A Centennial College Success Story
College leader is leaving on a high note
By MARK TOLJAGIC
Ann Buller and Centennial College arrived around the same time, perhaps the consequence of some celestial alignment.
She emigrated from Scotland as a young girl not long after Centennial had opened its doors in 1966 to a hastily renovated factory in Scarborough.
Buller was the first in her working-class family to attend post-secondary education, but her destination would be college, not university. After graduating from Humber College with a public relations diploma, she worked in student government briefly before successfully applying to work at Centennial as a recruitment officer. The year was 1989 and the college had established a marketing department for the first time.
“The president called us together and said we’re down 13 per cent in applications. I remember the creativity and the energy around that challenge, and getting the resources to do some good, interesting things,” Buller recalls.
Despite having been established for more than two decades, Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and technology were not always top of mind then. Just arranging visits to talk to high-school students was sometimes challenging.
“I remember calling to book appointments and having high schools tell me: ‘No, we don’t send our students to college.’ It shocked me. I didn’t expect to get that response.”
Fortunately, Buller has a knack for giving high-energy presentations, and she quickly became an in-demand speaker at schools.
Promoted to Manager of Liaison and Community Relations, she developed new strategies to meet enrolment targets, including personalized direct mail, customer service training and closer ties with guidance counsellors and teachers.
As Director of Student Services, Buller addressed the problem of students abandoning their programs with research and policies that earned a Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award. She was named Centennial’s Vice President of Student Services and Advocacy in 1999. A year later she got a phone call that would change her career trajectory.
“A search firm called and asked me if I was interested in a vice-president position at Nova Scotia Community College. I said absolutely not. But they kept calling, saying my name kept coming up.”
Buller eventually flew to Halifax to see what NSCC, with 13 campuses across Nova Scotia, was all about. To her surprise, her casual visit turned into a job interview. Buller learned the position entailed implementing a strategic review and college education policy for the entire province.
“The president told me that it was not a matter of having NSCC catch up with everyone else, but to leapfrog ahead with some bold ideas,” Buller recalls. She relished the challenge and took the job. “It was an unbelievable rollercoaster ride.”
Within months of her starting, two airliners crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre on 9/11 and the repercussions were felt in Nova Scotia, where thousands of air travellers were redirected after the U.S. closed its airspace.
“We sheltered 1,500 airline passengers by opening Akerley campus to them.” Much like what had unfolded in Gander, Newfoundland, the response by the local community was extraordinary. Buller and her volunteers worked around the clock to look after their accidental guests during an unforgettable week.
In 2003, Centennial College President Richard Johnston announced he would not be renewing his contract, and the search began for a new leader. Centennial was not in great financial shape and enrolment growth had waned. Buller knew that if she wanted the job, it required a daring proposal.
“We needed to catalyze change at the college, something profound to make it a standout in the market. I came up with the ‘signature academic experience’ at my kitchen table.”
Knowing Centennial’s strength is its diversity, she intended to amplify it by building students’ understanding of equity and social justice issues, and to give them portfolio learning and cultural competencies to prepare them to work in a global economy.
Buller’s audacious vision had won her the presidency, a role she began in June 2004. The renamed Signature Learning Experience (SLE) – a product of extensive consultation with 1,000 faculty and staff – formed Centennial’s statement of distinction.
Among her first duties was to unveil tuition-free summer courses for “at-risk” youth living in the Malvern neighbourhood of Scarborough. Toronto Mayor David Miller attended the launch and later told the Globe and Mail that Centennial’s community outreach project was the highlight of his first year in office.
As the SLE took shape – requiring every full-time student to take the innovative GNED 500 Global Citizenship course – Buller mused about offering opportunities for students to travel overseas.
“We know from studies that just eight days in another environment can fundamentally change you – and that’s what we set out to do. We want our students to go abroad and see the world, to democratize education so that everyone, regardless of their means, can get out there.”
The first group of students and faculty advisors travelled to the Dominican Republic. The college paid for the flights and accommodation, while most of the meals were provided by the local agency that was orchestrating the service work.
“We try to partner with established non-profits on the ground who may have experience hosting students,” says Buller. Increasingly bold adventures have dispatched students to exotic destinations such as the Amazon River basin and the Great Rift Valley in Kenya.
“What’s incredible is that our international students have really taken advantage of these trips. And the Aboriginal components have grown; we want more opportunities for students to learn about Indigenous cultures right here in Canada.”
To list all of Buller’s accomplishments, awards and accolades would fill many of these magazine pages. Suffice it to say that her vision to reinvent Centennial has been realized.
“Our strategic plans describe a college with bolder commitments, reflecting the confidence in, and passion for, the work of transforming lives and communities through learning,” she notes. Compared to the complacent college she found in 1989, the changes have been nothing short of profound.
This spring Ann Buller will leave Centennial reluctantly, but by choice, as its sixth and most impactful president. But she pledges to stay connected to the institution she’s inspired and led for most of three decades.
“I have a deep emotional connection to this place. But it’s the right time for a change in leadership,” she says, as a tremor of emotion crosses her face. “It’s going to be hard to leave the building when that day arrives.”