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Stepping Out

photography by mike ford

Mamdouh Shoukri became York University’s seventh president and vice-­chancellor on July 1, 2007. He ends his second term as president on June 30. During his time in the role, Shoukri was a member of the Board of Governors, an ex officio member of all board committees, a member of the York University Senate and an ex officio member of all Senate committees. Shoukri came to York from McMaster University, where he had been vice-president research and international affairs since 2001. For his contributions to the flourishing of Ontario’s academic institutions, as both an engineer and an administrator, he was named a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario in 2013, and awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is a Senior Fellow of Massey College, and a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Canadian Society for Mechanical ­Engineering. The York University Magazine spoke with ­President Shoukri recently about how York has evolved during his 10-year tenure, and what the next 10 years might bring for the University.

THE MAGAZINE: Why were you interested in becoming president of York University 10 years ago?

SHOUKRI: I knew that York had a very strong academic and research presence in many areas of knowledge. I believed there was a clear strategic direction for York to become more comprehensive and more research intensive. My sense was that the University’s size helped to give it credibility and would enable us to build the remaining parts on solid ground. I knew that York was in a location that was projected to grow and evolve in terms of population, economic activities and so on. I was also drawn to York’s commitment to social justice and social values as a progressive university, and this is very much aligned with my own values. So when I considered all these things together, I thought it was a good fit on both a professional and a personal level.

THE MAGAZINE: Would you agree that York is a very different place now than when you arrived 10 years ago?

SHOUKRI: Yes, York is very different now than it was 10 years ago. There’s no question that all indicators suggest we are a major player in postsecondary education in Canada and North America. I think there is much wider recognition of York’s research strengths, our increased comprehensiveness, increased infrastructure and the resulting improvement in York’s academic excellence and student life over the past decade.

We continue to build a strong culture of academic planning – integrated academic planning. This is something I am very proud of, and it is clear that we are far more comprehensive than we were before, with significant growth in engineering, health and life sciences. Early on, creating infrastructure for the life sciences was very important to me. And one can see the results of that in the Life Sciences Building. The establishment of an engineering school is, of course, a very obvious landmark, with the school now housed in the award-winning Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence. Many of the services that are available to students have grown significantly as well. I’m particularly excited about the new student centre and major addition to the Schulich School of Business, both now under construction.

I think you need to advocate a vision and you work with your colleagues on bringing that vision to life

The positive results of our research intensification efforts are very evident when you consider the results of the recent CFREF (Canada First Research Excellence Fund) competition. In the past, York had never been included in federal research competitions of that size and stature, where a research program is recognized as the best in Canada and with that support can then become the best in the world. In 2016, our vision research group succeeded in securing one of these grants, and this is due to their strength and also because of the infrastructure we created to support the capacity of the University to bring together an application of that size.

THE MAGAZINE: What role did you have in shaping or enabling all of that?

SHOUKRI: There’s no question in my mind that the president creates the vision and sets the tone. I think one of my major contributions was to continue to drive for more integrated academic planning – for the aligning of finances and budgetary expenditures in clear ways to support our academic plans. Doing so helped to shape and enable the vision of becoming a more comprehensive and more research-intensive university.

The other thing I think I was responsible for doing was putting together a leadership team that has done an incredible job over the past 10 years of moving York forward. You can have all the ideas you want, good or bad, but getting them done and done right requires having the right bright and capable people around you, who first buy into your vision and then are willing to do what it takes to make it happen.

THE MAGAZINE: You say a large part of your role is creating a work environment that makes things happen. How did you do that?

SHOUKRI: Well, as I said earlier, I think you need to advocate a vision and you work with your colleagues on bringing that vision to life. I can’t say enough about the two most senior vice-presidents we have had here during the last five years or so, who helped me make that happen and accelerate the University’s development, Rhonda Lenton and Gary Brewer. In fact, one of the things I knew I wanted to do when I became president was to create a new position – of the provost. I felt strongly that this position was an important element in creating an integrated academic plan for the entire university, giving the chief academic the opportunity and the power and authority to align budgetary expenditures with academic priorities. And I think that worked very well, particularly when you have people in that position of the calibre of Rhonda Lenton and, before her, Patrick Monahan.

THE MAGAZINE: How did you balance all the factors when running the day-to-day life of the University?

SHOUKRI: University presidents for a long time have had to balance so many factors. There are governments, the external community and the media. There are faculty and staff, alumni and trade unions. But, for me, I start from one important point. First of all, why are we here? We are here for the students. We are here – and this is very clear in my mind – to prepare the next generation of world citizens.

Protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech, and trying to create the environment that allows for that, is very important

With the complexity of the world, it is not difficult to forget, but in my mind there are very clear reasons we’re here. There are clear principles underlying whatever decisions we need to make in order to balance all of these factors, so that whatever we do is driven by and is protective of these principles. We are here for the students. We are here to create knowledge, preserve knowledge and disseminate knowledge. We have to make sure that we are promoting research, and that we are creating the right environment for discovery and innovation.

The other thing, particularly these days and, I think, throughout the history of universities, is that universities are incredible forums for the exchange of ideas. Therefore, protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech, and trying to create the environment that allows for that, is very important. The other thing to remember is how universities are governed. Universities are created by legislation and governed by two bodies, the Senate and the Board of Governors. Each of these oversight bodies has distinct characteristics, and the administration sits between them. So part of the major balancing act of running the day-to-day life of the University is to make sure that your relationship with those two bodies is balanced. And, as president, you are almost a guardian of the relationship between those bodies – one which is responsible for academic decisions and the other which is responsible for all the other aspects of the University’s health, financial and otherwise.

