York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri bid the York University community an early farewell last week during a reception hosted by Faculty of Health Professor Lesley Beagrie, chair of the University Senate. The event took place June 1 in the Scott Library Atrium.
Sporting his trademark grin, Shoukri was all smiles during the reception as representatives from the University’s faculty, staff and student communities delivered their thanks to him for his 10 years of service.
Shoukri greeted many of the more than 500 people queuing to wish him well by name. He took the time to speak with as many community members as he could as they thanked him for his service to the institution. Shoukri, who became the seventh president and vice-chancellor of York University on July 1, 2007, officially retires on June 30.
During his decade at the helm of the University, Shoukri was known as being a champion of innovation. He guided York University’s transformation into a comprehensive and research-intensive university. Among his achievements as president are the establishment of the Lassonde School of Engineering and major capital development projects including a new Life Sciences Building, Glendon’s Centre of Excellence, the Osgoode Hall Law School expansion, the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletics Stadium, the Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence (the new home for the Lassonde School), the Lillian Meighen Wright Centre in Costa Rica and the extension of the TTC subway to York’s Keele campus. He has also overseen the advancement of York’s internationalization and social innovation agendas as well as plans for future growth in the York Region.
In her remarks to the community, Beagrie said, “I suggest that his tenures could be wrapped up in just one word, ‘building’. I think it is appropriate considering the amount of construction, reconstruction and building that he has focused on during the last 10 years as York’s president. I am not sure if any other president has seen so many cranes, road closures and construction workers on campus as he has, but it does signify our future and it speaks to our commitment to building together.
“In his tenure as York’s president, he has supported new buildings… all of which add to the revitalization of our campus and community,” said Beagrie. “Building is more than physical structures; it includes building community, building sustainability, building quality and building up our people. He has built or supported new faculties – Health, Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and Engineering, and the renaming of the Faculty of Fine Arts to the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design.”
On a personal note, Beagrie acknowledged and thanked Shoukri for his support for the development and implementation of a pan-University plan to support a mentally health community for faculty, staff and students.
“Thank you, President Shoukri for your unwavering commitment to York University, your tireless work on our behalf and for moving us to a place in 2017 that allows us to be strong, proud and hope for our future. It was your building that helped us get here,” said Beagrie.
Representing York University’s administration, Gary Brewer, who retired six weeks ago from his role as the Vice-President Finance & Administration, offered his thanks and best wishes to Shoukri.
“As I look back, I can think of many examples of Mamdouh’s willingness to set out a bold path and take some risks to further our academic mission. During the financial crisis of 2009, the Knowledge Infrastructure Program was announced and York boldly proposed and ultimately succeeded in not one major project proposal, but two. These are the Life Sciences Building and the renovation and expansion of the Osgoode Hall Law School facilities.”
Both projects, said Brewer, have been instrumental in the success of the Faculty of Science and law school. A few years later, when news came of a potential provincial opportunity for more money for capital proposals, the University, led by Shoukri, was successful in launching both an engineering faculty [the Lassonde School of Engineering] and a state-of-the-art building to house it – the Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence. “More recently, when we found ourselves faced with a call for proposals from government to establish up to three new campuses in the province, York responded with a strong, creative and bold proposal, which by all accounts stood head and shoulders above other submissions, to build on our strength in York Region and establish a new campus in Markham.
All of these initiatives, he said, required leadership, vision and planning and he praised Shoukri for leading a culture of planning at the University that systematically links all of the University’s initiatives. He noted that Shoukri was skilled at setting out the mission and was always able to step back and entrust people to successfully implement that mission.
“I had the opportunity to work with Mamdouh for both of his terms. He cares deeply about students. He strongly believes in the unique role that faculty has played at the University and he recognized the importance of staff in support of achieving our academic mission,” said Brewer.
“I think it is clear Mamdouh that you have left your mark on York,” said Brewer. “Thank you for everything.”
Bringing greetings to Shoukri from members of the Academy, Faculty of Health Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell, York Research Chair in Pain & Mental Health, thanked Shoukri for his leadership and support of the University’s professors and academic mission.
She spoke about attending the many meetings with other professors that were organized by Shoukri. “He wanted to talk to us with the sole purpose of wanting to talk to us,” she said. “He cared about what faculty members thought about the governance and running of the University.
