Q&A with President Dominic Giroux: A year in review

By: Jessica Robinson, Editor-in-Chief

As we transition out of “the Summer to Remember” and into the new year, which Giroux is referring to as “the Season of Ideas,” the president and vice-chancellor of Laurentian took time to reflect on the big successes and also the setbacks within the Laurentian community over the past year, covering everything from hosting the federal cabinet retreat to the closing of our Barrie campus.

We’ve had so many multi-million dollar funding announcements at Laurentian this year that we almost got used to them—including a $49 million grant from the federal government, which marks the largest single donation the school has ever received. How does the school most benefit from these donations: the allocation of funds to various programs, or the prestige that accompanies the money?

“The $49 million announcement from the federal government on September 6 was for the metal earth program, put forward by the newly-named Harquail School of Earth Sciences. The genesis of that particular program was introduced by the federal government in the 2014 budget; the intent was to bring specific Canadian universities from being number one in Canada in a specific discipline, to number one in the world, in areas that could translate into additional competitive advantages for the country.

“It forced us to really do our homework, and understand where our strengths are [at Laurentian]. The award is an important stimulus for Canada’s long-term economic growth. But there’s no doubt that it’s also an advantage for the university, in terms of national and international reputation. There will be more opportunities for research for graduate students, and also undergraduate students. There will be the hiring of four new faculty members at the Harquail School of Earth Sciences, funded through that Metal Earth initiative. So it’s really great news all around.

“I think it’s fair to say that the fact that we were successful [in obtaining this funding] has definitely been noticed nationally. Any national meeting I’ve attended since the announcement, people go out of their way to say, ‘Wow, kudos for Laurentian, you’ve done so well.’”

When does the school start to actually see the money allocated?

“In the case of the Metal Earth program, the money comes in increments over the course of seven years, a bit lower in the first two years and then a bit more in the following five. For private donors, typically those gifts are paid over a five-year period; and we don’t announce them until we’ve already received a substantial amount of that pledge, for understandable reasons. So already, in the case of private gifts for the School of Earth Sciences, we’ve already received a significant portion.”

Speaking of prestige — this summer we became the first post-secondary institution to host the Federal Cabinet retreat. In terms of national recognition, you’d be hard pressed to do better than having the Prime Minister spend the night in one of your residences. What sort of feedback did you receive?

“It was exceptional. We always like to brag about our campus being such a beautiful sight. And you really have to put yourself in the shoes of the cabinet ministers; they had not seen each other in two months, all busy with their respective portfolios, so they were just genuinely happy to be here. I definitely got a sense from them that they were very impressed with the facilities, with the logistics, with the attention to detail. Many cabinet ministers met with various faculty members who made themselves available during the weekend. The knowledge now within the senior federal ranks—they’ve all been briefed about everything Laurentian and Greater Sudbury.”

“I’ve attended a number of national meetings since then, and it’s almost becoming a bit embarrassing, how much people know about Laurentian. Because we’ll have impromptu meetings, and the ministers will say, “And I’m so impressed with X Y Z at Laurentian!” And my colleagues at other institutions will say, ‘I wish they only knew 10% as much about our university community.’ You can’t get better exposure than that. It increased awareness about what we do as a university, and the impact we have on the communities we serve. And it created contact points now that we have been using since then.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’re the first college or university to host the federal cabinet retreat; but very proud of the work that staff put in, from the time we received the request on June 17, to the cabinet retreat being held at the end of August, because they made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that it would be a smooth operation.”

There certainly have been a lot of changes on campus this year, including changing food service providers. How did we come to the decision to switch from Aramark to Chartwell’s?

“It was a competitive process; Ben Demianiuk, director of housing and food services did an exceptional job engaging with students, faculty and staff to really understand what the expectations were, not just thinking within the box of what we already had, but imagining what could be in terms of food services. There were very clear expectations in terms of quality, service, and hours, and Chartwell’s was the successful bidder. I think the transition has been very smooth. Of course when you have a change of that nature, there are always a few bumps in the road, but overall the feedback that I’ve received has been very positive.”

“This all ties back to the 2012-2017 strategic plan. There were so many outcomes in that plan that were driven directly by students. Students told us in 2011, please improve food services, please diversify food offerings, please extend the hours, and please provide healthier options. So when you look back on the past few years, at changes within residence, at Great Hall, at Alphonse Raymond, Starbucks, Subway—these are all steps that have been pursued directly as a result of the requests from students.”

A lot of the more noticeable changes to campus have been Campus Modernization projects. Campus Mod won’t officially wrap up until 2019, but the final stretch is mostly underway. How do you feel about the way it has been carried out?

“I feel great about Campus Modernization. Of course, it was disruptive; and I’ve been impressed by the level of patience shown by students, faculty and staff, but I’ve been even more impressed by the hard work of our team at capital projects. They’ve been leading simultaneously the construction of the School of Architecture, the modernization of the campus, rehabilitation of SSR, the construction of the cardiovascular and metabolic research unit, plus other deferred maintenance projects—and they’ve kept everything on track. I walk through the classroom building and I see the type of learning now facilitated, the improved labs in the science building, the lounge in Alphonse Raymond: that’s what a university should be offering, that’s what students should expect, that’s the type of collegial environment we want to create. We want to create a buzz.

