Students from Brescia University College rally to save the women’s university which is slated to become fully integrated into Western University next year. Photo by Emma McBean

Students, staff ‘blindsided’ by Brescia merger

  • October 7, 2023

Over 300 undergraduates and faculty assembled at the Save Brescia Rally on Sept. 27 to protest Canada’s only women’s university fully integrating into Western University in May 2024 after years of being an affiliated college.

Brescia University College first-year student Emma McBean, a co-organizer of the protest outside the London, Ont., postsecondary institute, said she and her peers intend to keep voicing displeasure with this decision that came down on Sept. 21.

“As a team, we’re just getting started,” said the 18-year-old French for Teaching scholar. “We definitely have ideas for letter campaigns and there is an (online) petition that has over 8,600 signatures. We have a lot of things in the works.”

An Instagram account has been created for this movement dubbed the Brescia Preservation Alliance.

McBean found out just two weeks into her undergraduate career that the school she enrolled in for four years would be no more in eight months.

“Devastating is a word I can use to describe my reaction,” said McBean. “We didn’t sign up for an education at another affiliate campus. All of us chose Brescia for a reason. We weren’t prepared to switch to another campus in less than a year, and we certainly were not prepared to hear this news just two weeks into our academic journey.”

McBean said some female students “for whatever circumstance feel uncomfortable being around men.” Brescia was chosen because it could serve as a safe place to learn and develop.

Dr. Lauretta Frederking, president of Brescia, stated in a release that this agreement was made to provide many present and future students with the best educational outcomes.

“Today’s agreement is about meeting present needs of students, with an eye to the future,” said Frederking. “Brescia was founded in 1919 by the Ursuline Sisters, with a goal of bridging gaps in women’s education. ...

“We are now at a point where women make up the majority of post-secondary learners in Canada and there is an equally important need to adapt to new realities, including the underrepresentation of equity-deserving groups in our postsecondary institutions. This agreement will better position us to enhance educational outcomes for students with the greatest needs.”

This move has the support of Sr. Theresa Mahoney, community leader of the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham.

“I am proud of the vibrant and welcoming culture that many students have come to know at Brescia, and believe this proposal will allow our students, faculty and staff to build on that legacy in a manner that is responsive to the changing times,” said Mahoney. “As Ursulines, we have always tried to respond to the needs of the times, and I am grateful for the support of (London) Bishop (Ronald) Fabbro, Dr. Frederking, and Dr. (Alan) Shepard (of Western University) in reaching this agreement, which will truly put students first.”

The memory and mission of the school is set to be preserved through a $25-million Brescia Legacy Fund, created by Western to support access to higher education through scholarships, bursaries and programs. The Brescia campus buildings will be used by Western in the 2024-2025 school year. An Ursuline Sisters museum will also be established as a “place of honour and beauty,” said Frederking. This gallery will also offer experiential learning experiences and archives for research.

While agreeing with Frederking’s declaration about “the need to support other under-represented groups,” McBean said “it is not ideal to take from one group to give to another. I think we all need to be empowered together.”

Andrew Chatter, president of the Brescia Faculty Association, said faculty were “blindsided.”  Chatter said the association “will work to protect our members the best we can” amid the uncertainty.

According to the press release, Western will “provide Brescia’s full-time faculty, current contract faculty with sessional appointments, full-time staff and permanent part-time staff with employment offers.”

Chatter heard “that a lot of students did not like Frederking’s statement.”

“They took it to mean that women’s equality has been achieved and now Brescia needs to refocus on equity-deserving groups,” said Chatter. “Over and over again I heard that is not the case. Women are an equity-deserving group. Women are underrepresented in positions of power. Women’s leadership and empowering women was at the core of what Brescia was about — is about.”

Frederking answered this criticism.

“Women are not lost in this transition,” said Frederking. “The legacy fund and the campus will be available, especially for women in under-represented academic programs. That culture of this campus to provide wraparound services for students will continue. Women will not be excluded. We are simply opening up to meet the times with new, under-represented populations as well.”

Frederking said her office doors are open for any student, or faculty, to drop in and express concerns about this transition. She said she will take the time to answer all questions.

Under this planned amalgamation, current Brescia students can complete their chosen program and remain in their program for the duration of their degree.

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