By Barry Hertz
Sheldon Levy has chosen his fate.
“Right now students come to Ryerson for specific programs, rather than the university as a whole,” says Levy between bites of cheese pizza and gulps of Diet Coke.
“They need to love it all. We will do this.” Even though Levy says “we,” it really means that he will be the one to lead Ryerson to greatness.
His legacy, his future on this Earth, seems to fall on the shoulders of this scrappy tract of downtown land filled with rotting buildings and hallowed halls. Sheldon Levy will leave his mark. But, before he does that, he needs to eat some more pizza. As Levy munches on his slice, a group of 15 or so students and faculty members — all part of the Levy-initiated Commission on Student Engagement — nod their heads at a room in Oakham House.
The crowd is composed of Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) flunkies and the politically pro-active sort, but despite their penchant for gabber, they all sit silently while their bearded leader continues his speech declaring his undying love for the campus. After describing how the university will soon lower acceptance levels to accommodate student space, Levy sits and patiently listens to the now-talkative students. They each take turns discussing what they dislike about the campus and how they want things to improve — essentially an hour-and-a-half bitch session.
Nora Loreto, RSU vice president Education, brings up something or other about tuition fees. A computer science student talks about the lack of campus space. Future RSU President Muhammad Ali Jabbar checks his cell before dashing out. Despite the complaints, Levy sits in his chair, nodding and asking questions.
He reveals a toothy, almost sheepish grin when someone throws a compliment his way. When Levy, his office’s director Erin McGinn and I were walking over to Oakham an hour earlier, I snuck a peak at Levy’s daily schedule. McGinn pointed out each half-hour of the day that Levy was scheduled to be somewhere. The planned blocks of grey text stretched over 12 straight hours, which was not unusual. “There’s no rest. It’s always a busy day for us,” McGinn said, trying to smile, but unable to keep up with her boss, who charged to Ryerson from his Avenue Road and Bloor Street condo at 7:30 this morning.
Back at Oakham, Levy takes in every word, rubbing his silver-grey beard over and over. Finally, McGinn absolutely-we-gotta-go-now drags Levy out. It’s likely he won’t go to bed until midnight. “I’m sorry folks, but I’m going to have to leave,” Levy says. “Thank you, really, though, for everything. It’s been a great day.” Susanne Williams, the Dean for the Faculty of Community Services, gives Levy a round of applause as he heads for the door in his dark trench coat and Ryerson baseball hat. As Levy turns to McGinn and towards another meet-and-greet, he’s still smiling. Levy has been in the post-secondary game for longer than he probably cares to remember.
Though he’s just finishing his first year as president, the 57-year-old Levy has been in the post-secondary sector for more than three decades. After studying math and computer science at York University, Levy hop-scotched from university to university. “When I was in classes, I was very poor… I also married at a young age, but the amount of relief available to students back in the 1970s was so greater than now,” Levy recalls.
He earned his bachelor’s and MA degrees from York, and shortly thereafter began teaching computer sciences at the school. Still, the administration bug bit hard and it wasn’t long until Levy held vice presidential positions at York, the University of Toronto, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and, finally, he became president at Sheridan College. “He was always thinking, always working, always doing,” Sheila Embleton, York’s vice president Academic, says.
“He’s always (solving) a seemingly unsolvable problem.”
Gary Polonsky, president of the UOIT, agrees that Levy has an insatiable hunger for adventure, and secretly hoped Levy would take over for him in a few years. “Ryerson got to him first, but he was always thinking about ways to improve everything here. You won’t be able to find a disparaging word about him from Pickering to Coburn.”
Indeed, digging up dirt on Levy is next to impossible. While you couldn’t throw a rock at Ryerson without hitting someone who had some criticism of the President’s Office during Claude Lajeunesse’s reign, the harshest words on Levy turn out to be not too harsh at all. “The only thing is that Sheldon can be a little too nice about things, which makes it difficult to go head-to-head with him on issues like tuition fee hikes.
“It’s like a weird wrestling match,” says Loreto, who nonetheless praises Levy as a huge change from Lajeunesse. “Sheldon gets excited and passionate. Claude and I, on the other hand, didn’t get along right from the get-go.” When Lajeunesse announced his leave, the school was left with a candidate search process lasting more than 10 months.
Though Levy had served at nearly every university in Southern Ontario besides Ryerson, joining the school never occurred to him. “I was not in the search until Bill called me and told me to look into Ryerson,” says Levy, referring to former Ontario Premier William Davis. “And here I am.” Almost immediately upon his hiring last February, Levy made a direct impact after he spoke to the press: “In some magical way, I think (my previous jobs) were all part of a mystical plan to be able to be here today.”
