By Adam Vrankulj
When Sheldon Levy came to Ryerson in 2005, the school was in transition. The university had just dropped the “Polytechnic” from its name and had spent the last five years expanding. In a short time, Ryerson added new buildings for engineering, graphics communications management, continuing education and business. Ryerson was thriving.
But Levy also had some fences to mend.
The previous president, Claude Lajeunesse, had antagonized staff and students by giving himself a 50 per cent raise at the same time as tuition was on the rise. He also irritated the school’s Islamic community by declining to set aside two hours every Friday in the gymnasium to allow Muslims to observe prayer, saying “we’re not a university based on religious faith. We have a place for faith activities, but a gym is for gym.”
The new president quickly went to work. He launched the Master Plan, a blueprint for the school to expand. He brought students into the process and started working the provincial government for more money to help.
Now, more than three years after taking office, Levy is facing a presidential advisory review committee. The committee, comprised of faculty, school donors and one student, will evaluate the president’s performance so far.
If he gets a good review, Levy will stay for another five-year term, starting in 2010. If his review is bad, he has hinted that he will step down.
On the surface, Levy’s done a lot. He acquired the Sam the Record Man building, snagged two hefty government grants, and commissioned fancy architectural plans for Ryerson’s potential future buildings.
But there are still some unfulfilled promises and disatisfied people. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear how many of the good things that have befallen Ryerson in the last three years are Levy’s doing, and how much is good timing.
Sheldon Levy’s resume includes almost every institute of higher learning in the GTA. Although he studied mathematics, Levy has spent most of his career as a university adminsitrator.
He worked at York University for 23 years, where he eventually rose to vice-president institutional affairs; at Sheridan College, where he was president for six years, he launched a plan to expand the school’s Trafalgar Road campus (one of its signature buildings bears his name); and at the University of Toronto, he honed his skills negotiating with the government as the school’s vice-president government and institutional relations.
He’s brought all this experience into play at Ryerson.
In 2007, he secured $40 million from the province to buy land around the school. Earlier this year, he closed a deal to buy the old Sam the Record Man building and acquired a further $45 million from the government to build a new library on the site.
“We shouldn’t be defined as the campus behind Sam’s,” he said on taking office in 2005. Three years on, he’s been proven right.
He’s also brought students and faculty together with one of the world’s top architects to create the Master Plan. If Levy has his way, the plan will see soaring new buildings on campus with more study space for students, Gould Street shut to traffic and new cafes and stores built on campus.
Both faculty and students have fallen under Levy’s spell.
“He’s done amazing for the university so far,” says Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), pointing to new student lounges and the fact that Levy regularly walks the campus looking for things that need improvement.
Jabbar also suggests that Levy’s connections in the provincial government have served the school well, securing the funding it needs to grow.
Dave Mason, a computer science professor and the head of the Ryerson Faculty Association, says the difference between Levy and Lajeunesse is “like night and day.” While Lajeunesse had a reputation for being uncommunicative, it’s easy to talk to Levy about the faculty’s concerns.
Levy’s deftness in public relations has also helped the school: when Ryerson wanted to buy Sam’s, the president made sure the media knew about it. When the province handed Ryerson $45 million earlier this year, the school organized a photo-op with the premier and the president, flanked by smiling students.
He’s developed a good relationship with the city as well — when Sears moved out of its Mutual Street headquarters, Ryerson teamed up with the municipal government to (unsuccessfully) bid for the space. The two partners are also at work to take over a building on Victoria Street and share it.
Despite his success, Levy’s presidency has had its controversies. In 2006, he defended the university’s decision to award an honourary doctorate to Margaret Somerville, a McGill professor opposed to gay families. As a sign of protest, during the ceremony, professors turned their backs and displayed rainbow pride flags and signs.
Secondly, between 2006 and 2007, Ryerson’s annual tuition revenues increased by $20 million, but spending on bursaries and scholarships increased by only $1.9 million. At the time, then-RSU president Nora Loreto commented that “students wish Sheldon Levy’s actions demonstrated the commitment to accessibility he claims.”
Now, Loreto says that although Levy, on a personal level, is a nice guy, she thinks he is “too friendly with the government,” which makes student advocacy a difficult task, and all his goodwill is for naught. “The odds are so stacked against students. It doesn’t matter who is there.”
Mason says that, although Levy is respectful of faculty at the university, he and his administration have promised to lighten up professors’ workload, but then not delivered at the bargaining table. According to Mason, the RFA is only trying to achieve workloads that represent the sector norms.
Others question whether Levy’s grand designs can even be completely credited to him. “It’s not one person’s vision,” Loreto says — and Levy agrees.
“Whatever success there is in a period of time can be attributed to 1,001 different people,” he says. “I don’t believe the president’s office can do things on its own, or even come close to doing things on its own.”
Before Levy became president, the school was already expanding, thanks to provincial money under the SuperBuild program, which funded the construction of five new buildings on campus.
Under Lajeunesse, Ryerson had already started negotiating for property around the school and drawn up plans to transform Sam the Record Man into a new school library. It was a stroke of luck that the Sniderman family who owned the record store was ready to close shop shortly after Levy came to office.
No one seems to want Levy out.
Jabbar says Levy will do the best job of implementing the Master Plan. “The person who initiated it is the best person to move it [foward].”
Jennifer Pye, a third-year nursing student, thinks that Levy should stick around to complete his visions outlined in his Master Plan. “I think that if he stayed, it would get done. When someone’s really motivated, … they’re more willing to step out of the way [to get it done]. But if we had a new guy come in, that really doesn’t care much about it, [the Master Plan] might not get done or it might not be to the same extent.”
Four members of the presidential review committee are already in place; another seven will be appointed on Oct. 20 by the Board of Governors. They have to finish the review by January.
Ironically, Levy is the first to deflect credit for Ryerson’s accomplishments over the last three years away from himself.
“People can say ‘boy, oh boy, since he came we’re able to do this or this, but the truth is it wasn’t because I had a money-tree — it’s because I came at a particular time,” he says. “The context that you face…is going to shape what you are able to do.”