"It's really hard to leave."

After being at the centre of Ryerson's decision making for nearly a decade, Julia Hanigsberg is moving on to a new job in a new field. Sean Wetselaar and Jonah Brunet take a look at her career so far

In a glassed-in room tucked into the back of the Mattamy Athletic Centre, surrounded by a small crowd of formally-dressed retirees, Julia Hanigsberg is giving a speech. The crowd is made up almost entirely by Ryerson employees that have retired in the last year and their families. The higher-ups like to give them a formal send-off as part of a big managerial idea that the administration is a family — but for Hanigsberg this is not just another event on her exceedingly packed schedule. It's one of her last appointments in her time as vice-president administration and finance at the school.

As the retirees — from dozens of departments — progress across the stage to the sound of a short biography detailing their careers and "years of service," two other people are, in a way, being given their own send off. The first is the president — Sheldon Levy — who will retire at the end of this academic year. The other is Hanigsberg, who will be moving on to a new job as president and CEO of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Her last day at the school she has helped to remake is Nov. 28.

She doesn't like to use the phrase "the end of an era" — Hanigsberg says the foundation she has helped to build is too strong for it to be accurate. But there's no question that the departure of two of the change-makers that have reshaped the school is a big shift for the once-beleaguered polytechnic. And if her departure is not the end of an era, Julia Hanigsberg's shift out of the school is certainly the end of a crucial chapter.

Hanigsberg came to the school in January 2006 as general counsel and secretary of the board of governors. She'd come from a decade in government, the capstone of which was her time as chief of staff for the Attorney General's office. There are more bullet points on her resume than there's room to print, but after leaving government she spent a semester teaching at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

It was during her time at Osgoode that she met Sheldon Levy, then the newly-appointed president of Ryerson. In those days, Levy was still working to rebrand the administration after the reign of his predecessor, Claude Lajeunesse, which was plagued by a lack of transparency and infighting. Levy needed strong people to back him, and he convinced Hanigsberg quickly.


If her departure is not the end of an era, Julia Hanigsberg's shift out of the school is certainly the end of a crucial chapter.

In those years, the relatively new Liberal government was "putting lots of money into Canadian universities," Hanigsberg says. And Ryerson, the University of Toronto and York were all in the process of changing presidents, leading to a real sense of renewal in the sector. "It was an interesting time in post-secondary," she says.

She was introduced to Levy through a mutual friend and, "within five minutes, but it was probably more like 30 seconds, I was like, 'I want to work for this guy,'" she says.

"It was that ... kind of excitement and change and opportunity that transition brings."

She spent a year as interim Dean of the Chang School beginning in 2008. In 2010 she moved to her current portfolio, where she has worked on projects reaching from buildings like the Student Learning Centre to new managerial policies in the nine departments she wrangles.

Twice a year, Hanigsberg brings together the leaders of her nine divisions. She's a strong believer in conflating the personal and professional, and was disheartened when, in the first of these gatherings three years ago, everyone remained in their division clique and there were few new friends to speak of. This year however, the room is buzzing before she even arrives.

It's a snowy, overcast November day, and white light filters in through thin blinds on the Oakham lounge windows. The place is done up elegantly in black-and-white tablecloths, which compliment a glossy black piano in one corner and twin black-brick fireplaces. Combined with the sandy brick walls, exposed wooden rafters and tiny snowflakes swirling outside, the décor gives the vibe of a high-end ski resort.

Hanigsberg arrives and wanders around the room, stopping at each table, chatting and laughing as she goes. A lunch buffet heats up in one corner, filling the air with the scent of roast chicken and tomato sauce. In the opposite corner, there's a table stacked with hardcover books titled "The Organized Mind."

"Think of them as an early holiday gift," says Hanigsberg as she makes her rounds. "It didn't make sense for me to be giving gifts from beyond the grave."

The topic of her departure is a popular one, broached by long-time employees with sad smiles.

"It's dwindling down," she says. "I'm becoming less relevant in all the conversations ... You can't really be prepared for it until it happens."

