PHOTO: NATALIA BALCERZAK

The Levy isn’t breaking

In Features /

He might be retiring in 2015, but Sheldon Levy is far from done. Angela Hennessy takes a look at his life so far, and what the future may hold. Spoiler: he won’t run for mayor

Sheldon Levy almost wasn’t president.

He had dropped out of the race for the top spot at Ryerson midway through because he had decided it just wasn’t for him. “No one knows this but I wrote a letter saying that I’m not interested and they said, ‘Oh my God, but you’re on the short list,’” Levy says with his trademark smile that never fully leaves his face.

When the position first became available, Levy had no interest in it. It was only because his friend and former premier of Ontario, Bill Davis, had told him he would be good for it and urged him to apply that Levy considered it. Shortly after being told he was on the short list, there was no list anymore. It was just Levy.

He became president of Ryerson in August 2005 and is now serving his second five-year term set to end in July 2015. “This is by far the best job I’ve ever had and the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says.

His office is on the 13th floor of Jorgenson Hall at Ryerson. Its corner windows look out onto a downtown that Levy is helping to shape. The office is filled with framed pictures of students’ work and some of his own great accomplishments, including the renovating of Maple Leaf Gardens — the historic hockey venue now home to the Ryerson Rams. The pictures hang around with silent pride and are the brush strokes of a decade full of big dreams coming true. A commemorative memento to Levy with a picture of the Rams new rink reads: “A Heart Of Blue and Gold.”

During his time at Ryerson he has transformed not only the campus but also part of downtown. Levy has been hailed by many as a real game-changer for the once-fledgling campus and the east end of the downtown core.

When Levy started at Ryerson the school was hiding behind the shadow of the University of Toronto. The campus was in the downtown core, but tucked away in corners no one besides the students paid much attention to.

“It was very clear to me right at the beginning that [Ryerson] was a very proud school but it physically was not saying it,” says Levy. “Soon the one hand it was proud of its heritage, proud of who it was —but it looked to me that the way we were expressing ourselves was internally, not externally.”

Levy decided one of the best ways to give Ryerson something to be proud of was to develop the campus. He wanted Ryerson to be more “boastful” and to give students an incredible space to work in. One of his first big announcements came when he said: “We’re going to be on Yonge Street.” To him that was a good articulation of pride and he was speaking up for an otherwise quieted and hidden campus. “I want to define Yonge Street as Ryerson, not Ryerson to be defined by Yonge Street.”

Levy says people scoffed at that idea and many told him it was never going to happen. But since then, Levy has overseen monumental changes to the campus including the renovation of the Ryerson Image Centre in 2012 and the closing part of Gould Street to vehicles. If Levy comes across as arrogant, it might be because he has earned it. He has expanded the university in almost every direction. The Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) opened in 2006 on Bay Street, The Digital Media Zone (DMZ)— a groundbreaking incubator for entrepreneurial students to brainstorm ideas and meet possible investors — opened in2009 at Yonge-Dundas Square.

In 2008, Ryerson negotiated a deal to buy the land where Sam the Record Man had been and in2015, the Student Learning Centre will open in this space. Levy is changing the city.

Levy has been a leader in post-secondary education for more than 30 years. He previously served as vice-president, finance and strategy, at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, he was vice-president, institutional affairs at York University and was president at Sheridan College (now Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning).

Levy says it was only by chance that he ended up working in the education system.

“The last thing I ever thought in my life is that I would have been a university president,” Levy says. “I was a young kid in Toronto from a lower-middle-class family. As a young boy, I never thought of having a career at all. I was just trying to get from one day to the next.”

Growing up, Levy was never a good student and he fooled around all the time with his friends rather than studying. His favourite thing to do was play hockey.

Levy, who is now 64, says he was a product of his generation and that he was never made to feel like school was very important. His father became a truck driver after coming home from the Second World War and worked hard to make ends meet. His mother stayed at home and tried to care for Levy and his two sisters.

When Levy was just 14 years old he moved away from his parents’ home and went to live with his older sister. He never believed he was going to accomplish much. He was never told he was smart or capable of doing anything.

That was until he met his own game-changer.

George Stulac was Levy’s math teacher in his final year of high school at Downsview Secondary School. Levy had struggled through school up to that point and then suddenly found an interest in mathematics.

