Seneca’s founding President

Dr. William T. Newnham served as
Seneca’s first President from 1966 to 1984

Seneca is mourning the loss of founding President William T. Newnham who died on August 23, 2014. He was 91. As one of the original college presidents in Canada, Dr. Newnham helped forever change the landscape of postsecondary education in this country.

Under his leadership, Seneca expanded from a small renovated factory at Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue to campuses in Toronto and York Region with ‬10,000 full-time students and more than 64,000 part-time students enrolled in a variety of career-related programs.

Read the Globe and Mail Obituary

Friends who wish to remember Dr. Newnham are encouraged to support the Hill House Hospice, 36 Wright St, Richmond Hill, ON L4C 4A1.

Rising to the challenge

Dr. Newnham remembers his excitement
at being hired as the first Seneca President in 1966

Dr. William Newnham
Dr. Newnham, photographed in 2007 as part of Seneca’s 40th anniversary celebrations

On December 21, 1966, he received a fateful call from the newly-formed Seneca Board of Governors. At a meeting with Chair Fred Minkler, Dr. Newnham was asked to be the first President of Seneca, and was presented with an empty box and the following words: “This is Seneca. Take it, find a building, renovate it, develop courses and an administration, hire teachers and enrol students. And, we want it to be the finest in Canada.”

“He wasn’t fooling,” Dr. Newnham said. “I replied, ‘You will get the best college in Canada’. From that moment, I and my newly-formed team worked tirelessly to make this vision a reality.”

Dr. Newnham took that empty box and created what would become one of the largest colleges in Canada, despite its humble beginnings: A small factory at Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue, was leased and renovated to become the first Seneca campus. It opened with 852 full-time students and more than 1,000 part-time students enrolled in 20 different programs.

“That first year was heavy, but I wouldn’t have missed it,” he said. “The province got full value. I’m not saying everything was perfect, but we were all proud of the place.”

By the time he retired in 1984, Seneca had become the envy of the community college system with more than 10,000 full-time students and more than 64,000 part-time students enrolled in a variety of career-related programs.

“Each day I worked hard, and Seneca’s faculty and staff worked hard, to give our diplomas meaning, so when our students graduated they could be proud of their Seneca diploma and it would open doors for them. And it did.”

‘There is a definite nobility in assisting learning’

Dr. Newnham on the early years at Seneca

Dr. Newnham spoke at Seneca on April 12, 2012 at the dedication ceremony of the Minkler Atrium at Newnham Campus, honouring Dr. Frederick W. Minkler, the first Chair of the College’s Board of Governors.

Order of Seneca

William T. Newnham was given the award at the 2008 Distinguished Alumni Awards
held at Markham Campus on May 13, 2008.

William T. Newnham is the only recipient of the Order of Seneca, which honours exceptional contributions to Seneca through service and philanthropy. This video includes interviews with those who worked with Dr. Newnham and his remarks.

A remarkable career, a remarkable man

Dr. Newnham’s career began during the Second World War

Newnham Campus
Seneca’s Finch Campus was renamed Newnham Campus when Dr. Newnham retired in 1984.

At 18 years of age, Dr. Newnham unexpectedly found his calling. With no prior teaching experience, he was made a navigation instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, teaching future pilots. He rose to the challenge, and in doing so ignited a life-long passion for teaching and education.

After the war, he enrolled in and graduated from Queen’s University with an honours degree in math and physics and started teaching in the Toronto school board. By the age of 36, he became the youngest school principal in Toronto at Northview Heights in the Borough of North York. During his time there, he showed his talent for creating new and original programming, including the school’s first computer course, night school, summer semester and a series of guest lecturers including Ed Mirvish.

With the creation of the provincial college system, Dr. Newnham saw an opportunity to continue his innovative style of a leadership.

“I knew that from where I was the next step was the (school) board office and I didn’t particularly want to be just a hands on administrator. I wanted to stay involved with the hustle and bustle. So the Seneca board had its first meeting in 1966, and I decided that I’d apply.”

Despite the success he had already experienced, he found that applying to the newly-formed Board of Seneca to be something of a challenge.

“I wrote the letter and I said to my wife I can’t send it and I tore it up,” he said. “I wrote the second letter and tore it up. It was the seventh letter that I sent. It was a remarkable board. The president of IBM Canada was on it, there were staff members such as the senior engineering faculty from U of T and York, politicians – all long ball hitters.”

The board members were obviously impressed, and with the hiring of Dr. Newnham set in motion the creation of what Bette Stephenson, Minister of Education (1978-1985) called the “flagship of the community college fleet.”

Dr. Newnham remains Seneca’s longest serving president. Under his tenure, 1966 to 1984, the College realized countless milestones, including the building of the Finch (Newnham) Campus; the purchase of the King Campus; the beginning of the Aviation and Flight Technology program at Buttonville Airport; and the opening of the Seneca Sports Centre.

In an interview with the Toronto Star on June 17, 1984, Dr. Newnham said this about his retirement: “I leave without regret. I’ve had a good long run at it. The things we have done that been trendsetting…It’s been a pretty interesting ride in the park.”