Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Change Agent

Lakehead University’s new president is an ambitious agent of change who is focused on the strategic goals of the institution

Sheldon Gordon
Published April 14, 2011

Until this year, Lakehead University had restricted access to WiFi − a wireless network providing connection to the Internet.  But following his installation as the University’s sixth president last August, Brian Stevenson launched a campus-wide conversation about the technology. “From the moment I was interviewed for the position, this was the most hot-button issue,” he recalls.  “So I did my due diligence.”

He not only consulted experts, he took an online survey/poll of the University community.  More than 10,860 faculty members, staff, and students were eligible to vote; 8,505 did, and 94% favoured WiFi.  With this strong consensus, Lakehead has now moved to set up “hot spots” in the library, the Agora, and other public places at the Thunder Bay and Orillia campuses.

The decision-making process to review the WiFi position at Lakehead reflects the leadership style that Lakehead can expect from its new president.  Stevenson is inclusive and collegial in his approach to governance.  He devoted his first 100 days on the job to a “period of listening.” He began with half-day visits to the faculties, “getting responses to my initial vision.”  But the listening didn’t end there.  “Consultation has to be a constant process,” he says.  “If people know where you’re coming from and where you want to go, you’re more likely to have buy-in.”

Where Stevenson wants to go during his (first) five-year term as president is to carry out the Strategic Plan that was approved by the Board of Governors prior to his appointment.  

He intends to make Lakehead a scholastic powerhouse, one of the top 25 research-rich universities in Canada.  “The first priority of any president is to promote academic excellence,” says Stevenson.  He wants to build more labs and other physical infrastructure and to hire faculty members who are dedicated to research.  He would support the faculty in applying for research funds from granting bodies and foundations, and link professors’ compensation and recognition to their research performance.  

Stevenson also plans to make Lakehead’s Orillia campus a major growth centre. He spent his third week as president in Orillia, meeting not only faculty and students but also local community and business leaders. “I liked him,” says a local businessman. “He’s a very down-to-earth guy.” The Orillia campus has grown to 1,000 from 100 students in the past four years. “We’re aiming for an enrollment of 2,000 in the next few years,” says Stevenson.  That could boost Orillia’s share of overall Lakehead enrollment to 20% from its current 11.5%. “Orillia is a very important step in the development of Lakehead,” he says. “It gives us more exposure to the Greater Toronto Area.  I plan to spend two to four days a month there.”  

Vitally important to Stevenson is achieving what he calls “financial sustainability” of the University − by better use of existing resources and by increasing revenues. He intends to implement Integrated Budgeting and Planning, a system he expects will mean a more efficient allocation of investment dollars, and allow faculties to budget on a multi-year basis.  “The process ties planning to budget and performance,” he says, adding that “it’s not about winners and losers” among the faculties.

For revenue growth, Stevenson is counting partly on commercializing more professorial research through the Innovation Management Office. He recognizes, however, that technology transfer is a gradual process and often depends on one blockbuster idea. More immediately, he plans to emphasize fundraising among the alumni and the marketing of Lakehead internationally.

The new president sees opportunities to leverage economic ties with the local community. “We have programs for the mining and forestry sectors already in place,” he notes.  But as mining activity surges in the Ring of Fire area northeast of Thunder Bay, Lakehead has the potential to add even greater value. “With mining in the North,” says Stevenson, “we will be able to train people in everything from accounting to geology so that the companies hire locally.”  He has been consulting business leaders, First Nations bands, and government officials. “My question to them is: ‘Ten or 20 years from now, where do you want the University to be in relation to the economy?’ ”

Stevenson already knows where the First Nations want Lakehead to be.  He supports their vision of a law school, following the medical school, to “complete the comprehensive school project.” He recognizes that the “First Nations want their young people trained in a law program that is sensitive to, and reflective of, their community.  I’m hopeful that in the next two to three years, a law school will be approved.” The curriculum has been approved by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, but there are still major hurdles in the complex process.

As noted above, Stevenson is eager to market Lakehead to the global academic community. “We should be able to have 1,000 international students enrolled at Lakehead in five or six years,” he says.  “We can appeal to the international student market with classes that are not too big and with a safe environment on a beautiful campus.” The global outreach begins with China, the country from which most of Canada’s foreign students originate. A second key target group will be the Nordic countries, followed by India and Latin America.  

Brian Stevenson

Stevenson's agenda is not only to recruit foreign students but also to initiate faculty exchanges, student exchanges, summer programs, and executive training programs. As part of this plan, he has hired a special advisor on international affairs and recruitment, Tony Williams, on a two-year contract to lead Lakehead’s international program.

