Being York University's seventh president is Mamdouh Shoukri's final job, he tells The Globe in an exclusive interview, and while he's made strides since arriving in 2007, recent crises mean he has plenty of work to do before enjoying retirement.
When Dr. Shoukri, an engineering professor from the outskirts of Cairo, took the helm, he walked into an institution rife with tension and mistrust – a situation that led to a crippling 85-day strike in 2008.
Since then, the president and vice-chancellor has mended many fences and put Ontario's second-largest university on track to fulfill its promise. But that progress has been overshadowed by a series of events: security concerns stemming from a series of assaults on campus; the murder of a Chinese student in a nearby neighbourhood; and the ongoing police investigation into allegations that a former senior administrator defrauded the university of $1.2-million.
Dr. Shoukri talks to Globe reporter James Bradshaw about York's latest efforts to reshape its image.
How is the mood on campus?
We had a town hall meeting [last week], and this is the second – I had one after the strike. If you had lived through the two town hall meetings, you wouldn't believe it was the same institution. Because what seems to be missing, honestly, in the reports is actually the huge changes happening on campus, changes in attitudes. The old tension is not there.
I went from a situation where I felt people in the town hall meeting, or any meetings I'm involved in, were asking questions with the intention to embarrass [me], to people who are actually asking questions that reflect a level of trust. When I look at York, I still feel very strongly about the things that brought me here, the opportunity.
What is that opportunity?
In 50 years or so, we managed to build the second-largest university in the province. When you look around, this is an outstanding achievement in such a short period of time. But when you look at the bigger picture, you say, "Well, there's an element of comprehensiveness that needs to be covered." For example, [our engineering program] is too small for a university of our size. In other words, the programs we offer need to be more comprehensive.
How has the perception York has major security problems affected you?
Honestly, I think it has had some effect on our reputation. There's an element of unfairness, but I'm not going to hide behind it.
Why is it unfair?
It is unfair in the sense that most of the events that we're blamed for took place outside the university, but we get blamed for it because it happens in the neighbourhood. The second thing is that nobody ever makes it clear that statistically speaking, for any community of 60,000 within the GTA area, the safety records on this campus are as good as anywhere.
It would match up with the University of Toronto's record, for example?
It would match with anywhere. I mention that for the record, but this is not my issue. My issue is, one incident is one too many. I mean, I cannot say "statistically speaking …," that's not appropriate because it affects one of our students, and those are our students. So what are we doing about it? Once this became an issue, I did what I do: I brought in a third-party independent group to evaluate, which is the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children. We've done many things, from increasing lighting to [installing] 600 cameras on campus – some people argue that we're overdoing it – we have 25 large screens on campus to send security messages, we have decided to expand the scope of our security officers and increase them by 30 per cent.
And you equipped your security forces with handcuffs and batons.
Yes, but they do not have constable status, they are still part of community safety. And we'll continue to discuss this: Is that enough? Should we do more? Safety and security issues are evolving issues. Now, outside York University, we are not really responsible for what happens. But many of the incidents happen in the Village [residential community] – although [it's] outside York University, the majority of the residents are York students.
York sold the land where the Village was developed. So what is your responsibility for communities like that, which aren't properly yours?
Not "properly," it's absolutely not ours any more, totally not ours. Here's what I feel: From a legal, official point of view, I'm not accountable for what happens there because this is the business of the police and the city. However, because they're our students, I feel I have some obligation. This obligation may not be legal, but it's out of concern. So what are we doing? We extended the service of the shuttle bus to the Village so they feel safe, so that is an immediate thing. We had a very tragic situation that happened with the young woman who was killed who was one of our students, but this is, again, off-campus. … I think we have a safe campus, and we are becoming safer by the day.
When you talk to potential donors, do they ask you about security, about fraud? Is that making it a more difficult conversation?
It is not making it more difficult. You know what makes it difficult? If you don't act on these things and respond to them appropriately. And I think we have proven in every single instance that we are acting in a responsible way and we are acting immediately.
How do you get the public to focus on what you find exciting, rather than negative things?
By going out and telling people the York story. I want the city, I want the country to know. Other university presidents have all been telling me, "Well, things appear to be going well at York." I think the word will spread.
I'll make it a little personal: This is an exciting challenge, an exciting opportunity that circumstances put in my way. This is my last job. If I leave tomorrow, I retire. If I leave five years from now, I retire. The reason I'm here is because I see an incredible opportunity to make a difference. This university is just at the crossroads. I really mean that – if I don't mean that, I'll pack and go and retire and have a good time. Just look around, how many buildings we've finished. Suddenly students have first-class learning [facilities], and that will bring in more and better students. And watch me. There will be more. And it will all come because we are the right university for the government to invest in, and for donors to invest in, because of growing demand. The subway will come, the Pan Am facilities will be here.
This interview has been condensed and edited