Preparing for presidency

WINNIPEG, MB—Her fingers find the piano keys instinctively; the music flows from within to fill empty space with beauty. The springtime scene beckoning through the windows of the tiny practice room at Canadian Mennonite University seems even brighter.

Music "is the place where my imagination comes to life," says Cheryl Pauls. "It's what humbles me. It's what inspires me. It's what awakens me. It will inform [what I do] in really significant ways."

It's a passion nurtured from childhood where Pauls cut her musical teeth as a church pianist in her hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario. It will continue to play a defining role as she takes up the mantle of a new and challenging position at one of Canada's premiere Christian universities in Winnipeg.

In February, Pauls, currently associate professor of piano and music theory, was appointed president elect of CMU. In November it becomes official as she takes on the role held by Gerald Gerbrandt since 2003.

"What I've always loved about education within a university context is how rigourous thinking, the arts, disciplines, practices of faith and good societal change can come together," Pauls says.

"I've absolutely loved what I've been doing in terms of teaching and performing and writing, but I've always thought like an administrator."

Pauls has deep roots at CMU. Twelve years ago three schools combined to form the university—Concord College (formerly Mennonite Brethren Bible College), Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Menno Simons College. Pauls holds a bachelor of religious studies from MBBC, and after further studies at the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba and the University of British Columbia (including completing doctorate work in piano performance), she began teaching at Concord College in 1994. That led to a position at CMBC that later morphed into CMU.

Since 2008 Pauls has been chair of CMU's Shaftesbury Campus and a member of the President's Council. Prior to that she served as coordinator of the music department. Her research projects look at the interface of studies in music theory and performance with those in memory, physiology, liturgy and cultural expression.

She's also a well established solo and collaborative pianist, known particularly for multi-media worship events and her involvement with contemporary or "new" music. In April she curated a concert for GroundSwell, a Winnipeg-based new music series, celebrating the 100th birthday of new music pioneer John Cage.

Typical "Mennonite music" it's not, but its uniqueness reflects Pauls' views on university life and leadership.

"I consider faithfully living before God, especially but not only within a university, to involve taking what is otherwise written off as 'strange' and determining what needs to be made beautiful or re-imagined in new, life-giving ways," she says.

"My interest in new music [that of Cage and other composers] isn't a mere fascination with complexity in itself, but a means of paying attention to matters for which good ways forward are not self-evident."

This connects what Pauls considers to be the mission of university education, the task of building understandings of what the world is and how we might relate well within it.

"A Christian university education goes about this task through an invitation to be open to ways that God is at work in the world," she says, "continually transforming what we think we already understand."

Coming from an arts background is something of a rarity among university presidents. Being a woman in the role isn't common either, especially among faith-based schools.

"It's really quite an honour to be in this role that really acts as a symbol for women not being restricted [in leadership]," she says, although she has personally never encountered that sort of stereotyping.

"I think it may be that I'm a musician and coming from the arts that might make more of a difference than the fact that I'm a woman," she says.

She's a wife and mom, too. Her husband, Bryan Harder, has been very supportive, she says, although her two boys, ages 11 and 8, took a little while to process the idea of "Mom" being "president."

"My 11-year-old wondered if someone else would make more sense for the job," she laughs. First he commented, "I've always looked up to that president guy; I don't know how to think about it if it's my mom!" followed by, "But you're such a good musician, so why would you do that?"

"They're embarrassed if I do something just slightly strange," says Pauls, "so they will be in some ways, my toughest critics, my best measures of what's working and not working, certainly in public presentations."

Pauls' students and colleagues are excited about what she brings to the table at CMU.

"In the kind of person she is, and the way she approaches challenges, I think we can expect the unexpected," says Dietrich Bartel, dean of music at CMU. "She is never satisfied with things as they are, with the status quo. She has the ability to think outside the traditional parameters, to look for ways to reflect on things from new perspectives."

"Cheryl will bring a vibrant energy to CMU," says bachelor of music student Rebecca Klassen-Wiebe. "I am excited to see how she will incorporate music into what she does.

"In her classes she is able to talk about music theory by comparing it to areas one would think are completely separate. I think as president, she will use that gift…to illuminate the connections between different disciplines and areas of study."

Pauls says she hopes others will see her as a person who "loves people and loves possibilities." She's humbled by the confidence shown in her ability to handle her upcoming role.

"I'm just riding the wave of energy around me," she says. "This whole process has made me a more calm person, and [I've felt] God in all of these people, who are carrying me along with their generous enthusiasm."

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About the author

Kelly Rempel is the Senior Editor for ChristianWeek.