Dr. Paula Burns, Lethbridge College’s eighth President and CEO, made it clear from the start who she was and how she would lead.
“I’m excited to bring out the best in everyone here,” she said in her first interview with a communications student her first week on campus in February 2013. “I look forward to seeing everyone shine.”
“I want people to be working in their areas of strength,” she said in her first Wider Horizons story. “I look for opportunities for people to contribute in the highest possible way.”
“I am committed to taking the solid foundation built by this vibrant community and expanding it even further,” she said in her installation ceremony in April 2013. “It is my true pleasure to provide leadership to help the college write the next important chapters of its history.”
Burns spent more than nine years writing some of the most interesting, exciting, challenging and rewarding chapters in Lethbridge College’s 65-year history. Those chapters will come to an end in late May, when Burns leaves the college to take on a new challenge as President and CEO of Langara College in Vancouver.
She leaves a positive and powerful legacy at Lethbridge College, where she focused on developing the people and culture within the college, strengthening the college’s ties to the city and southern Alberta communities, and providing increased learning and research opportunities for students.
When announcing her departure in January, Dr. Paula Burns said: “Our college is filled with people who embrace challenges, put our students first and see that our college is at its strongest when we work together and support each other.”
Burns oversaw numerous achievements during her time with Lethbridge College, including:
- The completion of the successful $27.8 million Possibilities are Endless campaign in 2016.
- The opening of the Trades, Technologies and Innovation Facility in 2017, which was the largest construction project in the college’s history.
- Significant growth of the college’s Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
- Development of many Indigenous-related initiatives, including the creation of the President’s Indigenous Advisory Council; the college receiving a Blackfoot name, Ohkotoki’aahkkoiyiiniimaan – Stone Pipe, the permanent raising of the Blackfoot Confederacy flag and the opening of the Iissksiniip Coulee Walk.
- A focus on diversity and inclusion, including opening a Pride lounge in 2018 and multi-faith room in 2019, and research into the college’s equity, diversity and inclusion needs.
In looking back on her time leading the college, Burns recalls being hired by “a bold board who wanted to see Lethbridge College on the map,” not just in terms of enrolment numbers, but with innovative programming, pioneering applied research, thriving community partnerships and strong relationships with people – students, employees, alumni and friends of the college.
Even with the challenges posed by the pandemic, Burns says the college community has achieved the goals laid out in her team’s early strategic plans – ones that called for leading and transforming education in Alberta, and for inspiring and facilitating learning and innovation to meet economic and social needs.
“We’re now a college of choice,” she says. “We offer everything from certificates to diplomas to apprenticeship to degrees. We have extensive opportunities for applied research, and we’ve built more pathways to access education. We’ve engaged with the larger community and region. We’re collaborative and we build on success. We’re small enough to care and big enough to get things done. And we continue to focus on the students, who are at the heart of all we do.”
She says she has so many vivid and happy memories she’ll take with her as she moves to her new role. A few that stand out include the absolute fun of Coulee Fest, which “was always a dream of mine to have a great big community party, and it exceeded every expectation”; the pride of seeing the support for and success of Kodiaks teams grow over the years (including a national championship); and the celebratory energy during the opening of the Trades, Technologies and Innovation Facility – even the race car doing doughnuts in the brand-new parking lot.
She’ll savour the meaningful moments, too, including presenting her daughter, Karleen, with her Child and Youth Care diploma in 2018 (and she says she looks forward to doing the same with her son, Kelson, at this May’s convocation); and receiving the gift of a Blackfoot name, Piita’gaaksiimaaki – Eagle Whistle Woman, in 2018 by the college’s Kainai Kaahsinnoonik (Grandparent) Peter Weasel Moccasin.
Even the challenging moments provided her with opportunities to learn and grow. She looks back on and is impressed at how the college was able to pivot quickly and nimbly during the pandemic, explaining that “it wasn’t all that difficult because we had a strong leadership team, and the whole campus came together in collaboration.” And after non-confidence votes by the faculty association in 2015 and 2016, Burns says she took time to reflect, listen and recommit to the goals and direction of the college.
“It was a time of learning and connecting with people and building trust, about taking time to understand different perspectives,” she says. “Even though not everyone wanted to move as quickly as we did, we were able to build mutual respect and work toward our shared goals.”
While she knows that the new president, who is expected to be named this summer, will come with their own vision and goals, she says she would encourage that person to get to know the people and their passions. It’s advice that has served her well, and it has guided her from the very start of her time at Lethbridge College.
