Campus Life

New Mahon on campus

Once a week, a young Mike Mahon (pronounced Man) would catch the bus in his hometown of Winnipeg, Man., ride across the city and head to the swimming pool or gymnasium to work with people with intellectual disabilities.

The volunteer experience was part of a community-service expectation mandated by his high school, but Mahon wasn't there simply to earn credit. Having grown up in a household that valued community engagement, the idea of volunteerism was second nature, and he took to it innately.

"Growing up, that was just what I was exposed to, so the whole idea of volunteering just became a part of who we were as a family," says Mahon. "There was this fundamental belief that volunteering was an important part of living in a community."

Mike Mahon at install
New University of Lethbridge President Dr. Mike Mahon.

Mahon had no idea at that time this early community service opportunity would have such an influence over his future career. It would shape his graduate studies, research and now, as the new president of the University of Lethbridge, it continues to resonate.

Born in Manitoba, Mahon grew up with four siblings in a house that teemed with activity. A self-described sports junkie, he played a little of everything and eventually was a two-sport (football and track) student-athlete at the University of Manitoba. After completing a bachelor's degree in physical education, he moved on to the University of Alberta (MSc in Physical Education) and then the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PhD in Education) for his graduate and doctoral studies respectively.

"When I started thinking about what I would do with my master's degree, I did look back to that first experience," says Mahon. "It had a tremendous amount of influence from a career perspective."

His research, which focuses on adapted physical activity with an emphasis on older individuals and persons with intellectual disabilities, has garnered a number of honours, including: Fellow of the Academy of Leisure Sciences (2001); Award of Distinction from the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies (2000); the University of Manitoba Rh Award for Outstanding Contributions to Interdisciplinary Scholarship and Research (1995).

Mike and Maureen
The Presidential couple, Mike and Maureen Mahon.

Mahon has since become a vigorous proponent of physical activity for people of every age and ability. Most recently, he has been working on several projects that bring a research focus to how sports and play can help children in developing countries. In that context he has been involved with Right to Play as well as Play Around the World, groups that supply sports equipment and programming support to children in developing countries.

He says the opportunity to conduct research with these organizations, as well as become involved on a volunteer basis, is particularly rewarding.

"The people I've known who have become volunteers have really, in the end, got more out of the experience themselves than they feel they've given," says Mahon.

His academic career has virtually mirrored the path he took as a student, beginning at Manitoba before transitioning to the U of A where he spent two terms as the dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation prior to his coming to the U of L.

His arrival in Lethbridge appears to be a case of right Mahon, right time. Family, community and developing an atmosphere for growth of the entire person are some of the ideals that Mahon brings to the U of L.

As the University looks forward, Mahon sees its growth achieved through a learning environment that is dedicated to social responsibility and community engagement; that is dedicated to building a comprehensive university across the broad academy of disciplines; that is dedicated to creating a person-first university environment for staff and faculty; and that is centrally focused on a student-first attitude.

Mahon recognizes he has inherited a confident and forward-thinking institution, and he looks to build off that foundation as he introduces new initiatives. He says, for example, that as much as the University and its students are already agents of influence in southern Alberta, there is opportunity to expand the impact the U of L has on society by formalizing its community outreach initiatives.

"Liberal education is about presenting students with an expansive opportunity of academic experience," he says. "I'd like to think that part of that experience could be about being in the community and taking that liberal education concept that much further."

Mahon looks to the example his parents, who were involved community members, provided as he grew up, and the opportunities he had to explore and understand community engagement. As part of his future plan for the U of L, Mahon proposes introducing a framework whereby students earn academic credit for volunteerism.

"I think this is a tremendous gift that we can give our students," he says. "Having volunteer experience within the context of education is, on one level, a way that institutions can connect with and give back to the community, but on another level, it's a wonderful way to help our students expand their horizons."

Installation dance
Kristi Legge's Dance Group Performers, ranging from Grade 6 to university students, were among the highlights at the Presidential Installation.

The University of Lethbridge, having prospered under the leadership of former President Dr. Bill Cade, is emerging from its history as a primarily undergraduate university into a comprehensive institution that fully embraces a research culture, and is rapidly expanding its graduate studies opportunities.

"What I see is the continued integration of teaching and research, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. The U of L has always had a unique approach to engaging undergraduates in research, and that's something we will continue to do," says Mahon. "As we move forward, we must use our experience and commitment to excellence in undergraduate education as a springboard for the development of and improved access to graduate-level programming."

The opportunities for expansion, he says, are numerous, with a track record of success already established.

"We have developed internationally recognized strengths in the areas of neuroscience, epigenetics and water research, and we've more recently moved into the study of demographics and population with the creation of the Prentice Institute," says Mahon. "Now we're searching for our next niche research areas that we can build capacity in, and how they will also integrate with our academic programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels."

The recent opening of Markin Hall, a building that houses the Faculties of Health Sciences and Management, provides a fertile ground for collaborative research efforts, and is a perfect example of the interdisciplinary focus at the U of L. Simply by putting talented minds together, it creates a conversation from which great synergies can emerge.

"Markin Hall is going to be very much like the Alberta Water and Environmental Science Building (AWESB)," he says. "When you bring people from different, yet related, disciplines together under the same roof, you start to see some interesting areas of research develop."

Mahon recognizes that the U of L can only move forward with a people-first, student-first approach. It begins by creating an atmosphere where a positive work/life balance is celebrated.

"I want to see us build an institution that is committed to people and to creating that balance for our people, and that means students, staff and faculty. If I'm not a role model on that front, it's hard to preach that this is a direction we should go," says Mahon, who is regularly spotted in the 1st Choice Savings Centre gym, beginning the day with a run on the treadmill or a workout in the weight room.

Having been on campus since July, Mahon has gained an understanding of what makes the U of L engine run – its people. He says the liberal arts ideals that founded the institution, coupled with a student-first learning environment, will continue to be central themes as the University advances.

"Whether it is in academic programs and research, how we recruit and orient our students, our class sizes, our residences, recreation and sport opportunities, health services, or the environment of our campus, we must ensure that we bring to life this concept of student-first," he says.

Part of that is recognizing and celebrating how integral a place the U of L occupies in southern Alberta.

"I've learned that the U of L is a real treasure, and it's because of our people," says Mahon. "We have staff and faculty who are committed to the success of the University and to the experiences of our graduate and undergraduate students. Combine that with where we are situated, our beautiful campus, small class sizes and world-class faculty – and this is truly a premier university."

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of SAM. For a look at the full issue of SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link.