Mamdouh Shoukri pokes his head through a doorway in York University's new research tower. The modest corner office that will soon be his is a work in progress: the floors bare concrete; the walls, intended to be sage green, are the victim of a painting mix-up that has left them a vivid shade of blue.
The view of campus from the expansive 10th-floor windows is spectacular, but it's clear York's president is surprised by what he sees. "This is my office?" he asks his guide. "It's a lot smaller, maybe half the size." Then he becomes more philosophical. "Who needs a big office?" he quips. "It's all part of being reasonable."
Reasonable is not the first word one associates with York University, a school with a long history of unrest and campus radicalism. In the past nine months alone, labour strife led to the longest strike at a Canadian English university and extended the academic year to June. Student politics and ethnic tensions boiled over to the point where some students have said they felt physically intimidated on campus. And it's not over yet.
A controversial conference set for next week on options for statehood for Israeli and Palestine has provoked a backlash from several Jewish groups who see it as an attack on the Jewish state, masquerading as academic debate. Their campaign to cancel the event has outraged some faculty associations, who see it as a challenge to their freedom.
Rebuilding York's reputation is going to take much more than a new tower and a fresh coat of paint. Dr. Shoukri is the lucky guy who has to come up with a plan. "There is absolutely no question, it has been a difficult year," says Dr. Shoukri, seated at a makeshift table in his soon-to-be-office. "The strike was a huge setback."
Dr. Shoukri, an Egyptian-born engineer more partial to pinstripes than academic tweeds, describes himself as an optimist. There were high hopes for change when he took the job, and an expectation that as the first Muslim to lead the school he would defuse cultural tensions on campus that have a habit of exploding on a scale unmatched on other Canadian campuses.
He arrived at York two years ago fresh off a winning streak as head of research at McMaster University and spoke unabashedly of grand plans - a medical school, more scientific research and enrolment growth to respond to the booming suburbs.
Nearly halfway through his term, such ideas are behind schedule at best. First-year enrolment is down seven per cent for this fall compared to last year, and talk of a medical school is now pegged to an unspecified future date.
Dr. Shoukri, who sees himself as a consensus builder, has not come across as a commanding presence on campus, and says he regrets not speaking directly to students and their parents more during the strike. His other regret is a personal one - the labour dispute caused him to cancel his annual December trip to Egypt for his father's birthday, who died suddenly in March.
Asked to chart his progress, Dr. Shoukri offers up examples of subtle change, such as more involvement by leading researchers in the workings of the university and a new generation of faculty who are helping to shape the campus. "Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer," he says of his larger plan. The 12-week dispute with teaching assistants and contract faculty also has set the powerful union local back on its heels: It wound up settling for a three-year deal similar to the offer it had rejected three months earlier. "It was a crushing defeat," says Tyler Shipley, a graduate student who was a union spokesman during the strike and disagreed with the leadership's decision to accept the deal this spring. With labour peace - at least for the next three years - Dr. Shoukri argues York is positioned to make advances. He's just finished a reorganization of the university and put his own team in place, appointing Osgoode Hall Law School dean Patrick Monahan to the new position of provost. One of Mr. Monahan's first duties is to head a task force with a mandate to help restore civil debate. York also won big in recent federal and provincial stimulus spending, receiving $95-million for a new life-sciences building and a law-school expansion.
Dr. Shoukri also promises to devote more time to being visible on and off campus. During the strike, he refused media interviews and was widely criticized for his low profile, an approach that led students to camp outside his office, demanding a meeting. Many believe York needs its president to fill a more public role, especially in the debate over academic freedom that is gripping the campus. On this matter, Dr. Shoukri says his position is clear. "I see my role in this to be the advocate for academic freedom," he says. As long as no laws are violated and there are not calls for violence or hatred, he says there is no reason for him to become involved.