Levy’s Long Shadow

There was no job posting and no interview. He wasn’t even interested in the job, but in the end it didn’t matter. The headhunters were persistent.  

When Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University, leaves in December to become Ontario’s next deputy minister of training, colleges and universities, it won’t be to fulfill a lifelong dream or career plan. In fact, for years he had given people who would ask him about working as a public servant the same answer: it wasn’t for him.

For a man with 40 years of experience at the post-secondary level, it may have seemed like the next logical step. Having served as president of Sheridan College, and vice-president at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, York University, and the University of Toronto, he admits that “there’s not much I haven’t seen.”

Still, it wasn’t until he was approached by the government that he started to take the idea seriously. Something began to resonate with him, and before he knew it, he had agreed.

“It’s like everything,” he says. “You turn around one day and you find out you said yes.”

People of Levy’s stature don’t typically talk of job offers in this way. But then again, there’s little that’s typical about Levy.

Toronto Life once called him the “the best mayor Toronto never had.” Marcus Gee, now a columnist for the Globe and Mail, called him a “wildly ambitious dreamer with a knack for making things happen.”

Both couldn’t be more true. In the 10 years that he’s been at the helm, Levy has purchased Maple Leaf Gardens, built the Student Learning Centre, turned Gould Street into a pedestrian walkway, and launched the Digital Media Zone. His ability to transform the school and the city surrounding it has not gone unnoticed by those in charge of recruiting high-level bureaucrats.

Bryan Evans, an associate professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson, believes Levy’s appointment represents a shift in the way the Ontario public service makes its deputy ministerial appointments.

In the past, deputy ministers were chosen not necessarily because they were subject matter experts; the government wanted executive managers and leaders who had a history in the public service, regardless of their other credentials.

With Levy, a subject matter expert who also has tremendous leadership experience, they come close of getting the best of both worlds.

It’s a serious appointment, in other words, for a not-so-serious man. Evans believes it shows that the government considers education a high-priority area. By recruiting Levy, the government may have scored the all-star candidate they’ve been waiting for.

Grinning as he shifts back in his seat, Levy seems less confident about things — if only slightly. 

“A lot of people say, ‘you’re the most experienced person,’” he says. “On half the file, true. But on half of the file, there’s a steep learning curve for me.”

There’s a whole part of the ministry which he admits to knowing little about, and it’s a very large part: training and apprenticeships. It’s the sector of the ministry that tends to be overlooked, but the one which he intends to emphasize. He stays mum on how he plans to make that happen.

In fact, when asked, he has little to say about his own goals as deputy minister. That’s because policy is left to the elected officials — the bosses of public servants — and the minister of TCU, in Levy’s case. His mission is simply to support the minister any way he can.

“There’s no use having an ambition to go to Montreal if you can’t get further than Belleville,” he says. “You want the government to be able to get as far as it possibly can on its objectives.”

There’s little doubt that Levy will deliver on this promise, but learning to think and work within the confines of government might just be his biggest challenge yet. At Ryerson, he made a name for himself by doing the things no one would expect a president to do.

The challenge will be bringing that mindset with him to the public service, which is notoriously bogged-down with red tape. While he owes much of his past success to his ambitious and aggressive approach to problem solving, it’s a method that may not be compatible with government.

“You need phenomenal people inside the box to allow people like me to be outside the box,” he says. “But can I [continue to] be outside the box? I don’t know.”

It’s a question he will have to face in the months ahead as he takes on a number of important files related to post-secondary education. Evans says that a number of them — including the university funding model review and the differentiation policy framework — could not be managed as effectively by a less experienced deputy minister.

In this sense, the stakes are high for both Levy and Ontario’s colleges and universities, whose futures will be shaped by these important policies. The university funding model review, for example, will determine how much money each university will receive in annual operating grants. In the past, these grants have accounted for 40 per cent of a university’s budget.

Levy says he thinks his appointment shows that there is a “tremendous amount of generosity in the system.” Despite having lived and breathed Ryerson for the last 10 years, his new job will require him to not only be fair, but to be seen as such.

“It’s a huge compliment to both myself and the university,” he says. “It says to me more than anything that, ‘Boy, there’s trust in you. And you better deliver that trust back.’”

It’s fascinating to see him sitting there, relaxed and grinning — always grinning — as if he hasn’t just finished talking about the major new responsibilities he will be facing in a few months’ time. Perhaps there’s something about his easygoing nature that allows him to thrive under pressure. Or maybe there’s something in his modest show of arrogance, which has helped him get this far.

He concludes the interview with comments about his views on student media, with his effort to be genuine and accountable, and his reasons for not having missed a single meeting with student journalists in 10-and-a-half years.

“You want your journalism students to be the critics,” he says. “I’m not doing my job, if they think it has to be flattering.”

Featured image courtesy of the Office of Sheldon Levy