My Interview with Gillian Siddall, President and Vice Chancellor of Lakehead University
by Scott A. Sumner
Gillian can you tell me about your background and career to this stage- where you grew up, education and past work experiences?
" I grew up in Dundas, Ontario, where my mother still lives. It is a lovely small town near Hamilton–it was a wonderful place to grow up. I did my undergraduate degree and Masters degrees at the University of Guelph, and my Ph.D at the University of Western Ontario.
I started as a tenure-track faculty member at Lakehead University in 1998 in the Department of English. I was thrilled to get that appointment–tenure track jobs were scarce at the time–and I threw myself into Lakehead and Thunder Bay, and later, Orillia, once the new campus was established. It is so meaningful for me to be back here, to a place I know so well, and where I know so many people.
I served in various roles over the next 17 years at Lakehead, including as the founding director of our teaching and learning centre, and as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities.
I then served as the Vice President Academic and Provost at the Ontario College of Art and Design University for three years, and then as president of Emily Carr University of Art and Design for five years before accepting the position of president here at Lakehead.
At Emily Carr, I led a number of initiatives, including developing ECU's first equity, diversity and inclusion action plan; advancing the university's commitment to reconciliation and Indigenization through curriculum, research and increasing the number of Indigenous faculty and staff; initiating ECU's first climate action plan; and continuing to advance ECU's international ranking for art and design education, most recently ranked as 24th and the only Canadian offering art and design education to rank in the top 50.
It is a great joy and privilege to return to Lakehead – where I have spent most of my career – to take on this role, and I am eager to get to work with all members of the university community as we face the challenges and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead."
How have the first almost 6 months gone? What have been your main activities at the beginning of your term?
"I have spent much of my time listening–visiting academic and administrative units on campus, meeting with the Student Union executive, labour unions, faculty, staff and alumni. I have also met with many external partners and stakeholders, including members of government at the municipal, provincial, and federal level, Indigenous community leaders, and donors.
I have also been focussed on three priority projects.
In no particular order, there is an exciting partnership with the Ontario Veterinary College and the University of Guelph to establish a Collaborative Degree in Veterinary Medicine with Lakehead University. The joint program would see students complete their first two years at Lakehead Thunder Bay and their final two years at the University of Guelph. This initiative is committed to educating veterinarians in the north for the north, and to increase accessibility for students from rural and Indigenous communities. Development of the academic program and site selection for various infrastructure are part of the ongoing work by a number of joint working groups.
We are also planning to expand the Lakehead Orillia campus, and are in the process of planning new programming there over the next ten years.I am delighted to share that the County of Simcoe ratified a commitment of $15 million for the expansion of Lakehead's Orillia campus, likely to come in annual or otherwise regular installments over the next decade. The County's exceptional commitment recognizes and lends further momentum to discussions ongoing discussions about increasing enrollment and program offerings at Lakehead Orillia in conjunction with external partners in Simcoe County and internal communities across both our campuses, as well as plans related to Lakehead Orillia's expansion.
Another initiative that I feel quite strongly about pushing over the finish line is the proposed Gichi Kendaasiwin Centre here at Lakehead Thunder Bay. The Gichi Kendaasiwin Centre will play a profound role in Lakehead's efforts in truth and reconciliation in partnership with Indigenous communities, will create a new cultural and community hub and Indigenous gathering place, and provide culturally appropriate spaces for ceremony and the sharing of knowledge and traditions.
Lakehead needs a dedicated, culturally appropriate space to facilitate support for Indigenous faculty, staff and students; to facilitate pathways for Indigenous students to come to Lakehead; for substantive and long-term conversations about truth and reconciliation; and to facilitate Indigenous/non-Indigenous partnerships in research, pedagogy and economic development.
I've seen the positive things can happen in purpose-built Indigenous gathering places on university campuses.
In Fall 2023, I met with several Indigenous community leaders about Gichi Kendaasiwin. Our discussions focused on building strong, Indigenous-led partnerships and identifying opportunities for joint advocacy for the Gichi Kendaasiwin Centre. We had the opportunity to meet with the Honourable Patty Hajdu, local Member of Parliament and Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, as well as Minister Responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario. During those meetings, we advocated on behalf of the Gichi Kendasaawin Centre.