“And all these changes have occurred without adding much square footage, because we’re trying to be mindful of the demographic realities of North Eastern Ontario, where enrolment is projected to decline by about 20% by 2023. We’ve tried as much as possible to repurpose existing space while addressing the outcomes that students had identified in the strategic plan. We’ve been trying to meet student needs in a fiscally responsible way.”

Of course, while we’re undergoing the modernization of our Sudbury campus, we’re also closing out our Barrie campus, which was certainly a blow to the Laurentian community.

“Of course, we’re all disappointed that we weren’t successful [in securing funding to establish Barrie as a stand alone campus]. But I was even more disappointed, if not frustrated, with the ongoing interference from the province after that decision had been made. That’s really the tipping point. If it had been, ‘sorry Laurentian University, you haven’t been successful, let’s move to the next topic,’ that’s one thing. But the ongoing interference and the restrictions that the government was imposing on our presence in Barrie made it so that the Board had no choice but to make the unfortunate decision [to withdraw from Barrie altogether].

“Not everyone was pleased with the decision, under the circumstances. We tried really hard to minimize negative impacts on students. We wanted to signal very clearly, especially to the full-time faculty, that they still remained members of the Laurentian University community; the vast majority of them are transferring to the Sudbury campus next fall. So what’s on my mind is making sure that these colleagues are welcomed with open arms.

“Unfortunately, I can’t speak to the reasons why the province made this decision. We had been given pretty clear assurances about our prospects, which was why we kept pursuing the work despite the fact that there were annual deficits associated with the Barrie operation. It is what it is. At least now we have clarity. Our task now, as a university community, is to continue to build on the success of the Sudbury campus. And the ‘summer to remember’ shows that we can do that.”

The more recent drama that took place within the Laurentian community was the risk of loss of accreditation of the social work programs. How aware was the admin about this risk prior to CASWE’s visit?

“I want to stress that we’re doing everything to follow up on the requirements, or anticipated requirements, because we haven’t yet received the official report for the English and French social work programs.

“For one thing, every accreditation report that I’ve seen at Laurentian University in the last seven and a half year has referred to the fact that we need to hire more faculty. Meanwhile, we have one of the most competitive student-faculty ratios in the country. So that’s part of the process.

“I think there have been a few firsts in this specific accreditation process. One is that, usually, before an accreditation visit, there are meetings involving program faculty, the dean, the provost, and the president, to review materials, ensure common understanding on the data, and discuss possible areas of concern. This was not the case here. The second thing that was different was, usually we hear from the accreditation team weeks after their visit. The accreditation team usually doesn’t meet with students, faculty, and staff and discuss their potential recommendation with them openly. So those were firsts, at least to my knowledge.

“I’m not finding excuses. We have to follow up on the requirements. But we will end up, as a result, with a very low student-faculty ratio in the school of social work, lower than virtually all of our other professional programs. Some faculty members from the school of social work have transferred schools over the years, or have changed their responsibilities so that they don’t necessarily all do teaching, research, and service, which is part of the reason why the recommendation was to hire additional faculty.

“I’ve been pleased with the response [from administration]. Pierre Zindel did an exceptional job reaching out to student councils, trying to be as transparent as we could with the limited information we had, and providing reassurance that it is of course in everybody’s best interest to maintain accreditation, and we will. We are taking the appropriate actions.”

And now we’re closing out the 2012-2017 strategic plan. Where do you feel we were successful, or maybe not so successful? How does it feel to be coming to the end?

“I’m excited about the next few months. I describe 2017 as ‘the season of ideas’. There are always challenges in higher education. It’s always about how you can remain innovative, and student-centred, and responsive to community needs, and able to navigate through fiscal needs. But as members of the university community, we have to keep an eye on the longterm. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. So in the last few weeks, we’ve had an electronic survey circulating, and we’ve engaged with senate, with the board of governors, with a leadership group that includes all the academic department chairs and school directors. We’ve taken the time to pause and reflect, saying, ‘So, five years later, what has worked? What didn’t work? Where do we need to continue focusing from now until the end of 2017? How do we want to do it differently, or not, next time?’

“That’s not a process I had originally envisioned, to be honest. Originally, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go, time to launch the next round of consultations.’ I have to give credit to the board of governors, who said, hold on, before we jump right to the next process, why don’t we take a step back and reflect on the development and implementation of the current strategic plan? And it was the best decision we could have made, quite frankly, because it forced us to have those in-depth conversations.

“National recognition, and also campus modernization seem to have resonated most with members of the community. Those changes seem to be what students, faculty and staff are the most proud of.

“The success we’ve had with our current plan does, in some ways, increase the pressure to succeed with our next plan. We need to get it right. And of course, the fiscal environment will not be the same, the demographic will not be the same. The next plan will be more focused, with less planned outcomes, and a midterm review. But the feedback has been overwhelmingly clear that the process was right. So now we can expand on that.”