Outgoing president Sheldon Levy has transformed Ryerson’s campus and built its reputation as an innovation powerhouse
By Steven Goetz, Lana Hall, Emerson Brito
The floor and desk in Sheldon Levy’s office on Jorgenson Hall’s 13th floor are covered by boxes filled with the contents of the 11 years he’s served as Ryerson’s president.
There is no space to hold the meetings Levy has scheduled with the two student-run campus newspapers, so another office is quickly found. The president wants to maintain his perfect record: he’s never missed one of these weekly interviews since taking office. (Once he had to call from the side of the road while on a motorcycle trip.)
It’s Levy’s last week and The Ryersonian’s last interview with him as president. He’s been tapped to serve as the province’s top civil servant for universities and colleges. On Dec. 1, Mohamed Lachemi will step in as interim president and take over the office now occupied by a man whose reputation is synonymous with the university’s.
Since Levy took over in August 2005, Ryerson has shed its “Rye High” image.
Now when people talk about the university, they’re likely to mention its incubator zones and experiential learning ethos, or its shiny new Student Learning Centre (SLC) or its Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) carved out of the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
Undergraduate enrolment has jumped to over 32,000 from 20,000 in 2004, graduate programs have nearly quadrupled over the same period, and Ryerson is now the most applied-to university in Ontario relative to available spaces, according to stats released by the board of governors in September. The school has its first new faculty in 40 years and has greatly expanded its program offerings — all under Levy’s watch.
“I never ever wanted to be like the football player that spent the extra two years and ruined their reputation,” Levy says, clearly in the mood to reflect on his reign. “Ten years is plenty of time for a president. Then you need new ideas. The other part is that it becomes a lot harder to look at your mistakes and say, ‘Oh, that was a big screw-up.’ It’s a lot easier to look at someone else’s mistakes.”
But Levy doesn’t pause before offering a laundry list of things he would have done differently. Top among them is his failure to build more student residence spaces: “I could have done it, that’s the problem. I just had to make a better decision and I didn’t.”
The university has aggressively acquired property — the Sears parking lot, the Sam the Record Man site, and leases at the former Maple Leaf Gardens and Eaton Centre — but should have done more to find homes for students to live on campus, he says.
There have been other mistakes along the way.
The Ryerson Image Centre and Image Arts Building (RIC) was delayed 18 months and went millions over budget because the university and its engineers underestimated the work required to renovate the former Carling brewery. “It would have been easier to tear it down and start from scratch,” Levy says.
And who could forget the painting of Gould Street or the Sam the Record Man sign fiascos. “I just didn’t get the political part of the Sam sign and how certain segments of Toronto were so passionate about it,” he says. “I missed that one.”
The university’s unquenchable appetite for growth and its property acquisitions have sometimes been criticized for gentrifying the neighbourhood — a perception Levy has occasionally exacerbated with his public comments.
In 2007, he spoke out against The Works, a clinic located at Victoria and Dundas streets, which provides treatment for hard drug addicts. He said he wanted the clinic out of his neighbourhood, citing safety concerns, and said it didn’t fit with Ryerson’s master plan. Several students and the city’s medical officer of health expressed their frustration in letters published in The Ryersonian.
Asked about the tension between the university’s need to expand and preservation of the pre-existing community, Levy says he’s “cleaned up” the neighbourhood.
“The strip in front of Ryerson from Gould to Gerrard was a mess,” he says. “And it was not something that made Toronto proud. We are 100 metres from the busiest intersection in Canada and that was our front door for the university and for Canada.”
One of his earliest stated goals was to open up the campus to Yonge and Dundas streets. “If you take a look at the building that you’re in now, it fronts onto Victoria and backs onto Yonge Street, or into the alley,” Levy tells us. “That is how people described the campus: somewhere behind Yonge Street.”
With the opening of the Student Learning Centre (SLC) at the corner of Yonge and Gould streets in February, no one walking by will miss Ryerson now, he says. Its an accomplishment he relishes. He says one of his best memories is watching the new building fill with students an hour after it opened.
Under his leadership, the university branded its buildings and placed banners on streetlights to provide visual cues to campus spaces. With the opening of the Ted Rogers School of Management building in 2006, the university secured a presence on the west side of Yonge Street for the first time. In 2012, Gould Street was partially closed to traffic. And with the additions of the RIC and the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), the university is an undeniable presence downtown.
“Uncle Sheldon” — as he is sometimes called for his approachable, laid-back vibe — was crucial to all these developments, convincing others to follow him into unknown territory.
The university had a small pittance of an endowment — about $30 million — when he knocked on Loblaws door to ask to buy the former Maple Leaf Gardens. The grocer wasn’t selling and Levy didn’t have the money, but he gathered his team together and asked how they could make it happen. Finally, Loblaws came back with an offer.
“We secured the equivalent of $75 million in exactly 365 days,” he says, measuring the dates from the board of governors authorizing a student referendum to add a levy to every student’s tuition to help pay for the MAC, to the day the federal government coughed up its share.
