how is a woman president different from a man president? How did it
matter that I was UPEI’s first woman president? I wasn’t sure. I did know I
had plans for large changes, including organizational restructuring across
the campus, but I suspected the small things, after all, would make the
greatest impact on the way we did business. How many of these small
things would be a result of my being a woman?
One rude reminder of gender difference surfaced in my first week.
While my secretary and I waited for the refurbishing of our offices, we
toured every corner of the campus, making detailed lists of what needed
attention. When I approached the security office, with its trained staff of
campus and regular blue-uniformed police, I was told I could stand at the
doorway, but I could not come into the locker area. I stared, disbelieving,
at the officer who spoke.
“Is someone taking a shower? I’m not going into the men’s washroom,
if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said as I started through the door.
He blocked my way, politely but fully. I looked up at him and he
looked down at me.
“What is it you don’t want me to see?” I asked, inching forwards.
His face reddened and he leaned over to whisper, “It’s some of the
posters. You might not … like them.”
“You have posters in a locker room on a university campus that
your woman president cannot see but you don’t think that is an issue?”
He shifted his feet and swallowed hard. I had not whispered.
“We’ll take ’em down. We just didn’t know you were coming today,”
“And don’t you have one woman officer? What about her? Isn’t this her
locker room, too?”
“She doesn’t mind,” he said, still whispering.
“You’re sure about that?” I asked. “And besides, that’s not the point.
You’re promoting a negative way of thinking – a sexist way of thinking
– about more than half of the student population. Not to mention one of
A young male officer stepped around the screening wall of lockers
now and smiled at the other officer and at me.
“All clear now,” he said, nodding to his buddy and taking off his hat to
me. “Madam President,” he said, walking past me, not quite smirking but
not just smiling either.
The thumbtacks that held the corners of the posters were still there,
with bits of paper left behind when they had been yanked down.
“What’s in the basement if your locker room is here?” I asked after
glancing around the rows of lockers and the one large mirror at the end
of the wall.
So relieved was the young man that he answered cheerily, “Oh, just
some storage and Owen’s room.” The second the words were out of his
mouth, he looked stricken.
“So, that’s pretty well it for this building,” he cleared his throat and
tried to steer us down the hallway to the front door. Instead of following
him, I put my hand on the stair railing and began to walk down.
“Please!” He called down to me. “You can’t go down there!”
“Another place on campus the president is not allowed to enter?”
I called back up to him. He and my secretary hurried down – she, to keep
up with me with the clipboard for notes and he … to do what? Block the
doorway again? What exactly was “Owen Flint’s room?” Did one of my
key administrators have a private office in another building?
I was almost through the doorway, similarly screened as had been
the one upstairs, when the officer caught up with me and put his hand on
“Please, Dr. Epperly. You don’t want to go in there.”
“It’s private. It’s Owen’s private room. No one goes in there.”
Just then, an officer in T-shirt and shorts walked out of the room, wiping
sweat from his face and arms on a towel. Embarrassed, he ducked his head
and apologized for coming so close to me in his sweat-drenched clothes.
“What kind of room is this? No one is allowed in, you said.”
The young man hung his head again, “No women are allowed in. It’s
a weight room.”
I turned to my secretary, who was craning her neck to see around the
screen of lockers.
“Please make a note: there is a private weight room in this building
when there is already a weight room in the gym. Please remind me to find
out why the woman officer is not allowed to use this room but other male
“I won’t go in there today,” I said, turning back to the young man. And
then I added, to my assistant, “Please make an appointment with Mr. Flint
as soon as possible.” I stilled my features, not wanting him to see how
clearly I could imagine the high fives upstairs when they would say I had
not dared to go into Owen’s special room. Well, let them crow, I thought.
The space was more potent as a symbol of what I was going to change if
I did not force my way into it.
while i was bound [as a woman university president] to meet die-hard
opposition and inherited prejudices downtown as well as on campus,
I had stepped into power when the federal and provincial laws and customs were changing. Prince Edward Island was changing along with the
rest of Canada and other parts of the world.
I have a photograph taken during convocation that is a marvelous
piece of history – unique in Canada, so far, and probably in the world.
In the picture, I am posed in my presidential robes with the honorary degree recipients and these government officials: a woman Lieutenant Governor, a woman premier (the leader of the opposition was also a woman),
“You have posters in a locker room
on a university campus that your
woman president cannot see but you
don’t think that is an issue?”