After 10 years at the helm of Ryerson University, president Sheldon Levy announced this week that he won’t be returning for a third term. Since he started at the school in 2005, he built a reputation as a city builder, leading the university as it closed down Gould Street to vehicular traffic, purchased and renovated the former Maple Leaf Gardens and planned for a new student centre and residences. His dedication to expanding Ryerson’s image has made it difficult to miss the school’s brand any time you are nearing the university, with Ryerson’s blue and gold logo marked on campus buildings, plastered across subway ads and even painted onto Victoria and Gould streets. Although he won’t officially say goodbye to the university until 2015, The Globe asked Mr. Levy to weigh in on some of the biggest issues he has faced at the school’s helm and what’s to come.
You’ve been president for two terms now. Why not stick around for a third?
There’s a right time to end and you feel it’s the right time. At 65, I’d rather people saying stay a few more years than saying your time is up. My wife is petrified that I will say it’s a good decision one day and then on another say, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with my time?’
You’ve worked at many universities, including the University of Toronto, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. What sets Ryerson apart from the others?
With Ryerson, what stands out for me all the time is the students. They’re such a creative, innovative, entrepreneurial group of students that [are] very supportive, and it’s been really a delight to work at Ryerson … It’s a [very] kind community.
What do you think your role has been in changing Ryerson’s image?
The role of a president is a lot of sales and marketing. I think that I have always paid attention to building the reputation of the university, and put that as a primary objective, whether that was the members of the royal society or attracting the best faculty and students. The reputation is not a function of the president, but is a function of everyone at the university, so in some sense you are the chief cheerleader.
What was it like to see the Maple Leaf Gardens transformed into a facility for the school?
[As] a young boy from Toronto, [I] always looked at that as a very special place so it was a real thrill to be involved in bringing the Gardens back to life. The most important part of that story is that it started with the students of the university agreeing to a referendum to increase their fees to fund a small new addition to athletics, but then it brought about the energy of the federal government, of Loblaws and their suppliers and then a great donor in [home builder and billionaire] Peter Gilgan and something really magical happened. I think that is, in my view, one of the best examples of taking a historic building and bringing it back to life for the next generation. I haven’t seen anything better than that.
What about the future Student Learning Centre that will take over Yonge and Gould streets?
That building is going to be, I can guarantee you, iconic. When I came to Ryerson, I would often hear: ‘Where is Ryerson?’ And I would often hear: ‘Behind Sam’s.’ I think now people are going to be asking ‘Where is Yonge Street,’ and they will say, ‘That’s where Ryerson is.’ It’s going to be phenomenal.
You faced a lot of criticism about the school’s agreement to put up the Sam the Record Man Sign. It’s still unclear where the sign will be placed. How do you feel about the issue?
I understand the criticism on it and recent decisions with the City of Toronto has confirmed, as we always knew, that the university would never renege on a contract or agreement. If there isn’t a better place that the city decides than on the library building next to the Student Learning Centre, we will put it up on that building. We will make sure it is a spectacular sign and mounted really really well so I am okay with it. We are waiting for the city to be able to make its final decisions.
You also helped foster innovation with the school’s Digital Media Zone-- a space that allows students to work on businesses and technological projects.
The Digital Media Zone has grown from about 5,000 sq. ft to 50,000 sq. ft and I think it is beginning to change the way people look at the opportunities that we provide to young people. For those that have the inclination and the desire to be innovators and to look at themselves in starting a company, the university is there to support them. I think we’ve had an impact on changing people’s views of young people in the capacity for them to be integral in the innovation agenda of our project and country so I think we are proud to be pioneers in it and always learning.
You’ve spent 10 years encouraging students to make their mark (like the school’s slogan says). What legacy do you hope you will leave Ryerson with?
If people said he was an honest guy who did his best for the community, I’d be happy.
What’s left to be done before you say your goodbyes to the school?
What I’ve been saying is if people think we have been going fast, hold on, we are going to go faster. We have the Church Street development, a new health sciences building [and] two residences to be built. We are being asked to expand zone education over and over again in many different areas so there is a lot of work to be done. My hope is that I am totally exhausted 18 months from now and maybe like Maxwell House coffee, good to the last drop.
What do you see yourself doing once your term is up?
I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I think it will be in a non-profit role. My inkling is to spend more time with my wife until she gets tired of me and then I will get involved with innovation and young people.
Everyone has teased you about having political ambitions, but will you consider running for Mayor Rob Ford’s seat in the next election?
Never. Zero. Not a chance. I can’t say that enough.
This interview has been condensed and edited.