“He really wants to connect,” she said. “Thank you, Dr. Shoukri, for dedicating 10 years of your career to York University.”
Following the greeting from faculty, the event featured a surprise video greeting (arranged by the University’s Chief of Staff Ijade Maxwell Rodrigues) from Mamdouh Abdelmaksound (EMBA ’07), who was the first graduate Shoukri encountered during his first convocation ceremony as president of York University in 2007. Abdelmaksound, who filmed his greeting to Shoukri while standing near Niagara Falls, wished the president well in his retirement and joked about the fact that the two men shared the same first name and were from Egypt.
Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science, delivered remarks to the gathering on behalf of his decanal colleagues. “As universities go, York is a youngster and the past decade has been truly transformational,” he said. “From becoming a more comprehensive university in the growth of science, engineering and health, to opening facilities in Hyderabad and Las Nubes. From the ongoing $500 million capital campaign to receiving the largest research grant in York’s history, and of course the dramatic physical transformation of the Keele campus and the exciting new Markham campus, which represents a wonderful vote of confidence from the Province of Ontario in York University.
“He exudes an unwavering commitment to York University and to strengthening education and research and to fostering our connections with the community at large,” said Jayawardhana.
He described Shoukri’s effective style of advocacy, which resulted in the famous American mathematician James Simons accepting an invitation to attend and personally receive an honorary degree from York University during convocation. Then with his wife Marilyn, Simons donated $1.3 million to establish a premier postdoctoral fellowship program at the Faculty of Science.
“President Shoukri is always talking and engaging with people and he strengthens their connection to York University,” said Jayawardhana. “President Shoukri is a rare leader who combines being visionary with being grounded, being bold with being realistic… we at York University have benefitted tremendously. Thank you, President Shoukri.”
To close the event, Olympian, elite track and field athlete and York University student Khamica Bingham brought best wishes on behalf of students. She praised Shoukri’s attention to athletes and his desire to take the time to attend athletic events. “He always took the time to get to know us, inspire us and understand our dreams and passion,” she said. “As a student, I felt appreciated. I felt the support personally from President Shoukri as I won a bronze medal at our home track at the PanAm Games in 2015 and also representing Canada at the Olympic Games.”
She joked about his proclivity for Twitter saying that during the games he constantly tweeted messages of support and encouragement to her. “I realized at that point that I was not only competing for myself but I was a part of something greater. If I won, York won and that was so humbling for me. The letters, tweets, and conversations from him personally motivated me,” she said.
“I know hands down that if President Shoukri had a second life, he would definitely come back as an athlete!” she said. “On behalf of our students and our student-athletes, thank you! You will be greatly missed.”
In closing, York’s president took to the podium and thanked his colleagues, the students, and friends of the community. “It has been a wonderful 10 years, both personally and professionally. I feel that you have been my colleagues and my friends. I look back with pride over the past decade and I am very proud of what we have accomplished,” he said.
“The aim has always been to push York University forward,” he said. “That has been my direction from the beginning. In fact, there has never been a more exciting time to be at York University and the opportunities that await us.
“A culture of planning, the development of new infrastructure and new programs have established a multi-campus university that is well equipped to prepare students for the 21st-century knowledge economy,” he said.
He listed memorable moments including the opening of new buildings established under his leadership, the new programs and campuses in India and Costa Rica, the enormous grant from the federal government for vision research and the opening of two subway stations later this year.
“One of the things that I have valued most about this job is that the clearest proof of what York University is all about is in our graduates,” he said. “Wherever I go, I meet York graduates who are changing the world. York truly has become Canada’s engaged university. It matters because what we are doing here is transforming research into innovation, teaching into learning and service into citizenship. It is producing graduates from all backgrounds who understand what is needed to create a more cohesive and inclusive world. I can’t say enough about how proud I am.”
He paid tribute to the academy and staff for their work to bring York University into the forefront of the world. He also took the time to thank the staff in the Office of the President, students and his family. “It has been an honour and a privilege to be president of York University. My path has been shaped by encounters with people of great integrity and empathy. York has strong values rooted in a culture that reflects the future of Canada.
“Thanks to these values, York is on a trajectory to be a national and global leader, this is not a dream, this is real,” he said. “I truly believe that York’s best years are ahead of us. Thank you to all of you, to each one of you, for making my time here so enjoyable, so rich and for making York a truly special place. Thank you.”