I know from experience that Lakehead University is a very special place, where we can make amazing things happen. We all need to work together to achieve our goals, and I look forward to working together as a university community on these three, and other, projects."
Lakehead has had a long successful history. As mentioned I first entered the campus as a young commerce student in 1974. What have some of the best accomplishments and impacts by Lakehead University been for Northwestern Ontario and beyond?
"Even before Lakehead officially became a university in July 1965, it had established itself as a pillar of Northwestern Ontario — contributing to the region's economic, social, and cultural well-being and prosperity. The impact of the communities we serve greatly expanded when we opened the doors to our campus in Orillia, Ontario, in 2006.
With campuses in Thunder Bay and Orillia, we have established strong partnerships with First Nations and municipal communities, as well as industry and government, that provide innovative and immersive learning experiences for our students and promising employment opportunities for our graduates. These graduates are working in leadership roles in diverse fields, influencing the local and global community in a multitude of ways.
The number of Indigenous students at Lakehead has grown to 12%, and I am committed to increasing that number, working with the wonderful staff and faculty here. This is an important part of our reconciliation work.
We have also seen an increase in the number of international students on our campuses. They bring such richness to our environment, and we are very proud that they are an integral part of our Lakehead community.
In addition to the many achievements highlighted during our 50th anniversary celebrations in 2015, more recent accomplishments include the establishment of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in 2013 (the first in Ontario in 44 years), the establishment of our Office of Human Rights & Equity, and a dedicated space for our Lakehead University International team.
In the last decade, Lakehead's reputation as a leader in diversity and sustainability has been led by work resulting from our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan and a Sustainability Action Plan.
On the national scene, Lakehead was acknowledged as Canada's number one research university in our category for five consecutive years, and has consistently been ranked among Canour country's top ten primarily undergraduate universities.
Finally, globally, Lakehead University has been ranked in the top half of Times Higher Education's World Universities Rankings for four consecutive years, and is the number one university in the world with fewer than 9,000 students in THE's 2023 Impact Rankings which assesses institutions against the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals."
THE FOLLOWING ARE A SELECTION OF ACHEIVEMENTS FROM DOCS THAT CELEBRATED OUR 55TH ANNIVERSARY (2020). YOURS TO USE IF YOU WISH…
A two-year Native Teacher Education program (NTEP) receives accreditation and Harold Linklater is appointed Director. Lakehead's program is the first of its kind in Ontario and later evolves into the BA/BEd (Native Education) degree program.
The Native Language Instructor's program (NLIP), the Native Nursing Entry Program (NNEP), and the Native Access Program for Engineering program (NAPE) are established. In 2003-04, the Department of Aboriginal Education was established within the Faculty of Education.
Native Language Instructors Program (NLIP) began (now the Indigenous Language Instructor Program).
Native Nurses Entry Program (NNEP) launched (now the Indigenous Nurses Entry Program) with Mae Katt as first coordinator.
The first group of international students from Gifu Shotoku Gakuan University in Japan arrive at Lakehead to take part in a residence program in Canadian Studies. The program continues on an annual basis for over ten years.
Lakehead donates 60 acres of land on Oliver Road to be used for construction of the new Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC), which opens in 2004.
Lakehead University plays a leading role in the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, which is the research arm of TBRHSC. The Institute's goal is to improve healthcare through excellence in patient-centred research focused on three molecular imaging-based platforms.
The Paleo-DNA Lab receives funding from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund to develop as a university-based enterprise.
Researchers working in the Paleo-DNA Lab confirm the identity of the Titanic's "Unknown Child" buried in a Halifax cemetery. He is Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month-old child born in Finland. The story attracts international media attention and is the subject of a documentary, Titanic's Ghosts, broadcast on PBS in the United States.
Our Thunder Bay campus's Advanced Technology and Academic Centre (ATAC) opens, adding numerous computer labs, smart classrooms, and videoconferencing facilities.
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine opens at Lakehead and Laurentian universities with an Aboriginal Affairs Unit and Advisory Committee.
Lakehead Orillia campus opens in rented facilities on Colborne Street.
Lakehead Orillia's Academic Building opens on University Avenue in Orillia, making the new campus the first campus in North America designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Platinum standards.
The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law opens in the renovated Port Arthur Collegiate Institute (PACI) building in Thunder Bay, which Lakehead purchased from the Thunder Bay Public School Board. It is the first new law school in Ontario in 44 years.
