Despite a challenging year, Lakehead University is optimistic as it plans for future growth.
Lakehead president and vice-chancellor Moira McPherson and Orillia campus principal Dean Jobin-Bevans made a virtual presentation to city council Monday to provide an update on the university’s progress and discuss its future.
Lakehead Orillia has a $190-million annual economic impact on the gross domestic product, and the goal is to bring that up to $400 million, McPherson said.
The campus is looking to add 10 more programs — with focuses on areas including health care and engineering — to help with that growth, but there is a need to address space constraints.
McPherson acknowledged it’s an interesting time to be pursuing an ambitious plan.
“We’ve been operating in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment,” she said of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding it “requires us to constantly address the immediate pressures that we’re all facing in each area of the university but still advancing our long-term goals and still advancing the priorities (in the strategic plan).”
There are currently 1,662 students studying at the local campus, but the plan is to expand enrolment to more than 3,500 over a period of about 10 years.
Coun. Tim Lauer said he remembered when Lakehead had 100 students, so the thought of 3,500 is “very exciting,” he said.
He asked where the students were coming from. The student body includes 756 from Simcoe County (100 from Orillia). International students represent about five per cent of the enrolment. Lakehead is working to bring that number to 20 per cent, but this year “has been a challenge,” said Jobin-Bevans.
“We are very much a part of diversity and want to grow that diversity through international,” he said.
Lauer also asked how the Sudbury-based Laurentian University’s situation — it was declared insolvent in April — would affect Lakehead.
McPherson began by saying it’s important to note Lakehead and Laurentian are not the same; they sometimes get confused given their northern Ontario roots.
“Lakehead University is a financially sound, well-managed university,” she said, adding Lakehead has balanced its budget for the past 15 years, after the board of governors approved a policy stating it would not pass deficit budgets. “It’s very clear that their current woes aren’t from last year’s budget practices … It’s really been compounded over a period of 10 years or more.”
She believes Laurentian will get through the situation, though it will return with a scaled-back operation.
“In the meantime, we are just going full force to continue on our own path of priorities,” she said.
Coun. Ralph Cipolla asked if Lakehead had a timeline for expanding its footprint in Orillia to accommodate growth.
McPherson said the university is in the planning phase for a “major institutional campaign.”
“We know we need a space that has room for these students but has room for this scholarly activity that attaches to those programs,” she said.
She also wants Lakehead to be able to provide more opportunity for students to take part in recreational activities. She is working with Jobin-Bevans and student groups to see what opportunities might be available.
The presentation to council included highlights related to different “strategic themes,” including academic excellence.
Research Infosource named Lakehead the No. 2 research university of the year in the primarily undergraduate category. Also, the Orillia campus saw a 53 per cent increase in graduate students in 2020-21.
Focusing on the area of social responsibility, the report noted 56 Simcoe County District School Board students are enrolled in Lakehead’s Ontario youth naturalist program as part of their special high-skills majors.
The positive figures don’t apply only to current students. Ninety-seven per cent of Lakehead Orillia students are employed within two years of graduating, which is above the provincial average.
“Lakehead is such a significant part of our city and our area,” Mayor Steve Clarke said following the presentation.
“In Orillia, in particular, we do have much to be proud of,” he added.
However, the city still has work to do to address socioeconomic issues, including increasing the number of people attending post-secondary school, he said, noting Lakehead’s local presence helps with that.
“We see all the opportunities and we’re so excited to be growing with you,” McPherson said.