It was right there at the start, in her installation speech, when she said: “I see my role as one where I guide us to build on the strengths of the past, set a vision for the future and, most importantly, nurture a culture of trust that encourages every person here to work from their passion and strengths and be leaders. I lead out of my passion for leadership, learning and relationships. And as someone who loves change and knows my calling as a transformational leader, I could not be more excited.”
The Wider Horizons team would like to thank Dr. Paula Burns for her support of the magazine and her willingness to help on any story the team was working on over the years (including 27 different President in Action photoshoots). The team wishes her well as she heads out to write the next chapter in her inspiring story.
A leader among presidents:
What friends of Dr. Paula Burns – and of Lethbridge College – had to say on the president’s departure
In her nine years of leadership at Lethbridge College, Dr. Paula Burns connected with thousands of students, employees, alumni, industry partners, donors, community members and friends of the college. She made memories and built friendships on campus and beyond, nurturing relationships as she cheered on student-athletes at Kodiaks games, ran in community races, rode her bicycle down some of southern Alberta’s most scenic roads, collaborated with community college presidents across the province, and served in leadership roles for organization ranging from Economic Development Lethbridge to Colleges and Institutes Canada.
In all of these places, the people who Dr. Burns worked with were united in two thoughts: that she made a difference at Lethbridge College, and that she will be missed. Here are a few other reflections from those who got to know Dr. Burns best during her time at Lethbridge College:
Dr. Paula Burns is a remarkable leader both at the local and national levels. She has been a dedicated champion for colleges and institutes for many years. and we are very lucky to have her as the current chair of our board of directors. Her vision and her passion for post-secondary education and innovation make her a strong agent of change and progress, and she has definitely earned the respect of her peers across the country. She is an inspiration for all of us at CICan! She always seeks to foster greater collaboration and helps us take great strides to truly embody the values of equity, diversity and inclusion. We know she has also left her mark at Lethbridge College where she has served for the past nine years and will undoubtedly bring that same positive energy to her new post at Langara College.
President, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan)
I would describe Paula as a change-leader. By this, I mean that she sees how tomorrow could be better than today, and she inspires others to also see what could be possible. And when they do, she supports, she guides and she mentors – but then she steps aside, so that others can be recognized for outcomes that are achieved. I met Paula during the early days of her tenure at Lethbridge College, when I was serving as the vice-provost at the University of Lethbridge. We worked together on a number of committees and initiatives, including the Cor Van Raay Agribusiness program. Over these years, I have watched Paula realize her commitment that Lethbridge College shall remain a point of pride for the people of Lethbridge. She saw what was possible, and through her leadership, Lethbridge College is achieving its true potential in research and innovation to drive economic prosperity for southern Alberta. Paula is a dear friend and a cherished mentor, and I will always envy her grit and admire her courage. She is fiercely proud of Lethbridge College, and she leaves the legacy of building the reputation of Lethbridge College to become an institution that resonates on the national stage.
Dr. Lesley Brown
President and Vice-Chancellor, Yukon University
Dr. Paula Burns’ executive leadership roles at the provincial and national levels have immensely benefited the college and our city, and she has left an incredible legacy for Lethbridge. The City of Lethbridge has always enjoyed a productive partnership with Lethbridge College, whether it be through housing projects or creating real-world student experiences, and we are proud to have many LC alumni across several departments in the corporation. On behalf of the City of Lethbridge, I thank Paula for her leadership at Lethbridge College and her commitment to our community, and I wish her nothing but success at Langara College.
Mayor, City of Lethbridge
I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from and work with Dr. Paula Burns, not only in her role as the past chair of our board at Economic Development Lethbridge, but also as a keen collaborator on a number of important community initiatives. She challenged us with tough questions, but she also always willingly shared her powerful insights to drive for results. She built and led a strong executive team at the college to reposition the institution in such a way as to prepare for a digital future focused on innovation and industry engagement, while also retaining a relentless focus on students. The Lethbridge region is stronger because of her contributions, and she consistently demonstrated the very essence of the “Brighter Together” community brand.
CEO, Economic Development Lethbridge
The first time I met Paula, she was very warm towards me. I just sat back and watched her, and I thought she was a very smart lady. And each time I met her, I got more and more relaxed by her. The sensitivity she has towards the Indigenous students here is something that really hit my heart. And when I heard that she was leaving, I was sad. I thought we have to hope and pray for our next president – she has big shoes to fill.
