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David Sylvester, the current president of King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario, and a long-time leader in Catholic higher education, will become the next president of the University of St. Michael’s College, in the University of Toronto, the campus of which is seen in this file photo.

David Sylvester, the current president of King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, and a long-time leader in Catholic higher education, will become the president of the University of St. Michael's College, in the University of Toronto, in an appointment that will offer a steady hand after a troubled past year.

Dr. Sylvester has been president of King's, which has approximately 3,500 students, since 2009 and has also served as principal of St. Mark's College at the University of British Columbia.

"I've committed my life to higher education," Dr. Sylvester said. "My own view is that Catholic institutions have the inside track on the kind of education that young people [need]."

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King's and St. Mike's, as it is colloquially known, are two of a dozen religious colleges affiliated with a major Canadian university.

Current St. Mike's president David Mulroney announced he would not seek a second mandate in June. The author and former diplomat was a high-profile appointment from outside higher education who had served as Canada's ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012. His term, however, was marked by dissent from students and a portion of the faculty.

Last July, almost two dozen faculty, librarians and former administrators sent an open letter to the college's board of governors criticizing remarks Mr. Mulroney had made about the school's students to the audience of a Catholic conference. Students said Mr. Mulroney was unfair in his depiction of student-organized social events, such as fundraising club nights, when in fact they drew students to the school.

Mr. Mulroney's comments were "disappointing and embarrassing," the open letter stated.

In spite of the issues, he continued to lead the school while it undertook a search for a new leader.

With about 5,000 students, St. Michael's College was once home to Marshall McLuhan, a faculty member for more than 30 years, and counts politician Paul Martin, financial executive Tony Comper and Olympic gold medalist Lori Dupuis among its alumni.

Students of all faiths as well as those who are secular now enroll at St. Mike's. That mix of students speaks to the value of a Catholic approach to higher education, Dr. Sylvester said.

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"Internationally, over 50 per cent of students that participate in Catholic education around the world, not just at the tertiary level, are not Catholics," he said. "Students come to campus not just to achieve academic excellence, but the pedagogy is about allowing students to grow from a spiritual tradition. … People come to develop as whole people."

Dr. Sylvester's own connection to the college stretches back to when he was a graduate student at Fordham University in New York and studied with scholars who were influenced by what is known as the Toronto School of Communication Theory.

"There was a generation of my mentors who were graduates of U of T … The Toronto school was about community and holistic understanding rather than divisive power structures," Dr. Sylvester said.

During his presidency, King's began many initiatives to redress societal disadvantages and advance global human rights, including opening an anti-poverty research centre, organizing private sponsorships of Syrian refugee students and their families, and most recently, working on mental-health initiatives for students.

His first job at St. Michael's College will be to listen to the faculty, staff and students and to expand the reach of the university beyond the campus, Dr. Sylvester said.

"I do think there is an opportunity to explore new ways of being relevant not just through academic programming, but community engagement," he said.

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