A conversation with Provost Mayo Moran about the culture of Trinity College, George Eliot, the Nuremberg Trials, and everything in between

By Mila Yarovaya, Editor-in-Chief

Whenever my mind drifts away from upcoming deadlines and the impending doom of graduation, I like to dwell on the place that unites us all: Trinity College. After four years of navigating various roles and social spheres, I see Trinity as a complex, symbiotic network of students, staff, and various other personnel that operates and interacts in mesmerizing patterns. However — quite dishearteningly — beyond orientation which to many is nought but a distant memory or the occasional panicked email to the registrar’s office, the average student has little meaningful contact with college staff and administration. The shadowy figures responsible for the smooth sailing of HMS Trinity College, keeping our fair caravelle on course, remain just that: a conglomerate, homogenous being loosely referred to as “the administration” which varies slightly in email sign offs that do little to endow the writers with unique identifiable features. This is the first interview in a series aimed to lift the veil on the individuals working behind the scenes, demystifying the administrative ecosystem that can sometimes seem inaccessible for the average Trinity student just trying to overachieve at every step.

What better way to embark on our enlightenment endeavour then the person at the helm of Trinity College: Provost Mayo Moran herself. I must duly admit that ever since my fresh faced freshman years, I have been fascinated with the Provost. As a young woman entering the world of academia and harbouring law school ambitions, a woman of Provost Moran’s accomplishments at the head of the college I was newly attending, was inspirational and life affirming. Seeing the Provost in the halls or, in the times of COVID, receiving regular updates regarding the operations and services of the college, always brought a sense of comfort and stability. Hence, when first conceptualizing this series, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Provost Moran. What follows is an illuminating conversation surrounding the role of women in leadership, the future of the legal profession and, of course, Trinity College culture. 

Despite my many abilities, I unfortunately cannot physically transport you to the interview, nor can we hope to be back in the hallowed halls of Trinity until the end of the month. The world can be a cruel and unforgiving place. In order to combat this most heinous injustice, I encourage you to imagine the stone walls of Trin proper, unmerciful November wind is howling outside as you sit across from Provost Moran in her warmly lit office…

Trinity Times: So first, I have a few get to know questions, because I think that it’s very valuable for the student body to get to know the Provost. So could you tell me what your favorite place at the college is?

Provost Mayo Moran: I think my favorite place is Seeley Hall. I just love it. I love the way the light goes through both sides of the hall. I love the old ceiling and its proportions. 

Unfortunately, I feel like we don’t get enough access to these spaces because of everything.

We’re now using it as a study space, which is great. So people do get it more. They’re not just in classes, but I know people write exams there so they might have bad memories, which are bad. But it’s very beautiful.

So what is your favorite thing about being a provost of Trinity College since you were appointed in 2014?

Students. I did it – joined Trinity College – because I love working with students. The past two years amid the pandemic have obviously been very strange because we don’t have the same day-to-day contact. Before Trinity, I was Dean of Law. The thing about Trinity that’s interesting is that people are doing so many different things. At Law, people are focused on one thing. At Trinity, it’s been wonderful to have conversations with people about English grammar and astrophysics and mathematics and international relations. I really love that quality of it; and the fact that people are so interesting and engaged in everything.

It’s interesting, because sometimes when you think of Trinity College, you think of it as this very closed off ecosystem. So I’m glad that you think that we’re actually so diverse and everything. 

This is more of a fun question. If you could have tea with any historical figure, who would it be and why?

There’s so many I’d love to meet. But I think I settled on the novelist George Eliot.

As in Mary Anne Evans?

That’s right. I just love her writing. She was said to have the greatest mind in English fiction. She was just such an unconventional woman for her time — she would have been really incredible. I love her novels, especially Middlemarch – it’s excellent. You’re a George Eliot fan, too?

I became one after I took British Lit in second year, because I’m an English major. So I really became interested in the fact that she used a pseudonym for her entire career and how she didn’t really shed that. Because Jane Austen also started writing under a pseudonym at first, but then we always refer to her as Jane Austen.

It’s interesting – there’s a move for women writers to reclaim their names, as you probably know. But George Eliot became so famous as George Eliot that I think it kind of limited her ability to reclaim her own name.

Do you think that takes away from what she did? The fact that she will forever be associated with a male name?

I don’t think so. To me, it doesn’t. It shows how extraordinary she was actually in such a strange world that she lived in.

What is the one thing that surprised you/you found inspiring in how the student body and college at large dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic?

I love this. I could say the obvious things like resilience – and all of that’s true. The thing that I found most interesting and most surprising and really quite touching is how kind students were to their professors. Students are so much more tech savvy than professors – it’s a generational thing. I was teaching two classes a year – one in law, one at Trinity – and it was all very daunting because courses weren’t set up for online learning back in March 2020. I just thought it was really sweet that students were just so kind to their professors and so understanding of our challenges when we first transitioned to online work.