But there is far more laughter than tears as Hanigsberg steps up to the microphone at the front of the room, tossing friendly jabs at colleagues — Dan who won't stop talking, or Jim who's texting under the table. Rather than departure, happiness is the theme of her speech. She refers to the group alternately as a "merry band" and a "motley crew."

"November has really hit me hard," she says. "We underestimate the impact we can have in an organization as big as this."

Her job is a complicated one. In simplest terms, Hanigsberg's office is responsible for everything that falls under her nine departments. These range from IT to capital projects and cover a huge range and number of disciplines.

The result of having such a broad managerial role is that a lot of Hanigsberg's time is spent coordinating and communicating with her nearly 650 employees. And according to Pinoo Bindhani, Hanigsberg's executive director (or as Bindhani phrases it, "chief of staff"), it's crucial that a V.P. is able to come into projects and understand them quickly.

"She is a leader who can understand issues and can arrive at what the core issue is with a laser-like focus," Bindhani says. "The clarity that she brings to any issue is commendable."

It was in an effort to bring her departments together that Hanigsberg and the administration introduced a buzzy phrase that is now synonymous with the school's admin — "people first." The term itself first appeared in Levy's administrative manifesto, "the master plan," and had to do with pedestrianization of campus. But Hanigsberg broadened it extensively in a blog post, and today it is a far-reaching term. At the mantra's core, what Hanigsberg and others have tried to do is shift the focus of the organization to people — students, staff and faculty — before other objectives.

"The proudest thing for me is now I hear people saying it all the time — it's just a normal thing to say," she says.

"It's part of the vernacular."

That connectivity between departments and people has been central to Hanigsberg's time at the school. As Bindhani put it, "We don't want people working in silos." Ensuring that there are open lines and a willingness to speak truth to power is one of the hardest parts of Hanigsberg's job, and that is perhaps no more evident than in the recent Gould Street debacle. The project, which included a two-stage repainting of Gould, would eventually cost the school $111,000 in essentially lost funds and lead to a public apology from Hanigsberg herself.

The apology was classic Hanigsberg — in a sector that has often been defined by secrecy and a lack of transparency in the administration, it would not have been a surprise to find a different executive sweeping the problems under the rug. But Hanigsberg took ownership for the mistake — which she says arose at least in part from a failure on her part to listen to those under her. Many of her people said that the paint-job was rushed and predicted some of the problems that arose.

"Understandably I have heard from many of you how deeply disappointed you were," she wrote in her public apology in January. "You are right to be disappointed."

It was partly a desire to be transparent — Hanigsberg writes a blog, tweets obsessively and pushes accessibility to the students wherever possible. But there was another factor at play. "I was genuinely sorry," she says.

"The clarity that she brings to any issue is commendable."

As Hanigsberg says, it's difficult to quantify the impact that one person can have, especially on an organization as big as Ryerson. She might be one of the most senior executives at the school, responsible for innumerable high-level decisions, but Ryerson employs around 6,500 people across its divisions.

Hanigsberg likes to talk about the impact that Levy has had on her — professionally and personally. She calls him a "dream boss" and credits him with much of Ryerson's "extremely intentional" growth. But for all the ways in which Levy has affected Ryerson, Hanigsberg has affected many of her own people — as the deluge of well-wishers seems to prove.

November has, like so many things that once seemed so very far away, come all at once for Hanigsberg — and now she is staring into the face of her last weeks at the institution she has helped to reshape. On Nov. 25, Ryerson will be hosting a farewell party for the departing vice-president. "It's my party & I'll cry if I want to," she tweeted on Monday.

It has been an emotional month for Hanigsberg and the rest of the senior staff on the 13th floor of Jorgenson Hall.

"Can I say that it's really hard to leave?" she says, as tears begin to form in the corners of her eyes. "It's really hard to leave. It's really emotional."

The thing that really gets Hanigsberg though, is not just the leaving — it's the people that keep telling her about her impact. The same ones she has pushed for from the beginning.

"She was the one that pulled us all together to say that the most important thing that we have going at the university are people," Levy says.

And odds are, that — more than any of her many achievements in the past nine years — will be her legacy.