Laurentian's interim president shares positive message about university's future

Since this is back-to-school season, perhaps this week was an ideal time for Laurentian University’s interim president to update Sudbury's business community about the school's future.

Sheila Embleton said she sees her 18- to 24-month contract – she is on secondment from York University - as a time to bring all her leadership skills and history of successful negotiations to assisting Laurentian’s rejuvenation and healing.

Embleton was brought in to help rebuild Laurentian after the university declared bankruptcy in February 2021. Since then, the university has cut programs and staff, as well as ties to its federated universities, but it is now producing balanced budgets and talking about hiring staff again.

In a conversation just before lunch with the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, Embleton indicated her contract is open-ended, or in effect indefinite, because to goal is for Laurentian's search committee to find the next permanent president, not another interim one.

“I am not on the search, nor am I a candidate,” she said. “When that person comes, I will leave.”

Embleton, who has worked in the post-secondary world for more than four decades, said this week was a good time to talk to the chamber.

"When the financial crisis hit Laurentian, no one spoke of anything else throughout this entire sector,” she noted.

Embleton admitted that at the start of any job, you may say “'Oh my, what have I got myself into?' At the beginning of any job, you always feel that.”

She said her background and prior experience helped prepare her for the challenge Laurentian posed.

“There are approximately 20 universities in Ontario. We know each other. I was at York and my academic background is in linguistics. I have been in senior academic administration for some time, first as associate dean in the Faculty of Arts, then as a provost. I also know how to work with unions. I am one of the few that are trusted by both sides.

“One of the reasons I am here is that I can read spreadsheets and understand financials. I can run a place, but, of course, not alone. Having the support of the board, staff, and the team of vice presidents is essential.

'Deloitte and Strategy Corp. have been important in the planning effort. It is a very good working relationship. It is interesting, stimulating work."

Embleton said Laurentian is central in providing services to the region, to families and students.

“You know, if students go away, they may never come back. Today’s talk is on our strategic planning … sort of where we are, and what next,” she shared as we ended our conversation.

“Do we bring back midwifery? Well, that is something that will come out of (strategic) planning.”

Midwifery was one of the programs Laurentian cut during its restructuring.

“We should certainly be working on allied health area,” Embleton said.

When speaking to chamber members, Embleton delivered a snapshot of where the university is now financially and gave anecdotes highlighting the importance of Laurentian learning to people.

For those concerned about the landscape surrounding the main campus, Embleton told the chamber that “continued public access to green space is assured.”

There have been fears Laurentian might sell off green space to pare down its debts.

Businessman Kyle Marcus, a graduate of Laurentian, said the university's financial troubles and restructuring reverberated through the community.

“I loved hearing today’s message. The president articulated how their recent efforts to change direction are progressing and how they will have positive impacts. We are already seeing how passionate they are to go forward.”

Shawn Poland, VP of external partnerships and strategic enrolment at Cambrian College, also sits on the board of the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation. He said Embleton's talk was encouraging.

“A healthy Laurentian and healthy post-secondary education system here in Sudbury is so important. Laurentian and the two colleges play a pivotal role in our community, socially, culturally, and supporting the labour market …

"I think Embleton’s positive message has been shared at the right time.”

Anthony Davis, past chair of the local chamber, agreed and talked about the importance of having educational options in the north for Sudbury and Northern Ontario students.

Mayor Paul Lefebvre said he has had many conversations with the interim president. “We have a good connection. We all know of the challenges they have been facing, and we are willing to talk. If there is an ask, we will listen.

'It is important to be here today. There are now some good news stories. Laurentian is a huge economic driver. It not just creates jobs but addresses the needs of students in our city and the north … delivering world-class education right here.”

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Twitter: @SudburyStar

Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star