The silent man

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By Kenny Yum

I remember Terry Grier.

The short man with an unmistakable white moustache walked by me once, I think about a year ago. He strolled out, briefcase in hand, of Jorgenson’s front door out into Gould Street, exiting Ryerson, a university he was president of until Claude took over.

I’ve never met Claude Lajeunesse.

Mr. Grier’s successor and I made eye contact a few months ago, he crossing Gerrard Street at the mouth of the Quad’s north end, myself crossing the street to the other side, getting ready to drop off a stack of Eyeopeners to a circulation point. Two jaywalkers, we crossed paths at an unlikely point, him to his secured 13th floor office, myself to deliver the news to Ryerson campus.

I invoke Terry Grier because in my five years at Ryerson, as a student and as a member of the campus press, I have seen not much more of Lajeunesse than I have of Grier. And Grier has been long gone.

I’ve never heard Claude’s accented voice beyond the walls of the 14th floor board rooms where I attended a Ryerson board of governors meeting that he presided. I’ve written a few editorials about this man, and I remember directing a writer to cover a “day in the life of Claude” piece a few years ago.

But beyond these connections, a few degrees of separations — indeed, meagre incidents — I don’t’ know this man who leads out university.

As Claude prepares to enter into a second term as the president of the university, the question many students will ask is, “Who is Claude?”

That Claude seems unapproachable is probably untrue, but to say that he is distant from students and his faculty is an understatement.

The review committee that approved his contract renewal said that one concern should be faculty morale. His communication with faculty was also another area that the review board, as do we, find lacking.

In truth, we don’t expect Claude to make the effort to talk to each student and staff, not any more than we’d expect a professor to take each of his students out for a coffee.

But in the campus media, we have found it difficult, if not impossible, to reach Mr. Lajeunesse. The likely response we get if we dial his number is form his assistant, or even his assistant’s assistant. Our reporters find themselves stonewalled each time they try to reach Claude, as if he needed to know our motives, our questions. As if we were outsiders wanting to get at him.

Our motives, as your weekly newspaper, are simple — to get Claude to communicate his mandate as president to you through his reaction to news events. That simple two-way communication process is critical in public arenas.

But he has evaded our weekly efforts to contact him.

If you are a reader of both Ryerson weeklies, there is a good chance that you’ll see a lot of pictures of Claude. At the 50th anniversary launch, at the reopening of a department centre or at a United Way charity event. If you read closely, you’d know that the only time Claude ventured to give both The Ryersonian and The Eyeopener some of his precious time was when Maclean’s published its annual university rankings issue. To refuse to talk to us on such an occasion, it seems, would be a major faux pas on Claude’s part.

When University of Toronto president Bob Pritchard steps down in the year 2000, he will be replaced, no doubt, with a public figure rather than a practice academic and administrator. Pritchard entered his U of T office as a well-connected man, more adept at spinning fundraising dollars out of his social circles than understanding academic policies or the intricacies of running a university.

It will be a sad day when all university presidents are like the Pritchards and Lajeunesses — leaders who are more comfortable addressing the Empire Club, as did Claude late last year to boost and sell our university’s reputation, than keeping in touch with his staff, faculty and students.

It will be a sad day because it will mean they have started to lose touch.

Indeed, I’ll remember Claude Lajeunesse, just like I’ll remember Jean Chretien: in pictures, in a far off media land, feeding sound bites to ever distant constituents.

Next week, The Eyeopener will profile prominent people on campus — people like Linda Grayson, Ryerson v.p,. administration, and David Steele, RyeSAC’s president. And, as in the past, we have been putting calls in Claude’s office.

I just hope Claude will remember who we are when we come calling.

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