book you read?

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Favourite movie?

The Matrix

Favourite place to travel? 

Ingonish, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

How do you relax after a long day at work?

Exercise: running and biking, mainly. It’s important for my physical and mental health. 

What's your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

Spending time with my family. My wife and I have two children, a boy and a girl. I am living apart from them right now. I came to Toronto first and they’re coming from Winnipeg in a few more months. I miss spending time with them now but we’ll be back together before too long.

How do you start your day?

It’s quite boring really. I’m fairly consistent with my morning routine. Food first, then get cleaned up and dressed, ready to go. I usually have the CBC on the whole time to keep up with what's going on in the world. And then off to work. Usually there’s a cup of coffee in that routine to help get ready.

Who do you look up to, personally or professionally?

My parents. The way they’ve lived their lives, and the opportunities that they’ve been able to give me have been very important.

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