Thompson Rivers University

Former university presidents inspire women to take the lead

September 1, 2022

From left: Drs. Indira Samarasekera and Martha Piper discuss their new book at TRU on September 15.

Drs. Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera have broken down barriers for women in academic leadership roles. As the first — and only — female presidents of two of Canada’s largest universities, they’ve forged new paths for future women leaders.

Later this month, they sit down with TRU Provost and Vice-President Academic Dr. Gillian Balfour for a public discussion about what they learned in those roles. The Sept. 15 event is free to anyone interested in attending.

An Officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Order of British Columbia, Piper served as president of the University of British Columbia from 1997 to 2006, returning to lead the university as interim president and vice chancellor from September 2015 to June 2016. She has also been a director of the Bank of Montreal, Shoppers Drug Mart and TransAlta Corp.

Samarasekera, who was president of the University of Alberta from 2005 to 2015, is currently a senior advisor for Bennett Jones LLP and serves on the Board of Directors of Magna International, TC Energy, Intact Financial Corporation and Stelco Inc. An Officer of the Order of Canada, she was recognized with BCIT’s highest honour, an Honorary Doctorate of Technology, at the 2022 Spring Convocation ceremonies in June.

Trusting yourself

TRU Provost and Vice-President Academic Dr. Gillian Balfour

Even after years in leadership roles, Piper and Samarasekera struggled to find the confidence in their abilities. What they agree they did have was “nerve,” a term they take on in their new book Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First.

“Drawing upon our own personal experience and the challenges we faced as women who went first as leaders of our respective universities, we concluded that the answer resides within, that is: ‘It is up to us,’” the authors wrote in a recent op-ed for the Vancouver Sun. “Nerve is the personal characteristic that is not only required to lead but also is often missing in women, even in those who aspire to leadership roles: nerve to be true to yourself, nerve to take a path less travelled, nerve to go first, nerve to act decisively.’”

“Leadership takes nerve,” says Balfour. “Nerve is a sense of purpose and tenacity to do something that others think you can’t do or shouldn’t do. Without other women leaders to witness and learn from, nerve is sometimes not enough. . . . We need to recognize our own potential to lead, and to lift up other women along the way.”

Piper and Samarasekera hope women choose to answer the call to lead and are willing to take risks in leadership roles.

“It is our wish that today’s women find the nerve to determine what and how they want to paint, to lead with nerve and confidence, bringing their unique perspective to their leadership positions, and thereby painting a different picture of what is possible for future generations of women to come.”


Join Piper and Samarasekera as they sit down for a forthright discussion with Balfour on Thursday, Sept. 15.

Piper and Samarasekera will share their personal and professional stories. Copies of their book are available at the TRU Book Store and at the event, where there will be a signing opportunity.

This event is free, but registration through Eventbrite is requested as space is limited. If attendees have accessibility requirements, they can email or call 250-371-5667.

Date and time:
Thursday, Sept. 15
5 – 6 p.m.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m., and book signing is from 6 to 6:30 p.m.

Campus Activity Centre, Mountain Room (third floor)