David Lindsay, a veteran leader in public policy and business who brings a wealth of government experience and a proven track record in the leadership of public sector organizations, has begun his new role as President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. We spoke to him about his background and the challenges and opportunities he sees ahead for Ontario universities.
Q: Where did you attend university and what was your experience there like?
A: I came from an immigrant family and was the first one to ever go to university. I received a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University. That was a fantastic experience. My mom and dad and the whole family were all so proud.
When I was at Queen’s, I received a really good education and I also loved the campus life. I was quite active in student politics and campus activities – especially in student government. For example, I helped revive the Queen’s University Model Parliament (which had been dormant for decades), and was the Education Commissioner of the student government Alma Mater Society. I also ran the campus campaign for a Member of Parliament – it was Flora MacDonald; she was the Minister of External Affairs for Joe Clark’s government – it was a wonderful experience.
The university experience is not just about the classroom, though that’s important obviously, but it’s not the whole experience. The memories and the experiences you have, whether it’s contributing to student government or being on a sports team, that’s an important part of the university experience. You really have to immerse yourself in everything universities have to offer to get the full experience.
Q: Tell us a bit about your career path.
A: It was certainly not a straight line. I don’t come to COU from the university sector. My first job out of school was an auditor with Price Waterhouse. Before my last role as President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, I spent almost my entire career in various forms of government, public policy and politics.
From 1995-2003, I held the positions of Chief of Staff to the Premier of Ontario, then President and CEO of the Ontario Jobs and Investment Board where we developed a strategic plan for Ontario’s economy, and then founding President of the Ontario SuperBuild Corporation where I was responsible for infrastructure planning for the Ontario government. Through this work, I was involved with several billions of dollars’ worth of capital and research investments in the postsecondary system in Ontario.
I then left government and spent two years as President and CEO of Colleges Ontario before taking on the role of Deputy Minister in Premier McGuinty’s government for about six years.
Q: What drew you to working at COU?
A: Personally, I love working in public policy and working with smart people. I have a great appreciation for the importance of postsecondary education in our economy. Championing the intrinsic importance and value of what universities do for individuals, communities and the economy broadly is a great way to make an impact.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing universities in Ontario?
A: Three of the biggest challenges facing universities in Ontario are driven by some of the same challenges that are facing the province of Ontario. They are:
- Shifts in the global economy continue to affect the job market and primary industries for Ontario. Entrepreneurship and innovation – research and commercialization of that knowledge – are the future of our economy. How do we expand our impact on the innovation agenda – for our industries, our justice system, our communities, our arts, and our culture? Universities are an important catalyst for all of those things, and all of those things are necessary for a 21st century economy.
- The continual advancement of science and technology – not just in the manufacturing industry but in health care, in food processing, in everything we do. The need to continually stretch the bounds of our knowledge and innovation to be competitive in the global economy is something that Ontario’s universities can do to make a huge contribution to the Ontario economy. We must attract the best and the brightest in order do that.
- Preparing students for the speed of change. A first-year university student today may be in a job five or 10 years from now that may not yet exist. So preparing students for the 21st century knowledge economy means they must have not only knowledge and hard skills, but also an important inventory of soft skills. Lifelong learning, adaptability, willingness to work with others, being innovative and entrepreneurial, all of those skills must be fostered and nurtured in a rapidly changing economy.
Q: Why would you encourage today’s high school students to pursue a university education?
A: The spiritual journey, the physical journey and the intellectual journey of life is enhanced by the university experience. The reward is not just in getting a job – the jobs of today are not going to be the jobs of tomorrow. It’s about growing as a person and having the soft skills to adapt to the changes ahead. That’s why critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks, curiosity, adaptability, contributing to society, and growing as an individual throughout one’s life is so important.
While the traditional university experience is incredibly important for that personal growth, it’s through experiential learning, technology-enhanced courses, work-integrated learning, research opportunities, entrepreneurial skills development and online learning, that universities are transforming educational approaches and enhancing the skills and future success of the next generation of employees, leaders and innovators.
Q: What are your priorities for the coming year?
A: To continuously remind our politicians and the broader public of the transformative power of universities for both individuals and the broader economy and what they contribute to society.
As a first-generation student, I understand the transformational value of the university experience. A person’s future and dreams are behind every application our universities receive.
As someone who has worked in public policy and economic development, I know the value our institutions contribute to the social fabric of communities and the innovation agenda of our province. That’s an exciting story.
I’m looking forward to working with government and our COU members to advance the contributions of universities for the good of students and their families, the betterment of our economy and for the good of the communities we serve.