By Brittany Spencer and Samantha Relich
As his official installation as president of Ryerson University approaches, the Ryersonian sat down with Mohamed Lachemi to discuss his vision for the university at the outset of his five-year term.
Q: You’ve witnessed and created a lot of change during your 18 years at Ryerson — what are you are most proud of?
I always describe myself as a builder and maybe that’s because of my background — I am a civil engineer. When we talk about building, one aspect that is very important is having a vision for the institution. I had the pleasure of working with the rest of the community developing the academic plan, “Our Time to Lead,” and the title reflects what we want to do exactly. When I meet with colleagues at other schools they always tell me that Ryerson has a very bold academic plan.
I am very proud of the work that I did as dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (and) the partnership that we put in place with St. Michael’s Hospital. I’m very proud to see the work that is done by iBEST and the Biomedical Zone as really a reflection of that type of strategic partnership. The simple answer to your question: I’m a builder and I like to build things. Not necessarily the way that I do it as an engineer but thinking about what is good for our university.
Q: Ryerson’s downtown location makes space challenging. As the student body continues to grow, do you have plans to help the campus grow with it?
Space is always a challenge. We have been very successful in growing the university, but we know that our footprint in downtown Toronto is very limited. However, we have been very successful in securing additional space and we have been very creative in building partnerships that give us the opportunity to expand our space for student use. The example I always give is the Ted Rogers School of Management — that’s a huge difference from the old Victoria Building.
We know that we have demand for more residence space. Our capacity is now no more than 1,000 beds. We’re hoping that by the fall of 2018 we will double that capacity. We have two projects that are now under construction — one is the Jarvis Street project and one on Church Street. But that’s not enough, we’re looking for more. Your question was about challenges and yes, we are still facing challenges. I’m not saying that we’re solved all the problems. We will continue to explore opportunities we can increase our footprint.
I would like for Toronto to be our living lab — for learning, for discovery, but also for engagement. And this takes a lot of creativity and innovation.The additional space that we are getting, especially for students that are in science and math, is a perfect example: we are not increasing the piece of land that we have but we are adding 25,000 square feet at MaRS mainly for our students and faculty. When I speak of my vision of Toronto as a living lab, I think of the opportunities to access space, but also the opportunities for mentorship and partnership. I think that’s the way that I see Ryerson in the future.
Q: Eighty per cent of Ryerson students commute, which can make connecting to the campus challenging. Is building campus community important to you?
I think it’s very important. Research shows that students who are engaged have a better chance to succeed, and that’s why I want students to feel like they are really part of a community. I have a daughter who is at Ryerson and another who is hoping to come next year, and when I ask her why people want to come to Ryerson, her answer is that there is a strong community here. Learning is not only in the classroom, learning is everywhere. And I can tell you that I’m proud of what I’m seeing. In other places they don’t have this.
Q: The OUCHA just released a report on mental health on Ontario post-secondary campuses. How significant are mental health concerns on campus and what plans do you have to support students?
A lot of people, when they see a report like this, they think this is an isolated problem. I don’t see it that way. I think what we need is a co-ordinated effort between colleges and universities and also organizations around us. When we developed our budget for this year (mental health) was a priority for us. We increased the capacity of support. But I don’t think that increasing one (type of) support will solve our problems. We need to have a co-ordinated effort. Part of success is to make sure that students are not dealing with issues that will lead them to abandon their studies because of the pressure.
Q: On Tuesday some street signs in Toronto were changes to ones that also featured their indigenous names. Do you think it’s important to continue to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on campus? But do you also see a place for a physical marker referencing the history and acknowledging Egerton Ryerson’s role in the residential school system?
I can tell you I see a place where have to recognize both what Mr. Ryerson has done for the education system — and this is why our university is named after him — but I think that there is a way for us to do it in consultation with the Aboriginal community. A marker on campus where at least we have to recognize his role in residential schools. And I know that we have a number of initiatives but those are things that we are discussing with the Aboriginal community. I’m not saying that we will have another presence like the statue that we have, but I think there is a need for us to recognize (Ryerson’s role in residential schools). We have to be fair with people and give credit for what they have done, but when there are mistakes we at least have to recognize that aspect.
We are working on a response (to the TRC). There is a working group under the leadership of Denise O’Neil Green and one of the elders in the Aboriginal community, Joanne Dallaire. Ryerson is very engaged and should be engaged in this process —we’re the only university that has an eagle staff from the Aboriginal community and they gave us this because of our engagement and our initiatives. We are hosting Congress 2017, which is the biggest conference for humanities and social sciences. We want one of the themes to be, what should we do for Aboriginal communities here and Toronto and beyond Toronto.
Q: Now for the important question. What are your personal opinions of Drake?
What I can say about Drake is that he a great ambassador for the city and for our country, and it just so happens that he loves Ryerson. I’m not necessarily a big fan of Drake — maybe because of my age.