When Candace Thomas was invited to join Dalhousie University’s Board of Governors in 2011, it wasn’t an opportunity she expected would come her way — but one that felt right to her from the start.
“I’m such a huge proponent of higher education, of literacy and lifelong learning,” says Thomas, a partner in the law firm Stewart McKelvey. “It’s important for our society, our economy and education offers a pathway to self-sufficiency, self-empowerment and equality. When I volunteer and give back, I choose to contribute to things that are aligned with my core values.”
Now, after serving eight years on the Board, and as vice-chair for the past year, Thomas has been appointed the Board’s new chair effective July 1, 2019. She will serve a three-year term, succeeding Lawrence Stordy as outgoing chair, who has served in the role since 2014.
“Candace is an inspiring community leader, a passionate advocate for Dalhousie and its students, and a devoted member of our Board of Governors,” says Stordy. “Dalhousie has benefitted greatly from her leadership to date, and will continue to do so with her as chair. As Candace is the first woman to hold the post, it’s a historic milestone in the school’s 200-year history."
“I’m very honoured that my fellow Board members chose me to be their next chair,” says Thomas, who graduated from Dalhousie Law in 1995. “It’s very humbling.”
A commitment to service
Thomas, who is originally from East Preston and grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is a member of Stewart McKelvey’s Business Law Group. She focuses her practice on corporate-commercial law, advising clients on matters ranging from mergers and acquisitions and banking to corporate governance. She was selected by her peers to be included in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions of The Best Lawyers in Canada for her work in corporate law. She’s co-chair of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and earned her Queen’s Council designation in 2017.
She’s also always been deeply involved in the community. In addition to committee roles with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, she’s a member of the Board of Directors of the East Preston Empowerment Academy Society, and a member of the International Women’s Forum. She’s a past director and vice-chair of the Black Business Initiative Society and co-chaired last year’s local engagement committee for the East Coast Music Awards. She also co-chaired the successful inaugural capital campaign for the Halifax Central Library. In recognition of her volunteer commitment, Candace received the 2017 Community Service Award from the Canadian Bar Association – Nova Scotia Branch.
Throughout, she’s helped out with initiatives at Dal’s Schulich School of Law, and her time on the Board has only deepened her Dal connections. She’s chair of the Board’s Governance and Human Resources Committee, for example, and a member of the advisory group for Dal’s strategic initiative on diversity and inclusiveness. And her story, when it comes to her connections to campus, is hardly unique on Dal’s Board.
“There are so many ways, in our everyday lives, that we’re here on campus,” she says of her Board colleagues, noting the way Board members take part in everything from supporting advancement activities and mentoring students to cheering on our teams at varsity games. “We’re part of the broader Dal community — and not always in an official capacity as members of the Board. We’re here because this is part of who we are, and we are enthusiastic ambassadors for Dal wherever we go.”
Providing guidance to the university
Dal’s Board, which currently has 24 members, is a volunteer board that plays a stewardship role for the university. The Board is responsible for the overall conduct, management and administration of the property, revenue, business and affairs of the university — but the day-to-day work of managing the university rests with the president, the senior administration team and others. (Senate, in Dal’s bicameral governance, oversees academic policies and procedures, subject to Board approval.)
The Board’s role in Dal’s affairs is, therefore, about both oversight and strategic guidance. And as chair, Thomas will preside over the Board’s meetings, work closely with the university president, and help shape the overall direction for the Board’s work that spans six standing committees, intersecting with much of the university’s operations.
“Communication is key,” she says. “The chair must be in tune with the pulse of what’s happening on campus. You have to make sure all board members are heard and engaged in the work of the Board. That’s critical.”
She’ll certainly borrow lessons in that regard from her predecessors that she’s worked with as a Board member: both Stordy, the most recent chair, and Jim Spatz before that.
“I have had the benefit of the example of strong board leadership. Being able to see how they managed the different competing priorities and demands, while maintaining a high-functioning, engaged board — that will help me a great deal as I step into this role and strive to continue the great work presently underway.”
Meeting both opportunities and challenges
As for what that work entails, with two months before she takes on the role officially, Candace’s early days as incoming chair affords her time to prepare for the task that lies ahead. She says a top priority is ensuring the momentum Dalhousie has seen in recent years continues under new Board leadership and new university leadership, with the search for Dal’s next president well underway. Another key priority she cites: fiscal constraints and long-term sustainability, issues faced by all universities in Canada, and ones she says will likely remain at the forefront of the Board’s agenda in the coming months and years.
“The way I see it, the challenges we face mask opportunities: when you’re part of a community of bold and creative thinkers, and you’re not afraid to deal with challenges directly, you work through them together to find solutions and seize upon opportunities that may otherwise be missed. And that’s the kind of mindset we have around the Board table.”
She’s also keen to support and encourage the university’s continued work in equity, diversity and inclusion — progress she’s seen not just at the university in general, but on the Board itself. The Board’s current membership includes roughly as many women as men, and through its Governance and Human Resources committee (previously the Governance and Nominating Committee before recent committee restructuring) the Board has worked to increase diversity in other respects (race, sexual orientation, etc.).
“It’s quite unique on boards — including university boards — to have the level of diversity that we have, and it’s been very intentional,” she says. “We’ve done so while maintaining the necessary quality of skills and expertise. We’re demonstrating to people that it can be done, and it’s not hard to do — but you have to be purposeful.”
She says her time on Dal’s Board has also given her a new perspective on the impact the university has in people’s lives, from the students who walk through its halls and various campuses to the first-class research that makes a mark on our region, our country and the world. It makes her reflect on her own story — the way her Dalhousie experience helped shape who she became, and the role she now gets to play in supporting the Dalhousie experience for so many others.
“We recently celebrated Dalhousie’s storied 200-year history, and there was much to celebrate,” she says. “As we embark upon our third century together it is a distinct privilege for me to chair the Board of Governors as we continue to weave Dalhousie’s story, work to create a place of belonging, and graduate our next generation of conscientious achievers and leaders.”
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