An Interview with Emma Cunliffe, the Next Principal of Green College

Green College Staff

In late October 2023, Green College Content Writer and Resident Member Kyla McCallum sat down for a conversation with Green College's incoming Principal, Dr. Emma Cunliffe.

You were a Resident Member at Green College from 2002 to 2005. What initially drew you to living at Green College?

I left Australia to start my Masters in the Allard School of Law, and I didn’t know a single soul in Vancouver. I had never spent much time away from Australia. When I looked at Green College online, it seemed like a place where I could meet friends and find community beyond the law school, which appealed to me because I didn’t want to be sheltered over in the law school. Green College seemed like a great landing place for somebody who didn’t know anyone.

As an immigrant from Australia, you traveled across the world to study at UBC. What was the transition like for you? How, if at all, did Green College help you through the culture shock?

I had the very good fortune of starting with a group of really strong, really interesting residents—and, in particular, a very strong group of women. We quickly became really good friends. There was a mix of people from Canada, from the States, and from many other countries. Having a group of friends who could help with everything—from how to apply for scholarships to how to navigate the relationship with your supervisor to what we do together on Saturday night—was a really welcoming way to come to a new country. A lot of the friends I made in those first six months of Green College are still really close friends today.

Are any of them still at UBC?

There’s a few at UBC and a few who have gone away and come back, which is lovely. I feel like I have Green College friends all over Canada and elsewhere in the world now. One of the really nice things is that I can go to Halifax or Toronto or Prince Edward Island and see friends from Green College.

There’s that complicated moment when everybody was finishing up their PhD and thinking about academic jobs or potentially going into industry, and it felt like everybody was moving away. That’s quite hard—there’s a real sense of sadness. But, twenty years later, it does feel like there’s a network of Green College people all over the world. It’s such a lovely thing to be tapped into.

What impact, if any, did Green College have on your educational and/or professional trajectory?

My Master’s and PhD work were interdisciplinary. I was very much working at the intersection of law, science and technology studies. Being in an interdisciplinary residential environment, particularly one where there was such a nice mix of having fun and sharing the challenges of grad work with one another, exposed me to ideas that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. It helped me find my way to faculty members at the university who could help me with the project I was trying to pursue, and so it really shaped what has become the nature of my work as a professor. Green College made this interdisciplinary work feel possible in a way that I’m not sure it would have felt if I’d just been studying at the law school.

You’re the first Principal of Green College to have also been a Resident Member. How might your history with the College prove beneficial as you take on the role of Principal?

As may be apparent, I have really vivid and positive memories of coming to Green College: memories of feeling welcomed, like I’d found a place not only where my research was taken seriously, but I was also welcomed as a person. That experience was formative for the kind of community-building work I’ve tried to do in academia ever since. I’m really looking forward to bringing that back to Green College. I know I’m stepping into a community that’s already thriving, with an ecosystem that works in ways that are probably different from twenty years ago. I’m really looking forward to learning how it’s different now and supporting the current residents in having as positive an experience as I did.

Have you maintained a connection with Green College during your time just across the street at Allard? If so, how do you think the community has changed over time?

I have maintained a connection with Green College in a number of ways. I’ve had several grad students who have been Resident Members in more recent times, although nobody right now. I’ve also made a point of continuing to attend talks and events when I can, and just generally stayed in touch with the Society Members who were my friends from that time.

I think a lot has changed in twenty years in the world at large and in some of the questions that contemporary graduate students are encountering and struggling with. The pandemic had a really big impact, and graduate students and postdocs are navigating both the way in which the world has changed and the way in which it hasn’t. I’m very glad that, relative to twenty years ago, gender identity and 2SLGBTQIA+ politics are much more inclusive. I hope that this change is reflected in the community at Green College.

The other thing that’s changed massively is the housing affordability crisis in Vancouver. I think, for me, living at Green College was a choice that I could make because I wanted that sort of community. Increasingly, graduate students are struggling to afford to live in Vancouver any other way. That’s something that I think is really important for Green College to engage with and think about in terms of the obligations we have as a relatively privileged community in terms of affordability.

I think many people are struggling to feel hopeful in a world that seems so cruel. In your investigation of discrimination within the justice system, how have you managed to maintain your hope and will to address these failings?

That’s such an important and difficult question. We live in difficult times. I am not somebody who shies away from difficult conversations or from acknowledging the very significant impacts inequality and discrimination can have on the communities that we’re part of. I see the way forward as being two-fold. First, I try to put my own work and privilege in the service of building a more just and equal legal system. That’s what my research is focused on. Second, and perhaps more relevant to Green College, I believe very strongly in the value and possibility of building more equal and inclusive communities in our personal relationships. That’s what I was fortunate to find when I came to Green College, and that’s what I want every Green College resident to find. If we can build that for one another, we prepare a base from which we can engage with some of the bigger issues that we face as a society.

Little bit of a tone shift here: what are you most looking forward to during your time as Principal?

I’m really looking forward to engaging with the residents and with the work that you’re doing in a range of disciplines. Even though my own work is interdisciplinary, it’s in the nature of being a professor day-to-day that you get a bit stuck in a silo—not necessarily just a law silo, either, but a kind of law and society silo, if I can call it that. Relative to when I was a Resident Member, I feel out of touch with what’s going on in science and library studies, for example. I’m also really looking forward to reengaging with the artistic and creative work that happens at Green College, with the musicians and Writers in Residence. All of that contributes a huge amount to the community.

Would you like to tease any plans that you have for Green College?

I said this when I interviewed at the Fireside Chat and met some of the current residents, but the first thing I’m really looking forward to is sitting down with Resident Members, with staff and with faculty members to hear about what you love about Green College, as well as what you think could be better. I’m looking forward to working together on the vision of Green College’s next five to ten years. I’m not coming in with big, transformative plans because I don’t think that’s my place. I think it’s for the residents to imagine what they want Green College to be and for me to offer the opportunities and resources that allow Resident Members to achieve that vision.

Dr. Emma Cunliffe is a Professor in the Allard School of Law and served as the Director of Research and Policy for the joint Federal-Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission. She will be the fourth Principal of Green College, starting in that role in full capacity on 1 July 2024 while remaining cross-appointed to the Faculty of Law.

Post by: Kyla McCallum, Green College Content Writer and Resident Member.