Skip to content

Still a long road for Laurentian to travel, says interim pres

Sheila Embleton, seconded to Laurentian University early this year to help with its recovery following insolvency, estimates the university has already undergone about five years’ worth of changes in her time there
Laurentian University interim president Sheila Embleton speaks before a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience Sept. 26, 2023.

Laurentian University's interim president, Sheila Embleton, estimates that in the less than a year she’s been leading LU, “you could say that we've already undergone something like five years of transformation change,” although there’s still far to go.

This following the Sudbury university’s exit from its 22-month-long experience with insolvency under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) in late 2022, and as it undertakes legally mandated, simultaneous strategic planning and operational transformation processes.

“There's no question, we still have a long road to travel, and many changes to implement before we fully execute on our transformation and strategic plans,” Embleton said, speaking before a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce audience Sept. 26.

“But we're moving very fast, certainly compared to any normal pace of implementation of strategic plans at universities. And I'm proud to report that we already made substantive positive change. 

“In fact, you could say that we've already undergone something like five years of transformation change in a bit less than the year that I've been part of this community. 

“That sort of pace of change can only happen when a dedicated team works together. It's thanks to our team, to our staff and faculty and to our board for their commitment, and of course, to you as our community.”

Embleton, who was seconded to Laurentian from York University to fill the interim position after the termination of former LU president Robert Haché last fall, began work with Laurentian on Jan. 1 of this year.

Her secondment contract estimates her time at Laurentian will last 15 months, but said it will not last beyond Nov. 30, 2024, or a little more than a year from now. 

Embleton said when she hears the word “reimagining,” she thinks of taglines that are often used for strategic plans in academia.

“But I can't imagine that any university is better able to reimagine itself, or transform itself than Laurentian University at this moment,” she said, adding that when she arrived at LU in January, students, staff and faculty were “eagerly awaiting my arrival.”

“I knew I was going to be part of something historic and meaningful,” she said, although she acknowledged her role is transitory, “an outsider brought in just to help anchor the university and in particular oversee these processes around shaping the direction of the future, before turning it all over to a new incoming president.”

Presenting Laurentian’s first post-insolvency budget last spring, safeguarding Laurentian’s greenspace, renewal of the university’s board of governors, hiring new administrators, professors and staff, key infrastructure investments (including the roofs, so there are “no longer water features on the top floors and walkways,” she said), investigating repairs to the university’s long-shuttered pool and the decision to sell the president’s house are among the items Embleton listed as progress made since January.

“The transformational funding of $35 million over five years to implement the new information systems, operational changes and create efficient business processes is next,” Embleton said.

Laurentian University is also in the midst of gathering feedback for its post-insolvency strategic plan. The draft 2024-2028 strategic plan is slated to be completed by December 2023, with required approvals coming in the first part of the winter term.

She encouraged the Chamber of Commerce audience to provide their input to the strategic plan, as well as to provide career opportunities for graduates and encourage northern youth to attend Laurentian University.

At one point in the speech, she asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they’re graduates of Laurentian or have family members who are currently going to school there. A large portion of the audience raised their hands.

“Our plan will evolve but in partnership with you,” Embleton said. “If I can leave you with one thing today, it’s that Laurentian University is your university. It’s Sudbury’s university. It belongs to the people of Northern Ontario.”

Laurentian could simply choose to “pursue the legacy and expertise of Sudbury’s chief expert, in remaining Canada’s mining university,” she said.

“But we are and should be so much more than that. We could also choose to evolve alongside Greater Sudbury and aim to grow capacity within the electric vehicle industry or critical minerals and build on Sudbury’s rather unique environmental expertise in regreening. We could find new niches that lie at the moment untapped. There are so many possibilities, and that is what strategic planning is exploring now.”

But one thing will always be true, Embleton said, and that is that Laurentian is a bilingual (French and English) and tricultural (French, English and Indigenous) university. 

The university’s 2021-22 insolvency resulted in controversial cuts to Francophone and Indigenous programs, whether directly by LU itself, or as a result of the severing of ties with federated universities operating on campus.

“We hope to expand our offering of Francophone programs in the future, in tune with our community's needs, and our new strategic plan will address this,” Embleton said.

She said LU’s Indigenous programs and stakeholders recently formed their own strategic plan, which will inform Laurentian’s own 2024-2028 strategic plan. 

Embleton was asked to give her assessment of Laurentian’s biggest challenge and biggest strength.

“The biggest challenge, I think, is probably reasonably obvious, of trying to get people to come together and rebuild, and to think forward, as opposed to think back about what had been lost,” she said.

“I think that would be natural in any situation like that. In terms of, I think, what impressed me most, it was actually the desire to move forward.”

Embleton, who said she’s enjoyed living in Sudbury, especially the short commute times, also said she’s very impressed with Laurentian’s natural beauty. 

“I mean, if you have an office on the 11th floor of the Parker Building, as I do, and you look out the window, you're not going to get that view in too many other places, right?” she said.

Heidi Ulrichsen is’s assistant editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.