THE MAGAZINE: What about the other groups, like donors and alumni? What part do they play in the University’s well-being?

SHOUKRI: Let me start with alumni. I can’t tell you how proud our alumni are of their experience at York. And I think that’s something we need to recognize more. So, over the years, I have made it a point to reach out to alumni whenever I could. I have met York alumni who are working in every field of human endeavour, and I couldn’t be prouder of seeing not only their achievements, but also their sense of loyalty to York.

Donors are also very important to the University. They are important because of the investment they make, but let’s be very clear: The investment they make is very important but, perhaps more importantly, donors are people of influence in society who partner with the University and can be its strongest advocates. These are individuals who put a significant amount of their wealth in the University, so they are often your best ambassadors because of their belief and investment in York.

That said, you have to ensure that decisions associated with the investment of those funds do not affect academic freedom. In my time at York, we never raised or accepted donations that did not directly support our academic priorities. And that is why one of the things I did was bring the fundraising function inside the University to involve the deans and others to ensure our fundraising activities were aligned with and supported our strategic objectives.

THE MAGAZINE: Over the past 10 years, do you think there has been a shift in public perceptions about and interest in York University?

SHOUKRI: Yes, I do. There are a number of things that have happened over the past 10 years that I think have contributed to improving York’s institutional reputation. First of all, I’m very proud of the development of a culture of integrated planning at York. But how much of that does the world see? The answer is that they don’t see it. But they are starting to see the results of that – the CFREF grant I mentioned earlier is one example, but there are others. When 13 universities in Ontario submitted proposals to create a new campus in the province, the government chose York and our Markham Centre campus proposal.

This reflects the incredible credibility and strength of York, and people take note of that. We have also begun to invest in enhancing York’s reputation with a strategic marketing and communications program, including advertising, and this is making an impact in terms of changing perceptions of York with prospective students, their parents and the public at large. And when you see that the increase in first-choice applications for universities is just over one per cent in Ontario, but the increase for York in the latest data is six per cent, this tells you there is something very positive happening at York.

We also now have more programs in areas of science, engineering and health, and new campuses in Costa Rica, and Hyderabad, India. And the fact that the subway is coming to York later this year is also resonating very positively with people.

Given the positive trajectory York is on, I don’t think you need a crystal ball to see the future

THE MAGAZINE: Where do you think York will be 10 or 20 years from now?

SHOUKRI: Given the positive trajectory York is on, I don’t think you need a crystal ball to see the future. I think that in the next decade or so, York will be one of the leading research-intensive, comprehensive universities in the country. It will have stronger community reach and much stronger global reach. I have no doubt about that. I believe York, in 10, 20 years, will continue – because of the incredible strength we have in the humanities, social sciences and the arts, as well as our heritage – to be a university with clear, strong commitment to social innovation and issues of social justice.

We are, as I said earlier, in the right area. There will be growth in demand for postsecondary education in this area. There will be more growth for York’s research output, not only in the sciences and health, but also in the humanities and social sciences. I think the arrival of the subway will do many things for us. It will connect us with the centre of the city, and as much as it would allow us to reach out to those living and working there, it would allow them to reach out to us as well. And that will also bring attention of the north. York Region is the natural place for York University’s activities, and the subway will help to connect us to the north and the Markham campus.

I also hope that York will never lose the character of being a progressive university, where ideas are debated and where everyone has the right to speak, and a place for continuing debate and discussion. York’s historic strength is a commitment to social responsibility, and I hope we will continue to be a beacon for issues like freedom of expression and the rights of minorities and of equity more broadly defined. We need to continue to create an environment that will fight against the high levels of polarization we have been seeing evolving both locally and globally. And I think universities like York are equipped not only to be part of that fight, but to help shape and define it.

THE MAGAZINE: Let’s talk about Glendon College. It’s an important part of York’s character.

SHOUKRI: York has been a strong – through Glendon – advocate of bilingual education. Glendon offers the only university degrees in both official languages in southwestern Ontario. And because of our lobbying efforts and our strong commitment to bilingual and French education, we have managed to secure the funds to build the Centre of Excellence. We are investing in expanding the programming offered by Glendon to include new programs in science, business and psychology, among others. So I see Glendon as a very important, defining characteristic of what York is all about. I can’t say enough about the incredible work the current Principal of Glendon, Donald Ipperciel, has been doing. He brought with him a new spirit to move Glendon forward as an integral part of the York community and as our flagship for bilingual education in this region of Ontario. And so, I see a great future for Glendon.

THE MAGAZINE: What were some of the highlights of our fundraising campaigns?

SHOUKRI: During my term as president, there have been some memorable moments when it comes to fundraising. For example, when we wanted to build the new engineering school and reached out to government, it became very clear that government funding would not be enough. So we needed to raise money to ensure the school could be built, and we were very fortunate.

I reached out to Seymour Schulich and because of his own long-term commitment to York, and because he was convinced of the importance of the project, he introduced me to his partner, Pierre Lassonde. And it was Pierre who invested $25 million to help establish our school of engineering.

Another recent example is the $20-million gift from our own graduate Victor Dahdaleh to establish our institute for global health. In both cases, because of our clear academic plans, when we reached out to them, we had projects and opportunities which reflected exactly what they wanted to support and what we needed to do academically.

THE MAGAZINE: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to your successor?

SHOUKRI: I think Rhonda Lenton has the knowledge, the determination and the personality that will allow her to reach out to people and continue to build bridges to take this university to the next level. In fact, I think she will take it far beyond that. So my only advice to her is to stay the course and continue reaching out to people. I look forward to watching her success as she leads the University forward in the coming years.

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