Dominic Giroux is president and vice-chancellor of Laurentian University in Sudbury and Barrie. He was previously ADM with the Ontario Ministry of Education and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. One of Canada’s Top 40 under 40 in 2011, he was one of four members of the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services in 2011-2012. He spoke with Vic Pakalnis, a member of CGE’s editorial advisory board.
Before you became president of Laurentian University, you were an ADM in the Ontario Public Service OPS. How would you contrast the leadership skills within the OPS and those within a university?
There are similarities in that we really are both stewards of the public trust and in that regard we have a profound responsibility to manage well, to bring the very best of our capabilities and vision to the role. More specifically, I believe that leadership both in the public service and in postsecondary education is a kind of calling: it requires dedication and a belief in the values of the organization, an unwavering commitment to the good of the constituencies we serve through that organization.
Academic departments and research centres in universities have a lot of autonomy, much like transfer payment organizations funded by ministries. As a leader, you need to deliver on an agenda by nailing down a limited number of key goals; be relentless in communicating these; delegate leadership to key positions; and allocate scarce incremental resources.
What are the greatest threats and opportunities to the university system in Canada?
I won’t speak too much about funding; I actually think that we in the postsecondary education sector in Ontario have been treated relatively well over the past decade. Governments recognize the strategic importance of higher education and they know it would be counter-productive to starve it. Where there have been cuts or realignment, sometimes it has forced us to be sharper, leaner, more innovative in our approaches.
But I do think there is a risk facing the university system in times of economic retrenchment, and that is the cost of overlooking the important role of small- and mid-sized universities. At a primarily undergraduate university like Laurentian, for instance, we have consistently ‘punched above our weight’ when it comes to innovative, collaborative research partnerships, and sponsored research income. We’ve attracted some of the best minds on the planet, in terms of faculty, graduate students and visiting fellows, in our signature programs and our areas of research excellence: Mining and Mineral Exploration, Restoration Ecology and Environment, Rural and Northern Health, Sports Administration, Forensic Science, to name a few.
And there is a tendency at times to think that only the biggest universities can deliver on big research projects; it’s just not true. I think we have proved the case for funding research at smaller universities, as well as increasing the number of funded graduate student spaces to drive innovation and creativity and fuel prosperity in the regions we serve.
I also see a lot of opportunities – for Laurentian, and for the system in general – in increasing and improving access to university studies.
You were part of the Drummond Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services. Any observations on the process and whether the recommendations will be implemented?
I give top marks to any government that seeks to inform itself fully on crucial issues of public policy, and I was honoured to take part in this important process. It was a fascinating exercise and an incredible learning experience. A major impact of the Commission has been to force a reality check on the province’s fiscal plan, which had gone unnoticed during the 2011 election.
Any advice to young public service professionals on career management?
Sure! Get a variety of experience, do the networking especially in community organizations, whether or not it leads to a job, and follow your passions.
Don’t feel like you need to follow the conventional route: take risks. I started in public service as an elected school board trustee at age 19. I withdrew from Law School at the University of Ottawa one week before classes started to accept a job in a newly-created school board in Toronto. I never contemplated being board chair at 21, school board senior executive at 23, ADM of a division of 1,200 employees at 29 or university president at 33.
Invest time cultivating relationships with mentors from various backgrounds. They will give you pearls of wisdom which will save you from a lot of trouble later on.