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Lakehead University Magazine Fall/Winter 2004

Achievements, Challenges & Opportunities

FRED GILBERT reflects on six years as PRESIDENT of Lakehead University

Lakehead University President F. GilbertBack in July 1998, when Fred Gilbert became President of Lakehead, Mike Harris was Premier of Ontario, gas was $0.58 a litre, and September 11 was just another day. Since then, the world has changed.

Here at Lakehead, we’ve seen the opening of the Advanced Technology & Academic Centre (ATAC) and the formation of the Thunderwolves Men’s Hockey Team. Enrolment has risen to 7,304 students in 2003-2004, and research funding has soared. The new Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre has opened on Oliver Road. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine was created (and is now provisionally accredited), and the campus is getting ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary in September 2005.

What better time to sit down with the President and talk about Lakehead’s achievements, challenges, and opportunities?

Lakehead University Magazine: Lakehead has accomplished a great deal in recent years. What achievements are you most proud of since becoming President?

Fred Gilbert: There are many, but some really stand out. One is the increase in our research activity. Another is the incredible number of talented faculty we have attracted. This is due, in part, to having a strategic plan that is meaningful, and sets clear and measurable objectives. We have moved up in our ranking among Canadian universities, and our reputation is growing.
I am proud of the improved appearance of the campus, and that Lakehead has become a technological leader with the Advanced Technology & Academic Centre, IP Telephony, Internet Cafés, the Cray supercomputer, and the SGI Virtual Reality Centre.
I’m also pleased with the evolution of the Alumni Association and with the talented team that has been put in place at Lakehead’s senior administrative level. I’m proud of the work we are doing in internal and external communications, and of the new physical facilities that are as good, if not better, than those at any other university. The new Residences and ATAC reflect our desire to be leaders rather than followers.

LUM: During your time as President, two strategic plans have been completed. How does the new plan differ from the old plan?

Fred Gilbert: The new strategic plan, “Past Strength and Future Promise: Lakehead University’s Strategic Plan for 2005-2010” (www.communications.lakeheadu.ca) builds on the previous plan and will be an even more effective document. It reflects the optimism that now exists on campus. Lakehead is effectively pushing its own agenda forward. All levels of government, and many community leaders, now recognize the positive impact Lakehead is having on this community.

LUM: What are the top three issues that Lakehead University must address if it is to continue to flourish?

Fred Gilbert: Funding. Funding. Funding.
We must grow our student numbers. To do that, we not only have to sustain our numbers in the region, but we also have to be more aggressive in recruiting southern Ontario and international students, and in developing our distributed learning capacity. We are critically short of space, and in particular, research space. If we can generate new research space, we can then free up existing space for other things.

LUM: We know that Ontario’s operating grants per student to its universities are the lowest in Canada and have declined by 25% per student over the last 10 years. Universities in Ontario have been lobbying governments for years, saying governments must invest in post-secondary education if Canada is to remain competitive in a knowledge-based economy. The situation seems to be intractable. Where do we go from here?

Fred Gilbert: Governments are being hampered in what they can do because of the fiscal demands of health care. We’re going to have to find a sustainable solution for funding national and provincial provision of health care.
Preventive medicine is one step. Another is to put in place a system of co-payment for service. There should be a basic set of health services available to everyone, but above that, there should be an expectation that people would partially pay for the cost of services. This would accomplish two things: It would be a deterrent to people for overusing the system, and it would provide an effective infusion of funding into the system. Otherwise, health care will ultimately destroy the government’s ability to deal with the funding needs elsewhere.

LUM: What major societal trends will affect Lakehead over the long term?

Fred Gilbert: I think the demands for adult education and the impact of “place-bound learners” will ultimately change the way education is delivered. Faculty at Lakehead, for example, are already changing the way they teach, based on the new technology in the Advanced Technology & Academic Centre. ATAC has now given us the capacity to provide education at a distance.
But let’s turn that question around and ask, “How will Lakehead University affect society at large, over the long term?”
Lakehead is going to have a tremendous impact in transforming Northwestern Ontario’s and Thunder Bay’s economy into a knowledge-based economy. Just look at the work of our faculty, our Innovation Management Office, and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Look at the spinoff companies emerging out of our Paleo-DNA Laboratory and the Northwestern Ontario Technology Centre. There is incredible potential capacity here to develop biomedical and biotechnical businesses in Northwestern Ontario. And Lakehead will be in the forefront.

