MacIsaac gives new boost to Mohawk
February 02, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator
The way Rob MacIsaac sees it, this is Hamilton's time, and that makes it Mohawk College's time.
The way Mohawk College sees it, this is Rob MacIsaac's time.
Today is MacIsaac's first day on the job as Mohawk's seventh president, when he'll tour its main campuses in Hamilton, Stoney Creek and Brantford, introducing himself to faculty, staff and students.
They'll be meeting a man who is known to be understated but intense, a quick study and a consensus-building leader who has already excelled in several disciplines.
He is an outsider to the college system, but highly connected to the circles of government and business where colleges find funding and jobs for their students.
He brings to the job what he calls an "unshakable confidence" in the future of Hamilton, and sees Mohawk playing an important role in restoring prosperity to the city and its neighbours.
Those who know him say it likely won't be long before he starts bringing change to the college.
MacIsaac has spent the last month studying documents and reports and meeting with college and other leaders.
"My best approach to going into situations calmly is to make sure that I've done my homework," he said. "When I'm sitting at a table, I like to be the guy who's thought about all the questions before I got there."
MacIsaac says Mohawk already has momentum, solid management and academic depth,and he is eager to help the college reach higher by exploring new forms of teaching and bringing its aging facilities up to date.
But meeting those goals will require skill and diplomacy. Economic upheaval is expected to drive more students to the college for training and retraining, just as the same upheaval shrivels the revenues of the provincial government -- its primary funder.
MacIsaac, a curler and golfer who likes to cook and play music when he can, turns 47 this month.
MacIsaac comes to the job with an impressive resume. He's a lawyer who became a Burlington city councillor, then served three terms as that city's mayor.
He was an architect of Ontario's Smart Growth strategy and its Greenbelt plan.
Most recently, he was in charge of setting up what is now called Metrolinx -- the provincial agency responsible for planning transportation across the GTA and Hamilton over the next 25 years, which finalized its $50-billion blueprint last September.
Last summer, MacIsaac was watching one of his two teenage daughters play soccer in Brantford when his cellphone rang.
It was a consultant for the college, wondering if he might think about standing as a candidate to replace MaryLynn West-Moynes, who had declined a second five-year term as Mohawk president to return to her family home in Durham region.
The idea of leading the college intrigued MacIsaac, who believes education is critical to building cities.
"The college can be a catalyst to getting the city from where it is today to where it it's going to be," he said. "People should be so excited about what the possibilities are here in Hamilton. It has such great bones: the architecture, the clusters that have started. It already is a great place, but it can be such a special place within the region moving forward, and I just think it's a matter of time."
The college is in the perfect place, he says, to supply the knowledge and the personnel to convert Hamilton's heavy manufacturing base into a broader, more flexible local economy, where technology and health care join old and new manufacturing to pull the city up.
Terry Cooke, the former chairman of Hamilton-Wentworth region, sits with MacIsaac on the board of the Canadian Urban Institute. He admits being surprised by his friend's "non-traditional career move".
But the more he thought about it, the more MacIsaac's decision made sense. Cooke believes MacIsaac could do for Mohawk what Peter George has done for McMaster by developing relationships between the university, governments, industry leaders and philanthropists.
"In the course of a career of public service, this is one of the places where he could leave a lasting mark," Cooke said. "In a time in which the need to deal with funders -- particularly the province -- is going to be critical, he's probably better positioned than anybody I can think of."
One reason MacIsaac believes Hamilton can grow quickly through education is Mohawk's positive working relationship with McMaster University, with cross-pollination already happening in nursing and technology.
"When you look across the province, there is a fair bit of sniping between the university and the college sector," MacIsaac said.
"That's not something that I think exists between our two institutions. It's a pretty special relationship that we have here, and it's one we have to nurture."
MacIsaac says it's past time to update Mohawk's facilities -- especially its central campus on Fennell Avenue West -- by building new spaces for students to gather and interact, and literally turning the main entrance around so it faces Fennell instead of a parking lot
"This is our flagship, and I want it to be something that the city, the alumni, the students and the faculty are proud of," he said.
It won't be long before the new president starts taking action, Cooke predicts.
"In everything I've watched him do, he's cautious initially and careful to gather intelligence from a broad range of sources, but once he gets a sense of what needs to be done, he's not afraid of taking on institutional reform."
MacIsaac absorbs and analyses new information very quickly, says Michael Fenn, a former Burlington city manager, provincial deputy minister and Hamilton-Wentworth CAO who is now CEO of Metrolinx, where MacIsaac will remain chairman of the board.
He said MacIsaac simultaneously establishes a broad horizon while concentrating on customer service, a rare dual focus that produces strong results.
"He's very good at translating things into what they mean to the person you're ultimately serving," Fenn said.
"He's one of these leaders who leads from the middle rather than from the front," Fenn said, "and I think that makes him much more effective."
Those are qualities that pushed MacIsaac to the top of the list said Allan Greve, chairman of Mohawk's selection committee.
"We were looking for a leader. Hopefully we're going to see Mohawk at the top rung of all the colleges in the province. That's why we hired him."