“Saying we were going to build it and we didn’t have any money was risky,” Levy says, but it worked and now Ryerson’s varsity basketball, hockey and volleyball teams play in world-class facilities.
Taking risks is something of a working ethos for Levy, and he says has been a factor in all of his major accomplishments. “The (SLC) was risky because the design … When I brought it to the (board of governors), I’ll tell you, there was a whole lot of ‘Holy geez, what are we doing here?’”
Perhaps Levy’s biggest gamble was opening the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) in 2010.
“We spent about a year trying … to convince the government to give (us) a wad of cash,” he says. “I was sitting with (Valerie Fox) and I said, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’”
So Ryerson put up some money, secured offices at what is now 10 Dundas East and enlisted interior design students to set up the space on a shoestring budget.
“We didn’t ask any permission, we didn’t have any committees, any of the typical stuff,” he says. “We just said, ‘let’s do it.’”
Worried about the lack of tenants, Levy and Fox offered a company free rent, “just to create the buzz in there,” he says. “And then it just took off … at a speed that I never imagined.
“The typical university rule book had been thrown out. We had to create the no-rule book to be able to make it successful.”
Now 10 different zones have been set up, including the Fashion Zone, Legal Innovation Zone and the Centre for Urban Energy.
“There was a time when we were building it that we were worried that this zone didn’t look like that zone and the conclusion at the end was that if it was a flower, don’t worry about the colour. Just worry about the weeds,” Levy says. “And you just hope that the next president and administration will keep on watering the sucker.”
The DMZ is now seen as a model for universities and recently placed at the top in a ranking of North America’s best university incubators. Levy says it is a model for how the university can navigate the technological revolution displacing the traditional university model.
“Students aren’t going to pay tuition and get in debt if all they get is (what) you could get from online courses. Why would they?
“The idea of the university simply being a place that communicates content has got to change … and the university has to be added value to students.
“Part of that added value is experiential learning, part of that is zone learning … There’s those that have adapted quite smartly to the change and those that don’t and the university — it doesn’t matter if you’re Harvard or whoever you are — has to adapt to the needs of students in this digital world.”
Although he says his legacy can’t yet be evaluated — “it will be what lasts, rather than what you leave as you walk out the door” — he hopes it all adds up to a dynamic and active campus where students spend time even after classes end.
“When I came to the university, there was almost no student engagement,” Levy says. “If you were really to build a great university, you would have to do something about the communal nature of the campus. So if everyone was transient and only here for a few hours every day, you would never be able to grow it.
“So the idea of pride in the place and school pride and enthusiasm and energy was a high priority.”
For Levy, it all came together at the Canadian Intra-University Sport basketball championship, which Ryerson hosted in March. The MAC was open, but no one knew if the school could fill the stands with students.
“The first game was (against) Victoria and we won,” Levy says. “That was a turning point.
“Then we lost in a nail-biter to Ottawa, which we should have won. But the crowd was insane. It was as exciting a game as you’d ever see in the Final Four. It was just over the top. And then we had the bronze medal game against Victoria, which we won.
“And here we are in probably the very best venue you could have for a basketball championship. And it was at Ryerson. You saw that we had a full, active and screaming student body there.
“A lot of the things that you want to accomplish, you want to make sure that they aren’t dependent on you such that after you leave there is a going back. Because then you’ve really left nothing. But if you leave something that is so strong, it can only get better, then you’ve left something. That’s what I felt at that time, that, ‘Boy, it is stronger than me now. And it will get better.’”
No one can deny Levy changed Ryerson. But has 11 years playing urban planner changed him?
“We all play roles in life,” he says. “I played the role of president for 11 years. But who are you? When you’re on the (motorcycle), you feel like the biker who pretends they’re the president.
“You’re only important because of the position you have to occupy. The moment you leave, not only are you not important, you’re forgotten about in about an hour and a half.”
Levy is leaving his successor plenty of unfinished projects he started: the Church Street health science and residence building, the planned Jarvis Street science building, finding a use for the Sears parking lot, and making sure Ryerson plays a role in the planned redevelopment of Yonge Street.
“There’s still a lot, a lot of work to do,” he says. “I think this administration and the next administration and the one after that really have to think of the university in 25 years as (having an enrolment of) 100,000 students.
“One of the beautiful things about this job, you’re really building for a future you’ll never see. Who knows what that future is going to be? But that’s the responsibility we have. And if you only build for today, or if you only think about today, you’re letting down the generation that is your great, great grandchildren.
“I guess what I’m saying is that it’s really everyone’s responsibility to continue the development and the momentum … You’re either going forward or you’re falling back. There’s no in-between.
“So if people say, ‘Phew, you’ve done a lot, let’s take it easy,’ I would say, ‘Let’s put on the gas.’ Forget about the idea that we’re tired. Put the gas on even harder. That’s my message to the next president. Just keep going.
With files from Katie Raskina
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 25, 2015.