Trinity’s New Chief Volunteer: Chancellor Brian Lawson

On September 6, 2023, Brian Lawson ’82 was installed as Trinity’s 13th Chancellor at the College’s annual Matriculation ceremony. While his appointment was announced in April 2023, for most in the Trinity community Brian and his wife Joannah Lawson (MIR ’89, U of T) were already familiar as active volunteers and supporters of the College.

We sat down with Chancellor Lawson to learn more about pinball in The Buttery, lifelong College friendships, and what it means to be part of Trinity’s next chapter.

JM: How was Matriculation?

BL: It was wonderful. I’ve experienced Trinity Matriculation as a student, as a parent, and as a volunteer member of the Trinity community. Nothing could have prepared me for the pride and honour I felt being installed as the Chancellor of Trinity College.

Seeing the bright, eager faces of the class of 2027 officially beginning this chapter of their lives was a joyous moment. And having the opportunity to speak with many of them was energizing. It brings me back to when I was a student. Those years are such an important part of a person’s life — the education, forming friendships and the opportunities to become deeply engaged. It was a very special day.

JM: Thinking back to your Trinity days, are there any standout memories for you?

BL: For me it’s the friendships and the community atmosphere that stand out in my mind. Because of its smaller size, Trinity offers students the opportunity to really connect with others in the community and form deep bonds. It’s interesting because even after you leave university, and spend decades forming other relationships through work and family and other areas of your adult life, there’s something about that university experience that makes these friendships special and long-lasting. I am fortunate to have a great friends from those days, so I am always conscious of how special these times were for me and still are for students. I already see this again for my children, including Alexander who is currently at Trinity.

JM: Did you participate in any extra-curriculars on campus?

BL: I was lucky to be able to play rugby for Trinity and for U of T. And of course, everyone, including me, spent a lot of time at The Buttery. That was the social hub in my day—in hindsight, I probably spent a little too much time on the pinball machine there and chatting with friends.

JM: Did/do your children live in residence?

BL: Joannah and I felt strongly that our kids have the residence experience at university. That connectivity, that experience is so important in building friendships and being able to immerse yourself in the full university experience. The conversations over breakfast or at 9 p.m. in the common room are such a valuable part of that time in a young person’s life. We wanted our kids to benefit from it if possible. We also want to ensure that as many Trinity students as possible have that formative experience—that’s why we’re so excited about the added residence spaces and social areas being added through the new building.

JM: Some have referred to the Chancellor role as Trinity’s “Chief Volunteer.” Do you think that’s a fitting title?

BL: Chief Volunteer is certainly a flattering title, and it comes with an important responsibility. While it’s true that I have been involved with the College in a number of capacities over the years, there are many dedicated volunteers who are deeply engaged, so this is a great opportunity for me to step up and help out where I can. And Joannah has been and continues to be very involved with the College in several capacities, including as a past Board member. We share a deep belief in the importance of volunteering and the importance of Trinity.

For me, the opportunity to give back to Trinity College is a privilege. My years as a student at the College had such a positive impact on my life. Working with other alumni now to help the College advance into its next chapter is fascinating and rewarding. And as Chancellor, I have the great fortune to witness some of the major moments and milestones for students. It’s a tremendous honour.

JM: Why was now the right time for you to take on this role?

BL: The College is entering a new chapter of growth and innovation, and for me that is especially exciting. While there’s a certain amount of serendipity to the timing of this opportunity, Joannah and I have always had a strong family relationship to the College, between my sister (who was Head of St. Hilda’s in her final year), father and uncles having gone to Trinity, and our son Alexander being a current student and actively involved in student life and governance.

I’m not fully retired from work, but my schedule is a lot lighter these days. That was a conscious choice to free up time to work on causes we value, which is important to me and Joannah. And with all three of our kids partway through their post-secondary studies, Joannah and I are theoretically empty-nesters now. Well, that’s not entirely true—though our daughter is away at university, both of our sons will be at UofT and living at home this year. But they’re incredibly busy with their own lives. I’m so pleased that I can dedicate the time to this role now and help as Trinity moves into this next phase.

JM: What is your mindset stepping into the role of Chancellor?  

BL: There’s a tremendous sense of comfort and familiarity, of Trinity feeling like home. At the same time, it’s exciting because the College is a community of hardworking, intelligent people who are very diverse in terms of their expertise and their passions. In particular, I look to the two Chancellors I am following—Bill Graham and Michael Wilson were both great supporters of Trinity and truly exceptional Canadians. I had the good fortune of knowing both—in fact Michael was my uncle. It’s an honour to follow in their footsteps. I feel inspired to be contributing to this incredible community—and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to be the Chancellor the Trinity community deserves.

It is also tremendously inspiring to get to work with such a talented and committed leadership team.  The sense of commitment to the students, to tackling the many pressing issues of our times and how they affect our students and their ability to have a positive impact going forward—it is remarkable.

JM: What role do you think alumni play in Trinity’s present and future?

BL: Having a strong alumni community, strong volunteerism and strong philanthropy at Trinity is incredibly important if we want to continue to provide world-class opportunities and education for kids who will then go on and do great things to benefit the rest of society. As alumni, we truly have so much to give.

I think there’s a unique role for Trinity as a college. We’re able to be nimbler and maintain a strong sense of community and purpose. And having this smaller community while at the same time being part of the powerful institution that U of T is represents a unique paradigm and opens a remarkable set of opportunities and experiences for our students. I believe we can all take great pride in Trinity not only as our alma mater, but also in what it is trying to achieve as a leader in sustainability, to inspire others and to make a tangible difference for future generations.

As a passionate volunteer, I encourage our alumni to get involved. The experiences are truly unforgettable whether you are sorting books for the Trinity College Friends of the Library Book Sale or serving on a committee. There are so many ways alumni can support the College, from making time to volunteer, writing a cheque, or being an advocate by speaking positively about Trinity to anyone and everyone. There are many exceptional volunteers who are already involved, but there is always room (and need) for more; becoming part of that community is great fun and very rewarding.

The Trinity community is a beautiful thing.

JM: Last year when we chatted, you mentioned your sourdough bread. Are you still baking?

BL: My sourdough culture, which I started in 2019, is still alive—against all odds! I nearly killed it once, but I revived it. I bake two types of bread with it. One is a heavier, dense sourdough—great with eggs for breakfast. And the other is more of a traditional sourdough. I’m not a great baker, but we do enjoy cooking and eating together as a family as much as possible.

– with Jennifer Matthews

The Lawson Family
Brian Lawson’s Trinity graduation portrait, 1982



As published in the September 2023 Living Trinity Newsletter.




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