Adapting to a pandemic world of screens instead of seminars wasn’t easy for second-year Law student Haneen Al-Noman. A refugee from Yemen who’d settled in Halifax, she wasn’t sure how the bonds and connections that defined her first-year experience in the Schulich School of Law would translate into Zoom lectures and meetings.
Then she enrolled in a course supporting the Dalhousie Law Journal and met its editor at the time, Kim Brooks.
“Honestly, Kim made the year bearable,” says Al- Noman. “It was a small course during the peak of the pandemic, and what stood out was the way she made space for us to detach from our roles of ‘student’ or ‘instructor’ and talk to one another as people, and about all that we were going through that year. She allowed us to be ourselves.”
Kim Brooks is nothing if not herself. She’s as likely to be spotted in a cowboy shirt and decorative belt buckle as she is in a business suit. She’s successfully led two different Dalhousie faculties through eras of growth and change — she’s also someone who takes the time to write different convocation speeches for every Faculty to give each class their own uniquely meaningful moment. She sees inclusion as elemental to the academic experience and, by shepherding the 2015 Belong report (PDF), helped widen the conversation about diversity and equity at Dalhousie. A problem solver with big-picture energy, she’s as eager to talk existential questions of “what” and “why” as she figuring out how to get something new started.
Dr. Brooks’s latest “something new”: becoming Dalhousie’s 13th president and vice-chancellor. Her appointment, which began in August, is noteworthy in that she’s the first woman and the first open member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community to be permanently hired the role. But if you’re trying to understand the excitement that surrounds her solely through those lenses, you’re likely missing a big part of the story. You get a little closer to the heart of it knowing, for example, that Dr. Brooks has continued to mentor Al-Noman through the last year of her studies and into the early days of her legal career — even while serving as dean of an entirely different Faculty.
“She’s one of my favourite people that I’ve ever come across,” says Al-Noman, who is preparing to clerk with the Supreme Court of Canada next year. “Kim makes you believe in yourself even when you don’t.”
The search for a university president is a comprehensive effort that casts its gaze nationally and globally for potential candidates. So what does it say about Dr. Brooks, and Dalhousie, that the search committee recommended the university’s first internal presidential hire in over 40 years? Dalhousie Board Chair Cheryl Fraser, who led the hiring process as search committee chair, says it speaks volumes.
“Throughout the process, we got to see Kim bring forward this vibrant energy and ambition for Dalhousie,” says Fraser. “She’s someone with the ability to see and present Dal in a new light while holding true to our values. And she does this while making you feel like you’ve known her forever. Her ability to build that relationship with people is really something special.”
That comes up time and time again when you ask people about Dr. Brooks: the sense of connection people have with her, no matter how brief the interaction. The Honourable Michael MacDonald, former chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, was first introduced to Dr. Brooks in 2010 when she arrived in Nova Scotia to serve as dean of the Schulich School of Law. Each year, the chief justice was invited to speak to the incoming Law class, allowing MacDonald to see how Dr. Brooks forged connections with new students and faculty from their first moments on campus.
“It’s a wonderful combination to have someone so kind and caring, giving and modest, but at the same time so unbelievably smart,” says MacDonald, who most recently chaired and served as commissioner of the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission. “She’s the complete package—the EQ and the IQ.”
“She brings a particular vitality and vibrance to every single conversation she’s involved in, but she never thinks she has all the answers,” says Robert Orr, CEO and managing partner of the sustainable aquaculture impact investment fund Cuna Del Marr and member of the Faculty of Management advisory board. “That really creates space for others to participate. She’s always looking for ways to make things work for everyone involved — how to create a better future not out of compromise and concession, but in what we can co- create together.”
Co-creation and collaboration are distinctly top-of-mind for Dr. Brooks as she works through her busy first months in the President’s Office.
“What’s been delightful is the consistent feedback from people that they’re willing to help in whatever way we can think of,” she says. “And that’s everyone—from government to donors to former students, to faculty and staff here at Dal. They don’t just reach out to say ‘congrats’ but it’s, ‘I’m here if you need me. What can I do to help?’ And I think that really speaks to this moment we’re in as a university: people are looking to be part of something meaningful and purpose driven.”
The story of how Dr. Brooks found her own sense of meaning and purpose is hardly a straight-line journey to the President’s Office. (To steal a line from her sister when told about her new appointment: “I always knew you’d be president of something, but I thought it would be more like a book club.”)
