By Adrian Morrow
Claude Lajeunesse was not a charming man.
Ryerson’s president from 1995 to 2005, Lajeunesse made himself unpopular at every turn.
He raised tuition at the same time as he gave himself a big raise.
When people tried to protest rising fees, his administration put Jorgenson Hall into lockdown. The message to the school was clear: it’s my way or the highway.
But there was a reason Ryerson put up with Lajeunesse for a decade: he got shit done. Under Lajeunesse’s leadership, the school went through a period of enormous growth that saw five new buildings built and thousands more students welcomed into Ryerson.
A clear-eyed pragmatist, Lajeunesse echewed airy dreams and grand ambitions (including a whimsical but expensive design for the engineering building) in favour of fast, affordable plans.
Thanks to him, the campus expanded on time and on budget.
Sheldon Levy is everything Lajeunesse wasn’t. Soft-spoken and grandfatherly, Ryerson’s current president has charmed everyone.
Equally comfortable hobnobbing with cabinet ministers or discussing campus problems with students, Levy is disarmingly easygoing.
When the Ryerson Students’ Union criticized him for rejecting their call for an academic boycott of Israel, he hosted an open forum on the issue. When students have lobbied for lower tuition fees, he’s backed their right to protest by allowing them to skip class. When reporters — including us — call him for comment, he’s ready to talk.
And, unlike Lajeunesse, Levy is a dreamer.
He launched the Master Plan, a 20-year vision for re-making Ryerson’s campus as a more pedestrian-friendly, urban university.
With the input of students, faculty and a team of architects, Levy wants to bury Ryerson’s image as a glorified technical college and replace it with the reputation it deserves, as a top-notch university in one of the world’s best cities.
It’s an ambitious plan, and one that will take time to fulfill.
For now, Levy is hesitant to point to specifics when asked what he’s done at Ryerson. He says modestly that anything good that’s come about during his administration is the work of the school’s thousands of students and staff, not himself.
Certainly, Levy’s fostered good relations with students and faculty, and got the government on board with the Master Plan, in the form of $80 million the province granted Ryerson to buy land and build a new library building on the site of Sam the Record Man.
But it’s hard for anyone to point to any single achievement — like Lajeunesse’s five buildings — of Levy’s first three years in charge.
And that’s why he needs a second term.
The school might be committed to the Master Plan, but it will take someone with Levy’s ambition to kick-start it.
Sure, it would be more efficient to have someone like Lajeunesse, putting up buildings and growing the school as fast and cheaply as possible.
But sooner or later, Ryerson has to dream big. If it ever wants to break with its Rye-High reputation, our school has to start taking the bold steps that Levy is proposing.
It will take more time and cost more money, but the payoff would be huge: a campus students actually want to hang out on, better classes, more money available for labs and reserch.
We can have all this if we’re willing to bet on a dreamer. It’s a bet worth making.