Ryerson’s new boss has spent his life constantly relocating in pursuit of education
By Steven Goetz and Lana Hall
Mohamed Lachemi wasted no time moving in to the 13th floor Jorgenson Hall office reserved for the president of Ryerson University.
He was already all moved in on Nov. 30, the day before he officially took over from former president Sheldon Levy.
In a sit-down interview with The Ryersonian, the interim president, who has spent his life constantly relocating in pursuit of education, said he will hit the ground running — and he is already making announcements.
Lachemi said he doesn’t want to put the university’s continued expansion on the back burner while a presidential search committee finds Levy’s permanent successor.
“The most important thing for this year is to continue … the momentum and send the message this place is leading ahead with a big agenda,” he said.
Lachemi said he was backing a proposal for a Ryerson law school, was investigating partnerships with private developers to boost student residence space, and would soon sign a deal to give varsity soccer a permanent home field.
His years as provost and vice-president academic — where he oversaw all Ryerson’s academic programs, student services, the library, the athletics department, and the university’s budget — had prepared him to get right to work, he said.
Lachemi said he will focus on completing the capital projects necessary to address the university’s crunch for space, including the future health science and student residence complex and a new Faculty of Science building.
During the interview, the interim president’s stylistic differences with Levy are brought into focus. He is less excitable and almost whispers throughout, but you sense Lachemi shares with Levy a restlessness to keep moving forward.
He was born in 1961 in Bordj Bounaama, a village in the mountains of northwestern Algeria, just two days after the end of the Algerian Revolution — a war to liberate the country from colonial France. For his parents, it was “the end of a nightmare,” and the beginning of a mission to see their children receive an education.
“When I meet with my friends, talking about the importance of education, many of them say, ‘I am the first one to go to university,’” Lachemi said. “I tell my friends, ‘I am the first to go to a school from my family.’”
The village only offered studies to the equivalent of Grade 6, so his parents uprooted themselves and moved to the city of Chlef (then called Al Asnam), where Lachemi attended high school. But before he could graduate, an earthquake clocking in at 7.3 on the richter scale killed over 3,000 people and destroyed all the high schools in Chlef.
“I made a decision to leave the city and go to another so I left the family behind,” he said. “From that day, it was really my decision to keep going,” he said.
He eventually earned his undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Science and Technology of Oran, Algeria.
When he arrived in Quebec at Sherbrooke University to start work on his Master’s degree and PhD in Structural and Civil Engineering, it was -40 degrees outside. “That was the welcoming day for me,” Lachemi said. “Different culture, extremely opposite than what I was used to coming from North Africa.”
He said he made some of his closest friends during those transitional years, bonding with other international students who had left home for a chance to study in a Canadian university.
He taught himself how to speak English and made his way to Ryerson in 1998, serving as an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering. He worked as department chair and then dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science before being named the university’s provost and vice-president academic in 2013.
“If you contribute, people will give you a chance,” Lachemi said.
He was the first Canada Research Chair at Ryerson, with research focusing on sustainable construction practices. He helped establish the university’s graduate programs and in the last 14 years, he estimates at least 50 students under his supervision have earned their Master’s or PhDs. He supported the creation of Faculty of Science, including the Research and Innovation Office and the Centre for Urban Energy, a zone where students work with researchers to develop solutions to urban energy challenges.
Lachemi is Ryerson’s first racialized president on a campus with students from around the world and across an increasingly multi-cultural GTA.
“It’s very important to have leadership that will reflect the community,” Lachemi said. “The way that I see it, it’s not just because it’s good to have representation. I think diversity is also good in terms of providing opportunities for people (and) bringing in talented people.
“You have to open up to everybody who has the qualities to be talented.”
Tolerance and trust will pay dividends for innovation, he said. “People can learn if you give them opportunities, and then they can give back to the community.”