York U’s president offers his last lecture and focuses on the importance of empathy and integrity

York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri prepares to deliver his “Last Lecture”

The Last Lecture is a longstanding tradition that gives members of the academy an opportunity to consider what matters most to them as they wind up their careers. When delivering their last lecture, faculty members are asked to convey what pieces of wisdom they would offer if it was their last opportunity to speak. They are also encouraged to talk about their legacy.

On March 23, York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri offered his last lecture to the University community. The event was part of Shoukri’s remaining months as the seventh president of York University. On June 30, he will close out a decade of distinguished service.

Faculty of Science Dean Ray Jayawardhana served as the event moderator and he set the stage for what the audience could expect from the event. Following Jayawardhana’s comments, a reflective Shoukri took to the podium and spoke about what he had learned as president, the qualities he considered to be most important to his role as president of a major university and the significance of York University’s decade of impact.

He began by joking about the existence of a photograph somewhere that showed him sporting a pair of plaid bell-bottom trousers, an image he said conveys the length of time he had been a member of the academy. From bell-bottoms to the information age, he said the dramatic change associated with rapidly emerging new technologies has meant that the role of the university in society has never been more important.

Audience members listen intently to York’s president as he delivered his “Last Lecture”

Society is inundated with information, he observed, noting that people spend almost every hour interacting with some form of smart device as they share information, images and opinions. “It is the role of education to help us interpret and give meaning to this flood of information,” he said. “In this new knowledge economy, boundaries are falling away. The university of the 21st century must change too in order to keep pace. If the knowledge economy is global, our universities must be so as well.”

Leading a university the size of York U through a time of such immediate and dramatic change and being successful has required two important attributes, said Shoukri. “These qualities are integrity and empathy. Integrity implies consistently acting on the basis of clear moral and ethical principles irrespective of the circumstances,” he said, noting that integrity can be used to address increasingly polarized views.

“Leaders with integrity can shape the future of our societies by changing the conversations we see taking place today that conflict with important principles such as equality, diversity and inclusion. Integrity leads to trust,” he said. “People listen to you if you are sincere, if you care and if you walk the talk.

“My advice to students is to remember that your career is shaped by the extent to which people trust you,” he said.

Empathy is essential to breaking down barriers, something he said he has witnessed over the course of his life. “It is an essential tool for understanding and thriving in a context of constant change.”

A lack of empathy threatens one’s achievements, he noted. It amplifies the growing polarization now underway in the world.

At the conclusion of the lecture, Shoukri answered a variety of questions from the audience

York University is uniquely positioned in the world to impart these qualities to students, Shoukri noted, whether it be through teaching, research or everyday interaction. The University’s commitment to social justice offers a strong foundation for nurturing integrity and empathy in the next generation of world leaders who will be responsible for continuing to end inequality, intolerance and hate.

To close, he spoke about his pride in bringing an engineering school to the University, something first envisioned in a 1963 campus plan. He expressed delight in the University’s accomplishments in sustainability and praised the diversity of the University’s community and the increasing success of its researchers.

“I believe at this point in time, we are closer than ever to achieving the University’s founding vision of academic and research excellence, local and global impact and a greater role in the Canadian higher education landscape. I have been a president who has cared deeply for this institution and the people in it and someone who recognized that York University’s distinct challenges are also our strengths, our diversity, location, size and complexity,” he said.

“When I began my term as president, I saw a university with so much potential,” he said. “Ten years later, I am excited about the direction the University is headed in and with the progress that has been made. “

He closed his last lecture by urging those present to embrace the change they will most certainly witness and to continue to ensure that York University lives up to its reputation as Canada’s most progressive university.

Click here to watch a video of the complete Last Lecture by York University’s president.