For one thing, Dr. Brooks has a diverse resumé of work outside the academy, be it as a practising lawyer in Toronto and London (UK), or in community capacities like chair of the Halifax Public Libraries board or president of the Canadian Centre for Legal Innovation in Sexual Assault Response. And her academic appointments and achievements have been robust, whether that’s becoming a 3M Teaching Fellow— Canada’s highest honour for university teaching—or serving as the Heward Stikeman Chair in the Law of Taxation at McGill University, or the Purdy Crawford Chair in Business Law at Dalhousie.
But university leadership? It had never crossed her mind until she reached a sort-of “ah-ha” moment eight or nine years into her career.
“I had this realization that I could see, with relative predictability, what the rest of my career would look like,” she says. “And don’t get me wrong: it was good! I’d walk away from academia after 40 years with an amazing cluster of students, a solid enough body of scholarship, and a pretty rewarding career, all things considered. But all around me, I saw these people who were more talented than me, in all kinds of different ways, who were experiencing the frictions of university life. They were getting discouraged, or stopped doing things, or were flummoxed because they we were running up against barriers.
“And what I realized is that what I love doing, and can be pretty good at, is getting obstacles out of people’s way. When someone wants to do something and can articulate that to you, and you can enable it, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
If there’s a Dalhousie experience that best exemplifies this aspect of Dr. Brooks’s leadership, it might be the appointment she began in early 2020 as dean of the Faculty of Management.
Mike Smit was the associate dean, academic and part of a group of faculty members that met with Dr. Brooks while she considered taking on the role. He didn’t know her at the time — she had been dean and faculty member in a completely different academic discipline — but her name kept coming up as they considered who at Dal might have the skills needed to take on the challenge they faced.
“We were in an interesting space,” says Dr. Smit, who has since stepped in to serve as acting dean following Dr. Brooks’s appointments to the Provost’s Office and, subsequently, the President’s Office. “We had strengths, a lot of potential, but we kept getting bogged down in conversations about structure and internal governance. We weren’t set up for what we needed to do, and we were looking for someone to help us decide what the right path was, to collectively come to a structure that works for what we needed.”
Getting opinionated academics to align isn’t easy at the best of times; doing so amid substantial disagreements, and through the arrival of a global pandemic that isolated people more than ever before, might have seemed daunting to most. But Dr. Brooks approached it with the same sincerity, good humour, and willingness to listen with which she’s done so much of her work. She met with every faculty member, read an awful lot, and took in as much information as she could to ground herself in the Faculty’s people and what they cared about. The resulting process led to a new way of organizing the Faculty and its programs that was approved by Senate earlier this year — and, perhaps just as importantly, a shift in attitudes from one of concern to “cautious optimism,” as Dr. Smit puts it.
Chris Smith saw this work unfold as a member of the Faculty’s advisory board and credits its success to Dr. Brooks’s team-focused approach.
“It’s very obvious she establishes an incredible rapport with the people she works with,” says Smith, executive vice-president, finance for Nova Scotia Power. “This was a Faculty struggling in what it was going to be and now, when that team engages with the advisory board, you can see the whole dynamic has shifted. It’s a complete 180 — a much more collegial and cohesive unit, with a strategy they’re all engaged in. It demonstrates her ability to coach, to lead, to mentor, and to create a positive environment.”
“If I were to define one superpower for Kim, it’s that she gets the best of the people around her,” says Dr. Smit. “She inspires the people she works with to want to do more interesting things and empowers them to do things they’re excited about. And I think that’s a power that will serve her very well as president.”
What does that people-focused power look like in the president’s chair? Dr. Brooks says she sees the job as if a theatre company were to mash together the roles of artistic director and stage manager. It’s about helping the company decide where it’s going to place its creative energies — but also about ensuring the stage is set so everyone can hit their marks.
“I like being the person who helps people decide they want Grease to be the play they perform, and also to help make sure the pink car is placed where it’s supposed to be,” she says, “but I’m not the one playing Sandra Dee.”
In other words: she’s not the star. That lack of spotlight-seeking isn’t just for show. It’s why she was adamant about sharing her DAL Magazine cover with some of Dal’s outstanding students. It’s why she eschewed doing a traditional address at her installation ceremony this October, offering the stage to Law and Management Professor Sherry Pictou to discuss the Indigenous philosophy “seven generations” of impact. And it’s why she’s “relentless,” as Naiomi Metallic puts it, when she sees potential in someone and wants to encourage them to step up and get involved.
