Professor Linda Johnston reflects on her legacy as dean of Bloomberg Nursing

4 July 2024

Johnston has successfully led the Faculty of Nursing from 2014-2024 through a range of health system challenges

Professor Linda Johnston, who has spent the last decade leading the University of Toronto’s Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing as dean (2014-2024), is reflecting on the legacy she has left behind and where she envisions Canada’s number one school of nursing is headed following the end of her term.

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Johnston, followed a path in academic leadership, first at the University of Melbourne and Royal Children’s Hospital, before leaving the warm and sunny climate to lead the School of Nursing at Queen’s University Belfast and eventually Dean of Bloomberg Nursing at U of T. It was a decision she says she has no regrets making.

“I knew early in my career, that I would need to make the choice between pursuing academic leadership or nursing research,” says Johnston, whose research expertise includes neonatal care and pain management. “I have always had the mindset that you need to give something a try, no matter how challenging, when the opportunity comes knocking.”

Johnston has recently been appointed Vice-President of the University of Toronto and Principal of University of Toronto Scarborough for a five-year term, in recognition of her profound leadership experience. Now, she shares a look back at her time as Dean of Bloomberg Nursing, reflecting on moments of inspiration, challenges, and of course success, as she took the Faculty of Nursing through some of the last decade’s most defining moments.

When Johnston first arrived at Bloomberg Nursing, she recognized a need for innovation in the Faculty’s academic programming including a greater focus on internationalization. Working with institutional partners such as Hong Kong University and Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Beijing, Fudan, and Zhejiang Universities in China, Johnston worked to establish international partnerships that would bolster the global profile of the Faculty and create new opportunities for students and research faculty alike. This international focus became a key pillar of Bloomberg Nursing’s 2018-2022 strategic academic plan.

“Through expanding the international profile of Bloomberg Nursing, I wanted prospective graduate students, faculty and researchers to view the Faculty as a destination of choice,” says Johnston. “I think we have come a long way in that regard, but there is still more to be done.”

Johnston’s focus on internationalization further contributed to the creation of the Global Nursing Scholars Program, which runs through the Faculty’s Centre for Professional Development. It creates strong clinical and experiential learning opportunities for students in China and Europe and is supported in part by the strong collaboration between the Faculty and its counterparts in the Toronto Academic Health Sciences Network (TAHSN).

Developing changes to the curriculum and academic programming at Bloomberg Nursing has been possible Johnston says, because of the immense support she has received from the Chief Nursing Executives and members of TAHSN. They have given her further insight, she says, into the diversity of leadership roles that are necessary in leading the nursing profession forward. It was this insight that prompted her to consider the creation of Canada’s first Doctor of Nursing program.

“My idea was originally met with skepticism, because there were concerns that a professional doctorate would compete with PhD programs offered in Canada, but I saw this as an opportunity to provide nurses with a choice especially for those who wanted to advance their careers in leadership in the health system, or academic, sector,” says Johnston. 

She is grateful for the support of the University of Toronto – which had few professional doctorates at the time, – and the willingness of Bloomberg Nursing faculty to embrace this change, which has resulted in the successful creation of the Doctor of Nursing program, the first cohort of which is set to graduate this Fall. 

While the launch of the Doctor of Nursing program during a worldwide pandemic is certainly up at the top of the list of achievements for Johnston as Dean, she herself thinks back to the challenges navigating the COVID19 crisis as a marker of success.

“Graduating students during the pandemic was a significant accomplishment, and it involved the collaboration of so many people, from our faculty to our hospital partners,” says Johnston.

Successfully delivering a nursing program when hospitals were closed to learners meant the Faculty had to pivot to an entirely online program, which included virtual simulations and the sourcing of new technology to ensure students were prepared to enter the nursing workforce.

“It was a stressful time, because how do you turn an in-person curriculum with in-person placements and hands-on learning into a virtual learning environment, for over a year and half? It was immensely tough,” recalls Johnston.

Yet they persevered, and for Johnston, being able to contribute to building the nursing workforce and supporting students as they graduated was a huge achievement, showcasing the incredible collaboration across the health sciences faculties and the Bloomberg Nursing community.

“Despite how difficult that time was, it was honestly a good experience because of the collaboration and collegiality, and it showed me that I was more resilient than I thought I was,” adds Johnston.

During this time, Johnston also had the honour of serving as the co-Chair of U of T’s Review of the Policy on Sexual Violence and Harassment, alongside Allison Burgess, Director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office. The review included extensive consultations with students, faculty, staff and librarians and resulted in a list of 12 recommendations to combat sexual violence and harassment, all of which were readily accepted by the University.

As she looks to the future, Johnston has reflected on where she hopes to see Bloomberg Nursing headed as a leader in nursing education, research and practice. Included in this vision is the Scarborough Academy of Medicine and Integrated Health (SAMIH) where Bloomberg Nursing is a key player, and the  opportunities it will provide for nursing undergraduate and graduate students in addition to more accessible care for those who really need it.  

Coupled with this goal of an increasingly vibrant academic setting that could see nursing programs situated across the three U of T campuses, is a desire to see more funding for nursing students who are in financial need.

“There are many challenges facing our students who come into our programs, particularly the graduate degrees. As nurses, many cannot stop working full-time, in addition to having mortgages and caregiving responsibilities, it makes advancing to the next stage in their career more difficult,” says Johnston.

It is for this reason that Johnston has helped to plant the seeds for a robust program of fundraising at Bloomberg Nursing called the Educating Nursing’s Future Fund, which seeks to engage donors and alumni in making contributions that will bolster the financial support of students in addition to increasing equity and access for talented prospective nurses, and emerging leaders.

“It has been a wild ride, it doesn’t feel like it has been ten years, but I am forever grateful to U of T for giving me the opportunity to lead such an inspirational community of nurses and scholars,” says Johnston, “I look forward to seeing where Bloomberg Nursing is headed next.”