Dr. Brian Stevenson: 7 1/2 years as President of Lakehead University
by Scott A. Sumner
I sat down for a good discussion with Dr. Brian Stevenson recently before his term as President of Lakehead University ends this year.
Did you always believe you would become the President of a university?
How did it come to happen? Tell Me about the journey?
“I never imagined or thought or aspired to be a university President, it just happened. I was born in Victoria but grew up in Mexico City. We moved to Mexico when I was 1 year old, my mother was Mexican. We lived in Mexico until I was 16 and then moved back to Victoria. I studied at University of Victoria- philosophy and political theory and then did a masters in public policy- political science and did work on my PHD at Queens where I specialized in International Relations and Canadian foreign policy. My first job was in Mexico at a private university in international relations.”
“ At University of Alberta I was in the School of Business and then the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Winnipeg. A lot of my work, my research, has been on foreign trade and NAFTA international trade.”
“ I went through a process where I experienced senior administrative work firstly at the University of Alberta as a Vice Provost. Then I went to the University of Winnipeg as Provost and Vice President
Academic or 2nd in charge, which is usually a launching pad to become a university President. Since I arrived here at Lakehead University as President I have also been a full professor in the Faculty of Business Administration.”
Why leave the position of President at Lakehead University early Brian? I think it was a shock to many people.
“ I took stock of everything I said I would do when I arrived here and I finished it early. I thought it would take 10 years and after 7 1/2 years I realized everything was pretty much done, plus a few other
things I didn’t think I would do. From my point of view it was too late to start new things because I only had about two years left in the mandate. That is one set of issues.”
“ The other area is to do with there are a number of watershed moments happening in the university next year that I have been working to prepare for- a new academic plan, a new strategic plan, a new
strategic enrollment plan and also we are getting ready to do the first ever big institutional fund raising campaign. All of those things need sustainable leadership from that moment onward for 5 to 10
years. It made more sense for me to leave when I was finished my work, leaving the university with the great momentum it has rather than staying around and then someone else come in. You could go beyond 2 terms as a university president, maybe 1 or 2 years but very rarely for a 3rd term.”
So you felt it was best to let someone new be in place for these new
“ For me it is have I finished the job I set out to do and does the institution retain it’s momentum. We have laid down all the instruments to do so. It is harder to do these new initiatives if you are looking for a new President as well.”
“ I think for the university me leaving now is the optimal thing to do. I’m a strategic thinker and am always thinking of the big picture. The big picture is where the institution is going to be and I didn’t see myself as the person who could push the next set of agendas and didn’t want to interrupt the flow. I do have other things I want to do so I think it will be a mutual benefit for both myself and the university.”
What are some of the best accomplishments during your term as President?
“I think the university has gone through a transformative stage, with many major changes. We have grown international students, have a new law school, expanded the number of students at Orillia and built a partnership with Georgian College. There is a whole list of things we have done that are transformational for the university. I think we now have a higher visibility in Ontario, across Canada and around the world.”
“ What I am most proud of is having lead a great team to accomplish all of those things. The Lakehead name is better known. We have a great university with great accomplishments and are not keeping it a secret. We are getting more international students, more research partnerships and are able to increase the knowledge out there of Northwestern Ontario as a whole. I see myself as an academic leader, guiding the institution in the direction the community wants it to go and finding opportunities to make it a better place.”
Lakehead is a very important part of our community.
“ We have an annual economic impact here of $1.3 billion. Universities are complex organizations and require a lot stakeholders and issues and you need to manage them.”
“ The core message is Lakehead University is very much a part of the community. We have great people and are supported by Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario. Each year we want to come back to tell people how have done.”
“When you study at Lakehead you can go anywhere and do anything that fills your heart. You can pursue your dreams. Current students can see where alumni have gone and what they have achieved. We have become a global player in international education going from 100 international students in 2010 to over 1000 today. They contribute to us a lot, some $13 million.”
“ I feel a sense of accomplishment and am proud to tell our story to the community.”
How has the job as President affected you personally Brian?
“For me it was finding the right fit at the right time. It was not only transformational for the university but for me as well. We were transformed together by the experience. It gave me the opportunity to
creatively do good things in communities that needed new educational environment, more engagement. Being the number 1 research university in our category is a great feeling.”
“ It is an active and busy life but it is really changing people lives and that is at the heart of what I do.”
“ I think I have done everything I wanted to do. Was it it everything I hoped for? I did things I said I would do and things I didn’t say because opportunities came our way. My sense is I have accomplished
all I wanted to do and some I hadn’t thought of.”
“It is a 24/ 7 job with something always going on. I think there is an apprenticeship in the university system and you learn every step of the way, but nobody can prepare you for sitting in this office for
the first time and thinking about what you do next. That is when you go back to who you are.”
“ For me its about leadership and I have leadership skills and experience. I have shown that I can do it. It is a very demanding job. It is constantly challenging you to become a better person, more
patient, more skillful, to broaden your out look and views. For me I think I became a better person because I have had to learn to adapt to a much more complex world than I did before.”
“ The days can be long- 12 -1 4 hours a day and there is a lot of travel. Every single moment I do this job is a privilege, being in this role.”
How have you enjoyed living in Thunder Bay?
“ Thunder Bay is a gorgeous city and has a lot traditions I have learned to love. For me it is a warm welcoming and supportive community to the university. Even though we have been here as a
university over 50 years you still have a tremendous sense of pride and support that hasn't changed over the decades. To arrive here and immediately be accepted into all sorts of social circles for my family,
it was a very touching thing to became members of community.”
What is next on the horizon for you?
“We have an interim President and I will leave this office at the end of the year. I will begin to work on my academics and will become a professor of business here. When you have done many years of service
you get a little time to prepare your courses for next year. I also do research on things like NAFTA and have taught business before.”
“ I will begin to prepare for my business teaching. I could begin teaching business sometime next year but you never know, life is full of surprises. For now I am happy not to have specific plans because my
life for the last 20 years has been very regulated with little normal time. It will be fun to have some unscheduled time.”
It was great sitting down with Brian to talk about his time as President. He certainly has been known as a very approachable and sincere person in this major job in our city, who will be greatly missed by many. The university has progressed well under his leadership.
Best of luck in your future activities Brian!