From left to right: Jasmine Kwan, Tanisha Dabas, Anna Kimoto, Sartaj Singh Sidhu, Travis Price, Sally Steinberg, Willy Kindo (Nick Pearce photo).
“She’s the person who encouraged me to apply to join [the faculty at] the law school,” says Prof. Metallic, Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy at Dalhousie. “If she wants to achieve something and thinks it’s the right thing to do, she will not let go of it. And I know I’m not the only person she’s done that for. It’s an inspiring approach; it’s made me want to do the same for others.”
As for what she hopes to inspire during her presidency, with Dal’s strategic plan, Third Century Promise, at its halfway point, the university’s immediate priorities are relatively clear. But she is keen to take advantage of this moment, and this enthusiasm she’s feeling, to spark big conversations about Dalhousie and its future. How can we empower our people to push forward with their dreams and ambitions for Dalhousie and themselves? How can we unite behind a sense of purpose that defines and emboldens our vision for the rest of the century ahead? And how can we embody our sense of place and grow the vital contributions Dalhousie makes to Nova Scotia and beyond?
“I think she’s not only the president Dalhousie needs right now, but what Nova Scotia needs as well,” says Candace Thomas, a Schulich Law alum and former Dal board chair who’s currently the province’s Deputy Minister of Justice. “She’s someone who knows how important it is that Dalhousie be relevant to its community, and how to go out into that community — using the connections she has, and new ones she can make — in the spirit of true collaboration and openness and willingness to listen.”
Right now, what Dr. Brooks is hearing is understandably tinged by the heavy burdens of the past few years.
“We’ve been through this pandemic that has been very urgent, immediate, and isolating,” she says. “We have an obligation to reconnect people and purpose: how can we take the lessons we learned about our ability to change, our adaptability, all of that, and apply it to something we’re all actually excited about and engaged in?”
And that comes back to the university’s mission: educating and inspiring generations of students, cultivating new knowledge, accelerating innovation and the university’s response to society’s challenges, and so much more.
“A president has to hold true to the fundamental purpose and potential of a place like this and find ways to unite people around shared purpose, meaning, and joy,” says Dr. Brooks. “I believe pride is something people feel deep within themselves. They have to feel like they’re part of contributing something meaningful to the world.
“I feel that pride in Dalhousie. I know many others do as well. But I think there are so many more people out there waiting for an invitation to be part of something meaningful, something purposeful. I think we can offer that to them.”
Every good photoshoot benefits from some helping hands. President Kim Brooks may be the focus of this feature, but she wanted to use the opportunity to help shine a spotlight on some of Dal's future alumni.
Civil-geotechnical Engineering, Men's Soccer #24
“I am eager to pursue a career in geotechnical engineering. Geotechnical engineers combine physics, mathematics, and environmental science, all crucial skills in designing safe and sustainable buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. This career path is a perfect fit for my analytical and problem-solving skills, which I have developed in the classroom and on the pitch playing soccer.”
Kinesiology, Women's Hockey #30
“I chose Dalhousie due to its small Kinesiology program, tight-knit community, and overall size of the city. The purpose of coming to Dalhousie was to find my true passions and possibly extend my hockey career. Due to Dal’s diverse course selection and passionate professors, I have found new interests and connections which I wouldn’t have found at a different university!”
Sartaj Singh Sidhu
Kinesiology, Men's Volleyball #11
“I chose Dal in pursuit of both academic and athletic excellence. Dal is a major research university which was appealing to me, and also has a rich history for the Tigers Men’s Volleyball program.”
“Dalhousie’s vibrant and inclusive campus community was a significant factor in my decision to study here. The university celebrates diversity and offers a supportive environment for students from all walks of life.”
Biochemistry, Women's Soccer #18
“I attended Dalhousie to continue to develop as an athlete—under the guidance of Coach Cindy Tye—prepare myself academically for post-graduate studies and experience the beauty of the East Coast!”
Computer Science, Ultimate Frisbee #18, Photographer for Dal Student Life
“After I graduate, my goal is to spend some time off traveling and hiking. I also want to experiment with some different careers in computer science and commercial video production.”
Arts & Social Science, Student Engagement Coordinator at the Faculty of Open Learning & Career Development
“As a mentor and an event organizer during my academic year at Dalhousie University I got inspired to work in a field where I can contribute to bringing a diverse community together to create positive changes and foster meaningful connections, making the society as a whole better for everyone.”
This story appeared in the DAL Magazine Fall/Winter 2023 issue. Flip through the rest of the issue using the links below.
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