This is a challenging mandate, to put it mildly.  But Stevenson’s career has shown that, despite his low-key style, he is an ambitious agent of change who rises to a challenge.  For a university seeking to go global, his personal narrative is itself a cosmopolitan calling card.  Born in Victoria, B.C., he is the son of a Mexican mother who was the social director aboard a cruise ship and an Irish father who was the ship’s captain.  He lived much of his early life in Mexico City and Guadalajara, learning Spanish as his lengua materna and developing an interest in indigenous cultures and traditions.  Returning to Canada, he says, was like “having the immigrant experience without actually being an immigrant.”  

While he attended University of Victoria (for a BA and MA in political science), Stevenson was president of the UVic Students’ Society. He lobbied the B.C. government to rescind its drastic cuts to university funding − an issue close to his heart. He initially had to work part-time as a security guard in order to pay his tuition. Nels Granewall, then the student aid officer, arranged financial aid so that the young man could concentrate on his studies.  

The two men have been close friends ever since.  “He was one of the most outstanding students we’ve ever had,” recalls Granewall.  In addition to his scholastic success and talent for student politics, “he was practically a gourmet chef of Mexican cuisine; it wasn’t unusual for him to organize buffets for 150 students.  These were complex events to manage.  He was remarkable in the number of balls he could keep in the air at one time.”

Granewall sums up Stevenson’s character in one word: empathy. “He’s a champion of the underprivileged.  I’m sure he will recommend to his Board of Governors a substantial increase in funding for bursaries to help promising students.”

Earning a PhD in political science from Queen’s in 1992, Stevenson began an academic career focused on Latin America and Canada’s relations with it.  But he also gained experience, and political savvy, with jobs outside academe.  In 1996-99, he served as Senior Policy Advisor, first to International Trade Minister Art Eggleton, then to Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy.  He helped shape Ottawa’s policies for major summits and towards the Organization of American States (OAS).  

Stevenson spent 2005-06 in Washington, D.C., working in the Cabinet of the Secretary General of the OAS, where he managed a staff of 200 and an annual budget of $35-million (U.S.). One of the OAS’s initiatives was to dispatch Axworthy and Stevenson to Peru as observers of the July 2006 general election, helping to keep the process free and fair. On voting day, a hostile mob surrounded one of the presidential candidates, says Axworthy. “We had to clear a path for him, and Brian was part of the battering ram.  He showed his mettle.”

It was in academe, however, where, as Granewall says, Stevenson “earned his stripes.”  During 1991-95, he was Associate Professor of International Studies at Instituto Technológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), where he ran the newly established Canadian Studies Program. “I travelled throughout Mexico to talk about Canada,” he recalls.  “Mexicans had a positive attitude toward Canadians, but they thought we had winter twelve months of the year.”

Later, Stevenson acquired a decade of experience as a senior administrator at Canadian campuses.  As Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (International) at University of Alberta (1999-2005), he generated a six-fold rise in the enrollment of international students.  How did he accomplish this?  “Three ways: marketing, marketing, and marketing.”

He then moved on to work as Provost and Vice-President (Academic) at University of Winnipeg (2006-2010) where, under the leadership of University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy, he introduced a master’s program in Aboriginal governance to help natives develop skills for self-government. He also established a program on campus for gifted Aboriginal high-school students at risk of dropping out.

Axworthy praises Stevenson for leading a comprehensive academic renewal process − “and he did so with commitment and passion. He’s good-humoured, and was able to develop faculty support.  He’s able to work with people.”

Though already experienced as a senior university administrator, Stevenson has found the role of university president a transformative experience. He says, “The president has to be ‘on’ all the time − whether it’s evening dinners, speeches, weekend events.  It can be all-consuming.  But a good leader needs a balanced approach to work and life.”  

Stevenson’s wife Judy Davies and their
daughters Cecilia and Isabel

Much of that balance comes from his wife, Judy, and their two daughters, Cecilia, 9, and Isabel, 7. Stevenson met his future wife in Sackville, N.B., when they were university students attending a Canadian Federation of Students conference.  Judy, who earned an MBA and a law degree, hails from South River, Ontario, near North Bay, and has relatives in Thunder Bay.  

Stevenson appreciates that “Thunder Bay is a relatively big city, but it has a small-town feel.”

Similarly, he explains, the University appeals to him because it’s large enough to offer a comprehensive set of programs (as at University of Alberta) yet small enough for students to get to know their professors (as at University of Winnipeg). “Lakehead has the best of both those academic worlds,” says Stevenson. Having excelled in both, he is equipped to lead Lakehead with due regard for each of its twin advantages.

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