It had begun with a class on derivatives in mathematics. Many people would find this type of math complicated. But for the first time in Levy’s student life, he could understand something clearly. “I remember to this day that I was be-ginning to see where this [the math lesson] was heading and I was beginning to see where he was going on day one.” Levy says he could envision the lesson plan weeks ahead of what he was being taught and that most teachers would have told him to stay put and learn as instructed. But Stulac was different. He did something for Levy that no one had ever done — inspired him to think big.

“All George Stulac did was say, ‘I bet you can do day 50 [of the lesson],’” Levy says excitedly. Stulac encouraged him to follow his vision with the lesson and move forward with it. “That was the first time someone gave me encouragement and acknowledged that I was smart.”

After this experience Levy pulled his socks up and decided to fight for his education. He at-tended York University where he earned his first class honours and MA degrees and later went on to lecture in both mathematics and computer science. In 1999 York awarded him with an honourary doctorate of law. His academic accolades don’t end there.

There is a YouTube video posted by Delhi fellows who had done work at the DMZ sincerely thanking Sheldon Levy for his support. He was once given a live cow — the highest trading currency — from a family in Kenya for his support of their daughter’s education. “[It’s important] to give people confidence in themselves … the DMZ was created because it was a place to give people the confidence to do what was possible,” says Sheldon. “That’s what George did for me. ”He isn’t sure where he would have ended up if people like Stulac hadn’t believed in him. “Too often we create circumstances where we either deliberately or by accident create paths of failure for people rather than paths of success.” This is no longer true for Ryerson —over 90 per cent of its graduates are employed within two years of graduation, according to the school’s latest numbers.

These days Sheldon receives almost a constant flow of recognition.

Toronto Life magazine named him the 16thmost influential person in Toronto for 2013 and pointed to him as “the best mayor Toronto never had.” He continues advancing the university as a city-builder— which he had announced he would do in 2009 — and says he always wants to bring “swagger” to students.

The first time Levy saw the pow-er behind changing the exterior of a campus was when Harry Arthurs, who was the president of York University at the time, tore down “a big ugly ramp only history will remember.”  The move shocked Levy who thought you would have needed to build around it. Although Ryerson has probably benefited the most from Levy’s ability to think big, it was not the first school Levy dreamed big for.

When he started working at Sheridan, he had discovered that it was Hollywood’s animation capital and that no one knew about it. Similar to his first experience at Ryerson, it was almost as if he had discovered a shy genius hiding with o clothes on. He knew he needed to change that. And despite the school board being in the middle of one of the most severe cutbacks it had ever faced, he dreamed big. In 1997 when Dragon Heart, a movie that had been worked on by Sheridan alum James Straus, was nominated for an Academy Award, Levy had a sign erected on Yonge Street with dragons blowing smoke that read: Sheridan Rules Animation. “People thought I was totally crazy,” he says. “But that was probably my first really big idea.” And it worked. This move started to garner the college some of the attention it had sorely been missing and there is now an area of the campus named after Levy.

Levy’s dealings with another sign on Yonge Street have brought him a great deal more of controversy in the past year. When Ryerson purchased the land on Yonge Street, they had agreed to rehang the iconic, flashing Sam sign on whatever was built in that location. But that has proven to be more difficult than thought and Levy is now working to figure out a new location for the sign. It caused music fans, heritage supporters and some local politicians to light up and Levy has taken most of the heat.

He has been accused of “welshing on his deal” and destroying city heritage. Local politician Josh Matlow publicly expressed his dis-appointment in the school’s president and Levy was even accused of lying about the condition the sign was in. Sam sign lovers wrote letters of petition to city hall.

But he has handled it with ease and is confident that an appropriate situation will be worked out in fair time. Levy is no stranger to adversity and appreciates that when you have ideas that step (or leap) outside the box, there is going to be some pushback. “You are vulnerable to failure and so that’s what scares people,” he says.

Levy announced last December that he would be retiring at the end of this term despite the university changing its rules to allow a president to continue on after two terms served. He is grateful for that, but says it’s still time to move on.

Shortly after 10 a.m., there is a knock on the door of Sheldon’s office. His next appointment is waiting. One last question. When you ask Sheldon Levy what he plans to do next, he has the same response for everyone — he really isn’t sure. The rumour mill ran wild last summer when people were talking about him possibly running for mayor, but he won’t be and he will assure you of that.

Whatever happens next for Levy most certainly will be big. There’s just no use in thinking small.

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