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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.