Suddenly, Ryerson had a new president and — if we interpret his comments literally — some sort of magician, too. Remarkably, Levy’s colleagues in the creaky tower of Jorgenson agree. “He’s a very energetic man, and it’s not just everything that he does (in office). He’s always thinking about Ryerson’s future,” Diane Schulman, Ryerson’s associate vice president Academic, says. “I get e-mails from him late at night to early in the morning.”
After sifting through Levy’s speeches, I realized that Ryerson isn’t just Levy’s new responsibility; it’s his legacy. He knows what he wants and he knows how he’s going to get it. After all, the man has a freakin’ “Master Plan.” Fate, as Levy alluded last February, has led him to Ryerson, and damned if he isn’t going to fulfill his destiny.
Since Levy announced it in a speech to the Canada Club in March, his scheme to open up Ryerson to Toronto has dictated all his actions. Suddenly, Ryerson doesn’t have a President overseeing an academic jungle; it has an ambassador to the city. “We will pursue campus intensification… We hope to consider innovative opportunities to acquire property… and serve Ryerson’s long-term space needs,” Levy said on March 8.
“We have an opportunity to define the Ryerson University of the future.”
While it was easy to label Levy’s plans to take over Sam the Record Man as ambitious, or just plain weird, Levy seemingly refuses to believe that Ryerson can be anything less than the new Roman Empire. This strikes me most while standing in the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s (ACT) offices at Church and Carlton streets with Levy and Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae. As they joke like giddy schoolgirls, it’s clear Levy’s working the room.
“I know we can be a successful urban university, we just need to try different things out,” Levy explains. “This ‘Nuit Blanche’ thing… Kyle, can we get that?”
The “Nuit Blanche” Levy asks about is an annual event modelled after the Paris concept of having galleries open all night, allowing residents a chance to explore their neighbourhoods. “We’re hoping to set it up for early September,” Rae says. “We could showcase our Blackstar collection in the quad!” Levy exclaims, referring to Ryerson’s exclusive black-and-white photography collection. Levy and Rae are at the ACT offices having just returned from one of Levy’s “walk-a-bouts,” where he meets up with city councillors and tours neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown in order to “touch base” with Ryerson’s nearby communities.
The two continue to tour the offices, all while carrying large, green bags of organic steaks they picked up earlier at the deli Cumbrae’s. Levy cranes his neck, looking at every corner of the office like a curious child until his handlers move him to his lunch meeting, a smile stretching across his face. “We’re already half-an-hour late, and I don’t want to get into anymore trouble,” Levy says.
Another half-hour, another scheduling hole filled. After a few days of phone tag, I finally get to sit down with Levy when he’s not talking to 17 other people. As I rush towards his office, something still haunts me: that smile. Not that it’s creepy, but I just can’t figure out why he smiles so often. My colleagues had warned me that, in interviews, Levy can come off like a “space cadet.” Is that the reason for the smile? Is that why he greets each person who crosses his path, as if stuck in some Capra-esque town from the 1950s? Is Levy just a bit, well, too open? “What it comes down to is that I just can’t be distant from people. It’s just not me. People say I’m too open, that it’s a bad strategy. But it’s just who I am,” Levy explains, observing the gorgeous view from his Jorgenson office.
“Trusting and being open with people is not a bad strategy. I don’t want to be just a person on the 13th floor.” His walls are decked with photographs and still illustrations from image arts students. A mahogany desk and boardroom table fills up the rest of the space.
Between talk of his favourite types of music (country ? la Garth Brooks), hobbies (bird watching and riding motorcycles) and authors (Elizabeth George), I still notice the smile and wonder what goes on behind his grin. Suddenly, I remember something Polonsky told me earlier about Levy’s constant optimism:
“He knows he has to be enthusiastic because he can’t achieve anything unless everyone else around him is as excited as he is. He believes in Ryerson and knows he can get people to believe in it too.”
After more than 30 years of struggling through the usual bureaucratic nonsense of universities, Levy’s finally on top, with his vision firmly intact — and it’s good to be on top. “You have to say you’re proud loud. If you don’t believe it, you look like a phony,” Levy says. Before I can finish the interview to ask him if his second year will be as busy and bombastic as the first, his aides come running in, ushering Levy to the next, firmly scheduled half-hour of his life.
And, of course, he’s still smiling. His fate is sealed.