Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Parting Words

An interview with President Fred Gilbert on the eve of his retirement from Lakehead University

Eleanor S. Abaya
Published April 29, 2010

Please describe your feelings about retiring from Lakehead after 12 years – how do you feel?

It is a strange feeling – a mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief at being able to move on to something new, and disappointment at not having achieved my final two objectives yet. There is also a sense of losing something for which you care passionately.

What do you consider to be your greatest legacies to the institution and why?

People – both a strong administrative team and an engaged, committed faculty who all have high expectations for themselves and the University. Quality of research and technological leadership. Perhaps my involvement in helping rally Northwestern Ontario to ensure a full campus of the medical school at Lakehead. Also re-establishing the community connections in Thunder Bay were important. Although the private sector involvement with Thunderwolves Hockey is perhaps the most visible aspect of this, the University is more substantially involved in the social and economic well-being of the city. In Orillia, we have been fortunate to have had such engagement from the very beginning.

Your disappointments and why?

The law school application and Minister Milloy's response to a strong, meaningful, and much needed law school. Failure to materialize a new research building. But we are still working on both. And of course I was disappointed by those who, for many different reasons, really never bought into the change agenda.

Throughout your tenure there seems to have been a polarized environment; you seem to have a strong support base – those who think you have made tough but brave and necessary decisions for the long-term good of the institution, as well as a detractor base – those who vociferously criticize certain decisions you've made and claim the institution has retrogressed because of those decisions. Would you share some of those decisions and your opinion about why this strong polarity exists?

Lakehead University has changed substantially in the past 12 years. Cultural shifts are never easy and those comfortable with the past or the status quo resist change. At the same time there are those who embrace necessary change. Every major decision, be it ATAC, Orillia, graduate studies growth, and increased research expectations, has had advocates on opposite sides.

When you first arrived at Lakehead, what did you think were the biggest challenges facing the institution, and do you still consider them to be so after 12 years?

Turning the institution around! It was dying by a thousand small cuts, and the grounds, buildings, students, and employees all reflected aspects of the malaise. Expectations needed to be altered and things done to improve appearance, standards, and expectations. As stated previously, there was resistance to virtually everything being done to address the issue, and the resistance continues.

Looking back, what was your vision for this institution, and do you think you have accomplished it?

My vision is reflected in the four elements of the 2010-2013 Strategic Plan – sustainability, comprehensiveness, research growth, and diversity. We have moved considerably toward accomplishing the vision with student growth, increased research and graduate studies activity, and the clear commitment to Aboriginal educational opportunity.

Were there times when you felt the “aggravation” was not worth it, and if so, how did you get back into a positive place and stay focused?

Many. In the early years I regretted having decided to come here over a wonderful opportunity I had in the United States. At one point I contemplated applying elsewhere during the turmoil created by LUFA over the first renewal decision. But I came here because of the wonderful potential of the University and I guess I stayed for the same reason, thinking I could help it realize that potential.

Among the most contentious issues during your term are: your position concerning WiFi, the establishment of the Orillia Campus, the latest strategic planning process, and the recent four-day closure. Please share with us your unabashed thoughts about these and other issues. Would you have done things differently?


Design for the Orillia Campus
WiFi – initially this was a response to the debate in the scientific community about whether there were health effects from continued exposure to wireless routers, etc. We invoked the “Precautionary Principle” because literally the jury was still out. In the years since that decision, it has also become apparent that there are valid reasons to limit one's exposure to non-ionizing radiation, particularly the pulsed type of the frequencies of most microwave systems, be it cellular communications or other wireless systems. It was the right decision for the right reason at the time and it has turned out to have been the right decision for health reasons as well.

The establishment of the Orillia Campus was intended to meet several clearly defined objectives. First and foremost it meets the sustainability criterion. The Thunder Bay Campus would have been in serious decline without the revenue being generated at Orillia. Other objectives were to create a presence in southern Ontario that meant we could not be dismissed as a potentially major player in the GTA sphere of influence. Thus it had political, marketing, and visibility aspects.

It helped that the City of Orillia solicited us and that our response to the request was to meet a real need in that community and in Simcoe County with respect to access for a university education. Ultimately this should be viewed as a defining decision for the University's long-term well-being.

