Anyone who meets Lane Trotter or hears him speak would likely conclude that he’s a dynamic extrovert. The president and CEO of Langara College is used to speaking in front of audiences and has no qualms about greeting strangers. But he wasn’t always that way.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in his office, Trotter revealed that he was a shy kid growing up in the northern B.C. community of Smithers. His parents insisted on him attending university straight out of high school, so he went to UBC after graduating at the age of 17.
“I didn’t have a successful year,” Trotter acknowledged. “You’re from a small town. You move into a fraternity house and you focus on the wrong priorities.”
With a smile, he said that he didn’t regret that lost academic year because it made him less withdrawn. Trotter returned to the north and had “two amazing years” at the College of New Caledonia. From there, he transferred to the University of Victoria, where he earned a bachelor’s degree studying political theory and a master’s degree in public administration. He later obtained a doctorate in educational leadership at Simon Fraser University.
Trotter realizes that at the age of 17, he needed a couple more years to grow up and get a better sense of what he wanted to do.
“That’s where I think colleges are important because we provide the time for students to gain the skills to become competent in themselves and develop the proper academic habits,” he said. “Some kids can do it right away. Some can’t. I think what makes B.C. unique is that our transfer system allows kids to do those two years [in college].”
The 1962 Macdonald Report on Higher Education laid the foundation for B.C.’s respected public community-college network and the creation of Simon Fraser University. According to Trotter, 40 years of data from the B.C. Council on Admissions and Transfer shows that students who use colleges as a stepping stone to university perform just as well as, if not better than, students who go directly to university from high school.
“Without the transfer system, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” Trotter said. “That’s why I love the colleges and why I’m on the college side and not the university side.”
Make no mistake: Trotter admires B.C.’s universities, noting that UBC is in the top 35 in the world and that SFU has been voted the top comprehensive university in Canada. Trotter and the board’s vision for Langara is for it to be Canada’s “pathways college” rather than a regional university.
“The mission can be boiled down to four words: accessible, affordable, high quality,” he said. “On the vision side, we are the number one transfer college from college to university in Canada—of all the postsecondaries in the country. That’s not me. That’s the amazing faculty we have.”
Each year, about 1,000 Langara students move on to UBC and another 1,000 transfer to other postsecondary institutions, including SFU, UVic, and BCIT. Trotter and his wife even encouraged their own son to attend college before moving on to SFU.
One of the more accomplished former transfer students from Langara is Ujjal Dosanjh, who studied history before obtaining a law degree and serving as B.C. attorney general, premier, and federal health minister. Vancouver–False Creek MLA and former mayor and cabinet minister Sam Sullivan also studied at Langara, as did Tim Stevenson, the first openly gay cabinet minister in Canadian history. Another high-profile politician who studied at Langara is Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
“Our role is to open up doors for young people and give them a chance,” Trotter said.
On Wednesday (November 6), Trotter and the board honoured 49 other Langarans who have had a dramatic impact since the school was created as part of Vancouver Community College in 1970. For the past 25 years, Langara has been independent. In addition to offering transfer credits, it has carved out a reputation for its career education in a wide range of fields, including theatre, journalism, photography, business, early childhood education, and health care.
“Langara has been one of the best-kept secrets in Vancouver,” Trotter said. “We want to let the entire community know that we’re here for the community.”
He quickly added that this community service extends far beyond Vancouver and into the suburbs and the rest of the province. One of the Langarans who will be honoured is David Turpin, the president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta and a former long-time president of the University of Victoria.
The 49 Langarans also include Studio 58 artistic director and B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame member Kathryn Shaw, City of Vancouver Indigenous mural contest winner Haisla Collins, global health expert and SFU Canada Research Chair Kelley Lee, and UBC associate professor and Indigenous scholar Glen Coulthard.
“Some of the people that we’re recognizing who got their start here just blow me away,” Trotter said.
Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition has attracted tremendous attention for advancing concepts of decolonization. This is also a subject that interests Trotter, who was given the Indigenous name Takaya, which means “wolf”, by the Musqueam. Langara was the first public postsecondary institution to receive an Indigenous name, snəẃeyəɬ leləḿ, which occurred in 2016, courtesy of now-deceased Musqueam elder and historian Si?ém Henry Charles. The name means “house of teachings” in the Heńqemińeḿ language.
“Langara is located on Musqueam’s unceded territory and, in fact, we’ve been told Langara was once a Musqueam village,” Trotter noted.
As he discussed Charles, Trotter became visibly emotional, calling his 2017 death a huge loss not only to the Musqueam people but to all residents of Vancouver. Trotter described him as a “role model” and a “good man” who did many amazing things. In 2018, Langara unveiled a four-metre carved red cedar Musqueam house post honouring Charles on the northwest corner of the campus that was created by Musqueam artist Brent Sparrow Jr.
“Musqueam has amazing leadership, and the journey of reconciliation is going to be one that’s going to take time—and where we are at the end of it, I’m not sure what it will be,” Trotter said. “But it will be different than where we’re at now.”
Normally, institutions and companies make a big deal out of their 50th anniversary. For good reason. Any enterprise that lasts 50 years has resonated with the people it serves.
But in the case of Langara College, Trotter and the board have decided instead to make the 49th year a landmark event. The school held a free 49th-anniversary concert with 54.40 as part of a community day on June 15. Langara also opened a new Indigenous upgrading program in partnership with the Musqueam on their reserve. And the college filed a rezoning application with the city to develop five academic and community buildings ranging from one to six storeys. Besides all that, Langara is on West 49th Avenue, so it seemed fitting to choose this number to make a major splash.
Since Trotter was appointed as Langara’s president and CEO in 2014, the college has undergone tremendous growth. “In 2014, we were a $108-million college,” Trotter said. “Now, we’re a $175-million institution.”
One of the highlights was developing a new $54-million science and technology building, which was completed on time and under budget. But the demand for education keeps growing, in part because Langara has the second-lowest tuition in the entire postsecondary system. According to the president, it’s still less than $3,000 per year.
In September 2020, the school will launch a four-year degree in bioinformatics. It also has degree programs in business administration, nursing, recreation management, and performing arts (in conjunction with Capilano University and Douglas College). But Langara is not aiming to become a university.
“We’re a proud college,” Trotter emphasized. “Offering some degree programs is just an extension of giving the students the skills to get ready, right?”
He’s also proud that Langara was one of only three B.C. postsecondary institutions that gave former foster kids aging out of care a break on tuition three years before Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark and Premier John Horgan made this available at all B.C. public colleges and universities.
Trotter said he’s been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy, who said: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It’s a message that he wants young people to embrace. He also wants them to have big dreams.
“My mom was a teacher. My dad’s a tradesperson,” Trotter said. “And now I’m a college president.…It is possible. And it’s not me. What we do is we stand on the shoulders of giants, those who came before us.”