Betty-Ann Little Wolf
Blackfoot Grandparent, Lethbridge College
One of the first memories I have of Dr. Paula Burns was our conversations about running. Paula successfully ran her first marathon shortly after joining us at Lethbridge College. Soon after this huge accomplishment, she came up to our old common space in the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Innovation to show me her finisher’s medal and swap some war stories. And this is Paula. She connects with people through mutual passions and experiences. She listens, she learns, and she is genuinely interested. Paula has been leading and transforming since her first day on campus. She has been bold, brave and creative. Paula creates space for people to engage, converse, learn and grow. Our campus community has forever been changed for the better. We have become more inclusive and understanding as college community. She encourages us to be innovative, think broadly and find creative solutions. Thank you – for your years of service, leadership and friendship. We will miss you.
Dean, Centre for Justice and Human Services
From the beginning, Dr. Paula Burns’ vision was to ensure Lethbridge College offered a diverse and accessible post-secondary education to its students. Now, nine years later, Lethbridge College is leading in many areas in post-secondary education in Alberta, not just following the trends, which can be tied directly to Paula’s leadership. Other institutions are trying to get to where we are now, while we’re still moving forward. Her ability to look at situations through the eyes of each stakeholder and to keep a calm demeanour through the uncertainty of the past two years is impressive. She’s done an incredible job of leading this institution.
Chair, Lethbridge College Board of Governors
My husband Valerio and I first met Dr. Paula Burns through our dealings with the college when she first came to Lethbridge College as president. We felt she understood the needs of the students and had great vision for the college to move forward in this everchanging environment. Over the years and numerous discussions with Paula, I felt she always had the best interest of the students in mind and therefore continued with my support. We will miss Paula at the college, and I know she will be a great asset to Langara College in Vancouver. Paula, I wish you all the best.
Friend of Lethbridge College
I have always enjoyed working with Paula. Her vision to advance the global reach of Lethbridge College was inspiring, engaging and, best of all, attainable. Paula came here to take the college to the next level, and she achieved that goal in remarkable ways.
It was a pleasure to work with Dr. Paula Burns over the last seven years, from the time I was elected in 2015 until now. She strengthened the college’s ties to the community, developed research partnerships, expanded the college’s research focus, and navigated the challenging waters of the many COVID-related changes. Paula especially made a real effort to engage with the Indigenous community of southern Alberta and ensure they saw themselves in the college as students, instructors and staff. As part of her commitment to the Blackfoot people, she helped ensure the Blackfoot Confederacy Flag was permanently raised a few years ago. I appreciate her work in Lethbridge and wish her well on her next adventures.
MLA Lethbridge West
I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Paula Burns in a variety of capacities since 2008, and during this time, she has become a welcome friend and mentor. We share an early educational background in respiratory therapy as well as a passion for careers in post-secondary education. Over the years, I have admired Paula’s exceptional leadership skills and collaborative nature that have supported her presidency and strengthened our system. Paula has been a strong voice for comprehensive community colleges and deeply engaged at provincial and national levels. Her commitment and dedication to education has made her a leader among presidents. With her departure to Langara College, Alberta’s post-secondaries are losing a great advocate, but we are a better system because of the contributions she’s made. I wish her all the best in her future endeavours.
President, Medicine Hat College
Most of my work with Paula involved sitting at the Board of Governors and discussing things like academic and non-academic policies, college regulations, tuition, fees, and other college matters. Despite the limited in-person interaction the board had to conduct, Paula always acknowledged my participation with respect and addressed all my questions with kindness. I am glad I got the opportunity to learn from her endeavours as she is an inspiring leader. I wish her the very best in her new journey and that she continues advocating for high quality education for post-secondary students at Langara College.
LCSA President 2020-21, Ecosystem Management 2022
Lethbridge College has a history of strong leaders, and Dr. Paula Burns is no exception. I got to meet Paula shortly after she started at the college and worked with her on many different committees, both within the college and in the community. I know we share a very proud moment with the success of “The Possibilities are Endless Campaign,” where she led our campaign cabinet in raising over $27 million. This campaign had five major priorities which varied from student housing and awards, to improving learning spaces and, of course, upgrading to a new, state-of-the-art trades and technology facility. I always found Paula had a great vision and knew where she thought the college had to go and what it would take to get it there. This was not only through improved facilities, and increased student base, but the need to increase both the visibility and credibility of the college provincially, nationally and internationally. It wasn’t always easy, but Paula, you rolled with the punches and handled it gracefully. Thank you for all you have done for the college and Lethbridge as a whole. Good luck to you and all the best in the future.
Chief Operating Officer, Ward Brothers