The Strategic Plan 2010-2013 was a result of the Board of Governors wanting a strategic document in place to guide the new president during the early years of his tenure and continue the commitment to the vision articulated earlier. It was an open, deliberative process conducted by a superb committee of dedicated, relatively unbiased faculty, staff, and students I selected. It was likely that the process of selection, which was intended to avoid the biased, vested interests of previous planning committees, engendered Lakehead University Faculty Association (LUFA)'s resistance to the process. Then once the objectives of the Plan and their impacts became clear there was wider resistance from academic units that recognized their vulnerability and ignored the broader opportunities that the Plan also provided. I removed myself from the process to ensure that it was apparent that the committee was the advocate for its Plan's contents, not the president. Would I do anything different? Not really!

Finally, you asked about the four-day closure and again LUFA challenged the authority and the rationale for it. This was a clear component of the 2009-10 budget that allowed us to balance the budget, a requirement of the Board of Governors. It meant that we could protect our employees against layoffs, have an equitable way of decreasing salary costs (labor costs make up close to 80% of the budgetary expenses), and do so with minimal disruption to the business of the University.

The only union that grieved the process was LUFA. Many other employees, while not liking the reduction in pay, understood the rationale, accepted it as reasonable, and after the fact seemed to appreciate the extra time off at an important family time of the year. It is not my intent to rebut all LUFA's arguments in this article as the issue is still in arbitration. Would I make the same decision again? Most assuredly. It was necessary, fair, and transitory and it helped to meet short-term budgetary pressures. We are one of the few Ontario universities that has been able to avoid deficit budgeting in a time of severe economic stress. The four-day closure has aided in this regard.

What kind of leader were you at the beginning of your term, and have you changed since – and how?

Perhaps I have become more jaded but otherwise I think I still adhere to the same basic principles. Ensure you have good, competent people who can make decisions and argue for them. People who are not afraid to make the odd mistake will make key decisions in a timely fashion. I like to think that I delegate authority and help to build consensus but I too am prepared to make tough decisions and set high expectations of others and myself.

What qualities of yours served you best as a leader at Lakehead?

Empathy and courage of conviction. They are not diametrically opposed but they help ensure better balance in decision-making.

Conversely, what qualities of yours do you think did not serve you as well and why?

Empathy and courage of conviction. At the end of the day only you yourself know how these qualities have balanced out in decision-making. Others misunderstand, or don't care to understand, that all decisions require consideration of the outcomes as well as the impacts and that neither is fully predictable. Therefore, there is risk involved and some see the risk and not the potential payoffs which may be long term.

What advice would you give your successor?

Listen to others. Get to know the culture before trying to change it. At the end of the day have confidence in yourself and others, but make the decisions that need to be made by you alone using your best judgment. Input is important but some decisions are yours.

Are you staying in Thunder Bay after retirement, and if so, what do you plan to do with your new-found spare time? And how much say do your wife Dan and daughter Alyssa have on your future plans?

For at least a while, until it is apparent what all the options are here and elsewhere. I need to find something else meaningful to do, so retirement for me will not be travel and relaxation. It will be moving on to new challenges that I select with input from Dan, obviously, and consideration for Alyssa's precarious health.

Now that you have the luxury of detachment, what kind of university do you think Lakehead will be or should be in the next 25 years and why?

Lakehead is positioned to be a major player in the Ontario system and a top player nationally in specific research areas. It will be a smaller, truly comprehensive, research-intensive institution that will continue to set new expectations in the innovation agenda, reach out effectively through distributed learning, and be the Canadian university of choice by Aboriginal students. The Orillia Campus will epitomize sustainability and advance pedagogical standards that will be copied by other universities.

What will you remember most fondly about Lakehead?

Some of the wonderful people here. Whether it be those, for example, in Physical Plant, Aramark, Technology Services Centre (TSC), the academic units, or senior administration and the support staff. These people make Lakehead a very special place and I am fortunate to have been part of their lives for a while. And the students! As well there are those advocates outside the University, whether they be alumni/ae, donors, government officials and politicians, and people, literally across the country and globe who care deeply about it. In the end it is all about people.

What is the one thing for which you would like Lakehead and the community of Thunder Bay to remember you most?

Having made a positive difference to the University and the city. And I also hope that the community of Orillia will feel the same way.

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