Yes, I think COVID really put some things into perspective. So the last question in this set is, what image would you like to project of yourself to the students?

I never really think of myself in that way. Before COVID, I was very connected to the students. I’d have students in the Provost’s Lodge for different events and that sort of thing. I think that sometimes Trinity can have more hierarchy than is really necessary, and I don’t find that is very appealing. One of the things that I, and members of the senior administration and others, wanted was to really break down some of those hierarchies and have more natural human relationships.

For sure. I think that’s very important. And part of the reason why we founded this paper was because we wanted to sort of break down these structured versions of what Trinity looked like to some people. I think that’s really important. I mean, I, for one, still don’t know what the difference is between the Senior Common Room and the Junior Common Room except for the name.

So you were the first female Dean of the Faculty of Law at U of T, which is entirely exciting, being appointed in August 2006. Quite a large number of students at our college are thinking of dedicating their life to the legal profession. Furthermore, many female students such as myself, see you as a role model. What advice would you give to young women as they begin to navigate themselves in the legal world and the professional world at large, even if they’re not going into this career, perhaps academia, justice work, you know, stepping out of this college into the “real world”?

There’s so many wonderful opportunities for young women like you. I find it really inspiring to see the acceleration of women and success. I also think that there are still a lot of obstacles for women, and it still can be tricky to navigate authority and be an authority figure. So I think I would say, be brave, find friends. One of the things that really helped me: I was appointed the first female Dean at the same time that a couple of other female Deans were first appointed. We became really good friends, we went out for dinner and did a whole bunch of things together. It really helps to have other people to bounce ideas off of. I do a lot of mentoring now because there are a lot of women and other people who haven’t been part of the corridors of power. Finding mentors is also really important, formal or informal. Find people you can connect with and whose judgment you trust. Each of us has to find our own authentic way of being in the world. I do think it’s harder for women in authority positions because we don’t have as many people to point to, to say, “I want to be like that person.” I hope that those of us that are like Breaking Trail are making it easy for other people who follow.

If you’re comfortable sharing what was the biggest hurdle that you’ve faced in your career?

The biggest hurdle I faced – and I really didn’t face it until I became Dean – was doubt. I was pretty junior when I became Dean. I had been Associate Dean and was very successful in that role. But all of a sudden, when I was actually in the leadership position, there were lots of doubts. And yet, at the end of the day, I did run a very successful fundraising campaign. But the beginning of it was really hard. People have to have faith in you. I think that when women and other people, who have not traditionally been authority figures, move into those positions, they face a lot of questions and a lot of doubt. Whereas we have to prove it. And I certainly had to prove it.

Definitely. And I think I’ve heard a lot of the difference in mindset of males thinking that when they take up any position, they’re like, “Oh, I’ll learn as I go”, whereas women are more likely to be like, “Oh, I maybe I shouldn’t, because I don’t have the qualification right yet.” So that sort of prevents, you know, growth from actually happening.

Absolutely. I mean, you feel that yourself – women are more likely to articulate their doubts and anxieties, which is not always a good thing. And that’s hard, because I think you want to be authentic, but at the same time, it’s read differently. If you’re a woman or a Black man, or someone who isn’t usually considered for leadership positions, people are more likely to believe your own doubts. 

Despite great strides being made to promote equality, the study of law continues to be an “old boys club”, which is something that you also touched on since a lot of your work focuses on feminist theory. I was wondering what you think of this, what do you think the future of the profession is like, and what can be done to bring about more effective representation?

I think that there have been a lot of strides. When I was Dean, I led a task force and project on gender and diversity in the legal profession. What we found was – and this is unfortunately still pretty true today – that women and others do fairly well at the entry level. Women go into law school in large numbers, but it’s in accelerating through to the leadership positions in the profession – that where the challenges really occur, particularly around having children. The whole model of private practice of law has a particular person in mind, and that was not a woman who was having children. 

Do you mind if I ask – do you have children?

I do. I have a son and he’s 24. When I became Dean, I was actually a single mother with a seven year old child. A lot of people that were like, “oh, we don’t know if she’ll be able to do it.” My son was great. He’s super proud of me. I had major child care obligations like most women do. I’d be in Beijing, and I’m phoning to make sure his soccer shoes are where they should be.

Do you think that reality [for women] is ever going to change?

I think it’s a lot better than it was when my mum and dad were around. But the patterns are still pretty strong. Women still, in lawyer couples or professional couples, tend to take the backseat and their careers suffer especially once they have children. The issues around children are a place where the legal profession in particular could really shift in a very positive direction for everyone.