LUM: What are the new challenges facing Lakehead as we head into the 21st century?

Fred Gilbert: One of the big challenges is our deteriorating infrastructure. We’re doing what we can, through energy conservation and energy savings, but at the end of the day, we’re still looking at $30 million in deferred maintenance, and this will only grow as time goes on. But that is an old challenge.
The new challenge is to compete effectively within the evolving Ontario post-secondary framework. Thunder Bay is not one of the rapidly growing population centres. Perhaps it will be in another generation or so, but at the moment, our challenge is to continually attract first-rate students and faculty to our institution. In the past, a university could be almost passive, and still be reasonably successful. This is no longer possible. Lakehead is fast becoming a global institution competing in a global environment, and I think we have a tremendous advantage because of the wonderful diversity of our community. One of the elements of our diversity is helping the Aboriginal population to reach its potential. Lakehead University provides Aboriginal people with effective educational opportunities, including processes that enhance integration into the university system.

LUM: Is your vision for Lakehead reflected in the current vision statement?

Fred Gilbert: The new vision statement is entirely consistent with my own vision for Lakehead. It states:

Lakehead University is a comprehensive university committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate education and research. It will build on its reputation as a welcoming, accessible, and accountable institution known for enabling students at all stages of life to achieve their potential. It will reflect and serve Aboriginal and other diverse cultures, institutions, and organizations that comprise its unique regional setting as it reaches out nationally and globally.

LUM: In the context of Lakehead’s issues and opportunities, what role can alumni play to assist the University in realizing its goals?
Fred Gilbert: Alumni are our ambassadors. They have tremendous ability and capacity to assist with reputation building, to assist with the recruitment of students, and to serve as mentors. They can also interact with our current student body in positive ways.

Students, as future alumni, need to be engaged with the Alumni Association. Most universities with successful alumni relationships encourage graduates to identify with their class. LUSU can play a role in this, and so can faculty.
Some of the most common questions I hear from alumni are enquiries about news concerning the faculty members and departments with which they were associated during their student years.

LUM: In 2002, Lakehead’s accumulated operating deficit reached an all-time high of $6.45 million. Today, we have reduced the deficit to $2.93 million (as of April 30, 2004), and we have a mandate from the Board of Governors to eliminate that debt by 2006-2007. Are you confident we can do this?

Fred Gilbert: Lakehead will have to work very hard to eliminate its accumulated debt because, at the moment, there is no “new” money in the university system. Any new funding is tied to growth.

Currently, the Government of Ontario does not fully fund all Lakehead students. This means we operate with a shortfall of over $3 million annually.
I’m confident, however, that in time – perhaps as a result of the comprehensive review, due in January 2005, of the design and funding of Ontario’s post-secondary education system led by former Premier Bob Rae – the Government of Ontario will rectify this situation, and we will see full funding at Lakehead University.

In the meantime, we need to continue to educate people about Lakehead, as we have been doing throughout this past year in our highly successful awareness campaigns in southern Ontario. We must also continue to build on the increasingly positive relationships we have established in Thunder Bay and the Northwestern region, as well as at various levels of government.
If we can get students here, they stay, even if they come with the expectation of transferring out after first year. Our high retention and graduation rates are proof of the quality of our academic programs and faculty.
We have a very positive momentum now that is crucial to maintain. The University will be successful in the long run if we can continue to manage our fiscal resources effectively and have governments recognize how critically important the University is to the socio-economic well-being of the Northwestern Ontario region.
LUM: These are exciting times for Lakehead University, and for its graduates. Thank you for sharing your perspective. One final question: When do you think the Thunderwolves Men’s Hockey Team will win the national championship?
Fred Gilbert: I would predict the team will make it to the finals this year, and there is no question in my mind that Lakehead is within a year or two of being national champions. I’m also very encouraged by the positive growth we have seen in our other sports teams – especially the men’s and women’s basketball programs. We’re attracting national scholars in the case of the women’s team, and the coaching staff that we have in place makes me very excited about the recognition that Lakehead University athletics will receive, and the attention it will draw to the University.
Lakehead University
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