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Angela Esterhammer Concludes Term as Victoria College Principal

Jun. 24, 2024
 Principal Angela Esterhammer sits next to a bronze statue of Northrop Frye.

Photos by Peter Power.

The 'Gold Standard for Academic Leadership,' Angela Esterhammer, Concludes Her 12-Year Term as Principal on July 1

By Leslie Shepherd

When Angela Esterhammer reflects on her 12 years as principal of Victoria College, she doesn’t hesitate when asked to name her most fulfilling achievement: the Jackman Scholars-in-Residence program.

“Scholars-in-Residence is probably the single most exciting project that I have been involved in, not only at Victoria College but in my administrative career,” said Esterhammer, whose term as principal ends June 30, 2024.

The program she implemented in 2016 with the Jackman Humanities Institute and others has become so popular that 147 students were accepted this year out of nearly 1,100 applicants to work on a record 30 research projects across all three U of T campuses.

Loosely based on a program at Harvard University, Scholars-in-Residence is an immersive and intensive, four-week paid fellowship where undergraduate students live together on campus and conduct humanities and social science research with professors and researchers.

“We have had such good feedback from students and faculty talking about it being transformative, a life-changing experience,” Esterhammer said.

Scholars-in-Residence is but one success in a remarkable career that began at Victoria College, where Esterhammer Vic 8T3 earned a BA in English and Literary Studies and won the prestigious John H. Moss Scholarship.

Esterhammer says Victoria College was her first choice when applying for university as a student because of Northrop Frye and the ivy. She had a progressive high school teacher at Humberside Collegiate who assigned her to read The Educated Imagination, Frye’s seminal work that proposes people develop imaginations by consuming literature. Frye would become her mentor at Victoria and would later choose her to receive the Toronto Arts Awards Foundation Protégé Award while she was completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at Princeton.

As for the ivy? “In my mind, the façade of the Old Vic Building was covered with ivy. [It’s not now; such plant climbers can damage buildings]. I may also have imagined it, but the memory was significant.”

“Victoria was exactly the right place for me,” she said. “I found my place at Vic—and now it’s even better.”

Angela Esterhammer standing proudly in front of the Old Vic building.

Victoria University President Dr. Rhonda McEwen agrees.

“Every so often you come across someone whose intellect, passions, and life experiences make them the right person, at the right time, for the right position,” she says. “Angela was made to be Victoria College Principal. She served our institution from her heart and I count myself fortunate to have worked alongside her.”

Esterhammer left Victoria, and Toronto, when she graduated, returning as Principal in 2012. In between, she spent 18 years at the University of Western Ontario, where she helped build Comparative Literature as an interdisciplinary field of study and served as associate dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. She moved to Switzerland in 2007 to take up a chair in English literature at the University of Zurich.

When she returned to Vic, “it was a real homecoming in many ways. Things were both different and the same in very good ways.”

Opportunities for students had expanded, including study space and more ways to connect on campus for commuter students, which she had been. “There was the fantastic Vic One program, which I wish had existed when I was a student.”

But the “Vic Ethos,” was still here, “whatever is in the air here, academic excellence and aspiration, combined with supportiveness of one another and openness to the external community.”

In addition to Scholars-in-Residence, Esterhammer is also proud of her work with Vic’s academic programs, some historic and some new, and the faculty she has been able to attract, retain and support, especially as it has meant being able to increase the number who teach full-time at Vic.

“I hope that what I’ve helped to do in more general ways is support and nurture a vital academic community where students, faculty, staff, and retired faculty can work and learn together in an interdisciplinary environment.”

Professor Ira Wells, director of academic programs at Victoria College, is one of the many faculty members whom Esterhammer has mentored.

“I feel enormously privileged to have worked closely with Angela for the last several years,” says Wells, who has known Esterhammer since he was appointed in 2016 to develop the Scholars-in-Residence program.

“I learned so much from her, perhaps above all her approach to decision-making, which is principled, strategic and decisive. She has the visionary big picture, but she is also remarkable for the fine-grained attention to detail in everything I have seen her undertake. She is the gold standard for academic leadership.”

Angela Esterhammer standing in the Old Vic chapel.

Two new academic programs launched in 2014—Science, Technology, & Society and Creative Expression & Society—are gaps that needed filling, she says. The latter, now called Creativity & Society, has become Vic’s largest undergraduate program.

“Creativity and Society is very much in the tradition and practice of Vic, which has produced writers, artists, innovators, startups, also very of the cultural hub of downtown Toronto,” Esterhammer said.

“This program is a great example of how Victoria can bring together the transdisciplinary talents of faculty, alumni and community professionals in a field that is of vital interest and importance to today’s students. How do we collaborate on new ideas and how do we put them into practice for the good of society? [Also, creativity permeates the kind of things we are doing organizationally at Victoria College.]”

Not surprisingly, Esterhammer had not expected her career to include working and teaching through a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

“I’m a person who likes to be prepared and this is not something we ever saw coming,” she said. “Our practice here at Vic, what we thrive on, is a model of learning based on small classes, conversation-based, where people can interact, learn together, in person.”

COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in Ontario in March 2020, just as final decisions were being made on admissions to that summer’s Scholars-in-Residence program. Those early, pre-vaccine restrictions strictly limited the number of people who could gather in the same space.

“We had to figure out how to turn a program that is based on people living and working together very intensively into something that would still work when we couldn’t be in person,” she says.

They did, shifting the program completely online in both 2020 and 2021. It became, as Esterhammer notes wryly, “Scholars Not in Residence.”

The online program went so well, that once Scholars-in-Residence returned in person in 2022, it was accompanied by a new, parallel online program for a limited number of research projects that are either particularly well suited for virtual learning or involve students, faculty or resources based outside of Toronto.

“All of that said, I am definitely an in-person person,” Esterhammer says, smiling broadly.

Esterhammer will take a research leave in 2024–25 to continue her work on John Galt, one of the most popular and prolific Scottish writers of the 19th century. Esterhammer is general editor of The Edinburgh Edition of the Works of John Galt, of which six of 20 planned volumes have been published—a result of her work with undergraduate research assistants at Vic. She plans to write a monograph on Galt in the context of late-Romantic print culture, the world of international publishing, writing and reading 200 years ago.

This will require trips to Scotland and research elsewhere in Europe. Esterhammer admits that since she enjoys connecting with people in person, she may have been a bit too enthusiastic in committing to a number of conferences this year!

The Angela Esterhammer Fund for Scholars-in-Residence

An endowed fund will be established in Professor Esterhammer’s name to recognize her contributions to the Scholars-in-Residence program, to Victoria College and to the larger Victoria University and University of Toronto community.

Click here to contribute to this program.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Vic Report.

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