Pivoting a little – one of the courses that you are teaching right now at the College is Ten Cases that Changed the World that Maclean’s has named as one of the “cool courses” at U of T. Since we don’t have a full semester, I was wondering if you could tell us what you think is the one most important case in the history of jurisprudence?

I would probably still say the Nuremberg trial- because of its complete shift of the idea of responsibility. We now take for granted the idea that if you do violence and war, you could be responsible – individually criminally responsible. That was a huge shift that came out of Nuremberg – the whole field of transitional justice and the rise of the Truth and Reconciliation commissions and reparations for historic wrongs. All of that really came out of Nuremberg, the idea that there were consequences for waging deadly violence on others. There’s so many ways in which Nuremberg is so flawed, absolutely – amid the victor’s justice idea in particular, but at the same time, it changed the paradigm about responsibility and into individual responsibility for mass atrocity.

In 2016, you released Strategic Plan: People, Program, and Place that “builds upon the College’s reputation for academic excellence and interdisciplinary innovation and focuses on enhancing the whole student experience in order to make the College an even better place to live, work and learn”. So do you think that the goals set out there have been reached?

The goals in the strategic plan by and large were very ambitious. I would hope they would never be fully reached as improving the student experience, or supporting students better, are always going to be goals that a place like Trinity is going to seek to do more of. And I would encourage the college to do so. Some of the more immediate goals, yes, they have been reached. Thinking about spaces, when I became Provost, the front hall of the College was pretty well closed off to students. Where the Student Services Centre is now, there were old offices – the bursar’s office and an old computer office –and there was really nowhere for students to go for student services. So we brought all the student services together, and we hung beautiful art in it instead of having the pieces locked away in a room. We have made lots of progress on other student focused goals like the mental health initiative, creating more student spaces with the new building and adding more faculty to Trinity’s programs, but there is still a lot to do and I am excited about it. 

Over the past year, the college has been dealing with issues of equality, such as the exposure of Episkopon, and the recent allegations against the former provost Orchard. Why do you think this is? Does the college history of elitism facilitate this sort of behavior?

I think that every place that is very old, and very traditional, has things in its history that it needs to confront and reject. And Trinity is no different in that respect. If you look at something like Episkopon, I think it is unfortunately a distinguishing feature of Trinity. I think some of those things have thrived a little bit more than they may have at other places. In general, at every place, every area of study, you always have to look at your tradition and sift out what is good about it, and what is not. Things that may have seemed fine 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, need to be looked at and figured out: Are they valuable? Are they harmful? The College has had a long series of challenges with Episkopon in particular. I knew nothing about Episkopon. It took me a very long time to really understand and I’m not sure I still do actually. Last year, when some very brave students started pointing fingers a bit more and identifying things , that was, I think for lots of us, quite shocking. It prompted the creation of the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism and Inclusion, which has done great work but still has much to do. 

So given this, do you think that the image of Trinity College needs an update? And if so, what would it be?

Again, I would say every place always needs to look at its image. You always need to look and figure out what is valuable, what is fair for this, and you need to look at yourself and your history and your tradition, and sift the good from the bad. Every place is going to have elements that are really fantastic as Trinity does, and elements that are not – elements that we might look back at and go, “that is not something we’re proud of anymore, and we want to be our better selves.” Part of my goal would be as it was at Law to say, I want Trinity to be its best self. What’s its best self? It’s all the fantastic students and people who are so talented. Every person who comes here, I believe, should feel a sense of total belonging and not of exclusion. That’s really, really important to me. 

Actually, my next question is related to this – if the College isn’t traditionalist and elitist – which is what, let’s be honest, the general image is – What would it be? 

I would always distinguish between excellence and elitism. I think elitism is about hierarchy, and excellence is about value. It’s about attainment. I would want Trinity to be known for its excellence and for the quality of the contributions we make to society. Think about our chancellor, Bill Graham, he’s so amazing — Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense — and he’s accomplished so many incredible things. That’s an example of our best self. Those are the things that I would want to celebrate. I think elitism is about hierarchy and about the ability to exclude others or feel superior to others. In my experience, I don’t think there is a necessary relationship between excellence and elitism.

One could even say that excellence is almost an antithesis to elitism, it provides a way into a meritocracy. 

Absolutely. Probably all of us can think of examples of people who are quite elitist in their orientation, but are by no means the most excellent of those we know.

So I just have the last question – what should you think defines the Trinity College student body?

I would say intensity and engagement. I find I just have the most amazing conversations with students who are so intense about what they’re doing, whatever it is, and on such a wide array of areas. I find the same with the faculty members and the staff members. There’s this really gripping interest in things that I think really defines a lot of the people who choose to come here and their attachment to what they’re doing.

Alright, thank you so much for this wonderful conversation, Provost.

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