Lakehead's program offers specializations in Aboriginal law, natural resources-based law, and small and sole practice law. Its goal is to educate a new generation of lawyers who will advance social justice, bolster economic development, and be leaders in their communities.
Motion passed at Senate to implement the Academic Plan 2012-2017 commitment for an Indigenous content course requirement for all undergraduate students.
For five consecutive years, Research Infosource named Lakehead as Canada's Research University of the Year in the undergraduate university category.
Grand opening for Lakehead University's new Centre for Advanced Studies in Engineering and Sciences (CASES) building. CASES is a beautiful space that houses Research and Graduate Studies housed in a more central location, as well as Ingenuity, Lakehead's creative and business incubator.
Lakehead University recently announced an approved budget deficit of some $5 million after a long history of balanced budgets. How has this happened and can it be addressed in the near term?
"As your readers may be aware, the past few years have posed unprecedented challenges for the post-secondary sector in Ontario, particularly for Northern and regional universities.
Operating Lakehead while maintaining a balanced budget throughout the pandemic was only possible through significant and compounding cuts to annual budgets and in-year mitigation strategies, such as restricted spending and restricted spending and hiring. The prolonged impact of the pandemic on both domestic and international enrolment at Lakehead required the use of prior year savings — a strategy that is no longer an option as we have expended those funds to manage through our overall budget over the last two years. Any further cuts to our budget risked undermining Lakehead's ability to meet its core and strategic mandates, now and in the near future.
The sector continues to focus on recovery following a period of disruption caused by the global pandemic, while also grappling with a prolonged period of freezes to domestic tuition which followed a 10% decrease in 2019. In response to the fiscal pressures on our sector, the Province convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to review the situation and make recommendations in Fall 2023.
While Lakehead has taken every responsible step possible to maintain a balanced operating budget, the University, due to its size and locations, is more susceptible to increased competition and economic challenges. We continue to advocate extensively to government, emphasizing that the current funding model is not sustainable for Lakehead — the only comprehensive university in Northern Ontario.
As a result of these ongoing challenges, Lakehead University's Board of Governors approved a provisional operating deficit of $5.284 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year while we continue to work with the government. A provisional budget is not a final budget, but a necessary step to allow budget managers to access their respective funds so they can pay for critical expenses and help the University avoid making further cuts at this time.
During the summer and early fall of 2023. Lakehead conducted a third party-review, collaborating with an external consultant to develop options and recommendations to create a forward-looking multi-year action plan to support the University's position as a strong and critical Northern comprehensive university with campuses in Thunder Bay and Simcoe County, and to ensure a balanced and sustainable financial position.
The bottom line is Lakehead is as lean as it can be. The work from that third-party review, in addition to the since-published recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel that impact the financial sustainability of our entire sector, will help inform our next steps with the government. Some of the Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations relate directly to Northern institutions like Lakehead.
Our commitment to educational excellence and community contribution is unwavering while we remain hopeful and confident in the understanding and support from the Ontario government, recognizing the unique challenges of operating in the Northern context. Our financial health is not just critical to Lakehead University but is also a key driver of the regional economy, with our institution contributing significantly to the communities we serve.
We appreciate and agree with the recommendations of the recently received Blue-Ribbon Panel report and are confident in the government's ongoing commitment to addressing the needs and challenges highlighted in the Panel's recommendations."
What are some specific goals and directions you have for the upcoming years during your tenure of President at Lakehead?
"Next Strategic Plan
In addition to the three projects I described earlier, we are also undertaking a strategic planning process this year. It has been my experience that strategic planning can bring about significant positive change in priorities to which we are all committed such as climate action, reconciliation, equity, diversity and inclusion, addressing oppression of women, LGBTQ2S+, Indigenous, Black and people of colour, and people with disabilities.
It is also our opportunity to define and delineate our commitment to the student experience at Lakehead, to teaching and learning, and to excellence in research. There is much good work to be done over the next few years!"
How are you enjoying time back in Thunder Bay? Are there activities here you like to do when off the job?
"I am delighted to be back in Thunder Bay. I spent so many years here, and my partner Laurel grew up here. We love being with friends, family, our dogs, being outdoors, and making music. It is wonderful to be back."