Gray Matter

In Features /

By Caroline Alphonso

Linda Grayson doesn’t need much sleep. She’s up at 4:30 every morning to take her golden retriever, Badgely, for an hour walk around her quiet Rosedale neighbourhood. The snow covered trees surrounding her path help energize her for the long day ahead, she says. When she returns home, she reads the newspaper. Then at 8 a.m., she makes her way to Ryerson to take her seat as the first and only female vice-president at Ryerson. The usual agenda for her day is one meeting after another for this vice-president of administration. On most days she works at school until around 8 p.m. When she does return home, it is time to walk Badgely for another hour before preparing for the next day.

“I don’t know how she does it,” says long time friend Mary Dickerson. “She puts in an unbelievable number of hours.” Grayson logs an average of 70 hours in a six-day work week. “Sometimes I sneak out for a break,” she says.

This hectic schedule is routine for Grayson. She has been at Ryerson since 1993, but the softspoken woman has been in school for most of her life.

Grayson recalls her participation in school activities when she went to St. Joseph’s College on Wellesley Street. “If they wanted somebody to work on the science project, I wanted to do it. If they wanted somebody to work on the debating team, I wanted to do it. I have a high energy level,” she says. “I sometimes must have driven my parents crazy because I was doing more things than they were comfortable with.”

It was that early involvement which motivated her to stay in the school system for as long as possible. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “When I went to high school, I wanted to be a high school teacher. When I got to university, I thought maybe I’d like to teach at a university.”

Although she didn’t stray from these ambitions, change has always been in the life of the Scarborough native. After receiving her PhD in history from the University of Toronto, Grayson had stints teaching history at Waterloo, York, U of T and later Mt. Allison in Sackville, NB. But she says she needed to return to Toronto. “I know it sounds odd, but Toronto has a lot of things that sustain my soul,” she says. “It’s so diverse and everything is so accessible.”

Grayson took on a different kind of role at the Ontario Legislature. As the director of the research department, she oversaw a non-partisan group that provided arguments on issues for Members of Parliament (MP).

Grayson vividly recalls her farewell from the Ontario Legislature in 1984. She was called into the gallery, not knowing what was in story for her. Just before question period, the House did a presentation thanking her for the contribution she had made. “I was so embarrassed,” Grayson says. Neither she nor her staff could recall a single time a similar thank you had been offered to the department.

But other challenges lay ahead. She would soon find that answering the questions of MPs was not as tough as responding to angry parents when she worked at the Toronto Board of Education.

“The real reason I applied [to the Toronto Board of Education], and this is absolutely and bluntly the truth, is that I was getting a bit jaded in my interviews,” she says.

Even though she applied just for the sake of landing the interview, she got a job as a superintendent, and she later moved up to the position of associate director of education. As associate director Grayson was responsible for maintaining schools, planning and development of new schools and safety issues.

Just three days after Grayson was appointed as assistant director, asbestos in schools became a huge problem and North Toronto Collegiate was the centre of the controversy. A sense of panic spread as worried parents pressured trustees to act.

She invited the media on a tour of the school and showed them the wrapped pipes, explaining that repairs were being taken care of. But parents were still angry and there was only one way that Grayson knew to calm them down.

It was in September, 1990 that Grayson met with parents. “I simple told them that I knew how they felt. I had a son who went there,” she says. Her son, Kyle, had just started Grade 9 at North Toronto Collegiate.

“When dealing with issues, I try to see how I want my son to be treated when he goes to pay his tuition or when he goes to the bookstore. If you can dot hat, it helps a lot. It certainly helped that night at North Toronto Collegiate.”

Parents who expected to meet another faceless bureaucrat, instead found a sympathetic parent.

This empathetic nature has allowed Grayson popularity to soar among those she works with, especially at Ryerson. But Grayson was once reluctant to come to the university and leave her old job.

“I was sitting with a newspaper at home one day and my husband saw an ad for a job at Ryerson and asked me to apply. But I was happy at the board and didn’t want to change jobs,” she says. “But, a week later, there was an article about Ryerson getting university status. I loved what I was doing at the board and there was nothing pushing me to go, but Ryerson was in transition and I was to be a part of it.”

Since coming aboard, Grayson’s job description has included being involved with student government and services. In fact, she is the only one in three v.p.s with the world “student” in it.

Victoria Bowman, RyeSAC president form 1996-97, recalls complaining to Grayson the first time they met. “It’s a weird thing,” Bowman says. “I didn’t trust anyone in authority, but the more you get to know her the more you trust her.”

“Every time I had a problem, I used to call her and say, ‘Linda, I really need a damn cigarette’ and we used to go out and talk.”

Grayson’s ability to understand student needs come from an experience she had during her university years.

The 1960s were filled with political activity and Grayson was in the thick of it.

Grayson recalls many Vietnan War protests and she remembers marching down University Ave. to stand outside the U.S. American embassy with placards.

“It was sad more than anything to see people your own age dying in Vietnam,” she says.

“We had a sense of optimism that we could change the world. When the students had their day of protest last January, I was out there. I see that as part of my role. In 1967, I was protesting the very same thing. I was not protesting fees, but the issue of accessibility to university.”

On one occasion, when Grayson was studying at York, before going to U of T, a federal politician was visiting the school. A number of students, including Grayson, stood outside the building with placards to protest rising tuition and concerns about federal transfer payments. “Sounds familiar?” she asks.

These days, her role has changed: from a student in the protest line to an administrator at Ryerson charge with managing human resources, campus planning, security, and student services.

Grayson and RyeSAC president David Steele co-chair the Student Centre committee, which is negotiating the design, construction, financing and future management of the proposed building. “We sit on two different sides of the spectrum on the Student Centre issues,” says Steele.

Although Grayson has long empathized with student concerns, she says she must find the best deal for administration in first, and compromise with students second.

Part of Grayson’s job is recognizing she must respect the views of all interested parties, despite her tough bargaining position on issues like the student centre.

“Students have a right to question what we are doing,” she says. “This is a fabulous job. I’m not in a widget factory. I’m not doing something that’s inconsequential. I’m working with students who are going to be making the decisions tomorrow and the day after.”

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