(Photo by Johnny Guatto)

“I can’t think of a better place to be”: Louis Charpentier reflects on 40 years at U of T

Louis Charpentier first came to the University of Toronto as a young student in the 1970s. After 40 years at the university, including 16 years as secretary of the Governing Council, Charpentier is retiring at the end of December.

He recently spoke to U of T News about his time at U of T. 

What does the Secretary of the Governing Council actually do?
The best answer I can give you is to paraphrase the position description. I am responsible for directing support for the Governing Council, the University’s most senior decision-making body. My mandate includes ensuring ultimate guardianship of due process and governance on behalf of the Council in its responsibility for the current and future integrity and prosperity of the University and its standing; providing advice on matters pertaining to policy translation and procedure, policy adherence and policy development to the Council, the U of T president and members of the senior administration and the University’s communities; and providing comprehensive corporate record-keeping and records management.

How did you get started at U of T?
I began 36 years ago as a research technician working with a professor on atherosclerosis in a lab in the Faculty of Medicine. It was a natural fit as I had studied microbiology as an undergraduate here at U of T. Growing up in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, I had dreamed of coming to U of T as a student. So arriving here was just incredible to me. To stay on as an employee has been remarkable.

How did you come to work in the Governing Council office?
I worked in the Faculty of Medicine for a number of years. While I was completing work on an undergraduate curriculum review project with the then-associate dean, a position came open in this office. The only thing I knew about the Governing Council at that time was that the new program that we had developed needed approval by the governing body. However, the timing was fortunate and, in spite of my limited knowledge, I was hired as a committee secretary.

I had the good fortune to work closely with Jack Dimond, who was then the secretary of the Governing Council. Jack was and is highly regarded in the academic governance world and, with him, I was able to work on a variety of activities, including executive searches.  

One of the searches that I staffed was the search for a vice-president and provost. Professor Adel Sedra, who was the highly-regarded Chair of the Governing Council’s Budget Committee was appointed to that role.  Once again, I was fortunate to be presented with a tremendous opportunity and was recruited to serve as the assistant vice-provost for health sciences – a position I enjoyed for a number of years. When Jack Dimond was about to retire and the search was underway for his successor, I was encouraged to apply. Having sat on the other side of the search committee table, I approached the process with more than a little fear and was completely astonished when I was successful. 

Why were you surprised that you were hired?
The first surprise was discovering how much I actually wanted the job and then rapidly discovering that didn’t really know what I was getting into. That was 16 years ago and I can say that it has been a remarkable journey – one of huge institutional and governance change and growth.  And I would not have missed any of it!

In those 16 years, what did you enjoy most about being secretary of the Governing Council?
I think that I have the best non-academic job at the university. It’s the best because in the secretariat role we’re privileged to see many things at a university level. So we see where things fit and the people who are making things happen.  It is especially inspiring to observe and support people from both outside and inside the university who voluntarily take on enormous responsibilities to advance our institution. They are some of our Province’s and country’s most accomplished leaders. And we have the opportunity to support them, learn from them, work with them and observe the amazing impact that they have. I can’t think of a better place to be.

If you could give your successor one piece of advice, what would it be?
Really embrace the role and understand that you are serving a great institution; an institution that has been around for a long time and will continue successfully into the future. 

You’ve been at U of T for 40 years. Has the university changed much during that time?
Hugely. The university has always been a great place, and we’ve always had great scholars and great students. But now we showing that we are everything we say we are. We’re among the top universities in the world. U of T is a noted player on the world stage, and it’s an enormously vibrant, mature but still growing institution, one that is getting better all the time.

As Secretary of the Governing Council you’ve worked with presidents, chancellors, governing council chairs, deans and many other U of T leaders. Who are some of the most memorable? 
They have all been memorable. I’ve worked with successive governing council chairs – Wendy Cecil, Tom Simpson, Rose Patten, Jack Petch, Richard Nunn and, currently, Judy Goldring – all of whom brought different skills, different knowledge, different experiences to the role; but each of them has worked tirelessly for the betterment of the university.

And, after leaving their roles, continue to contribute time and expertise to the University. Each of the presidents with whom I’ve worked – Rob Pritchard, Bob Birgeneau, Frank Iacobucci, David Naylor and now President Meric Gertler – had their vision of what this university could become and each of them ensured that we, as an institution, kept moving to ever greater places. The chairs who worked with them shared that vision and were unrelentingly supportive in realizing it. 

A few years ago you were profiled in U of T's the Bulletin for your involvement in the 600-kilometre Friends for Life Bike Rally. How did you get involved in long-distance cycling?
It happened because of a cocktail conversation one day. A friend of mine, whom I’d never consider to be terribly fit, had done it, and I thought, “If he can do it, I can do it.” And, it was to raise money for a cause in which I believe:  the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. I discovered the joy of travelling at reasonable (and sometime unreasonable) speeds on open highways and just enjoying the real achievement of self-propulsion. I haven’t done it now for a couple of years but I’m looking forward to doing it more in the future because it’s great fun and benefits a great charity.

Any other plans for the future?
Nothing huge at the moment. First, there’ll be some focus on increased time with family and friends, including our young grandsons.  And, both my husband and I very much like film, theatre and opera, so we hope to attend more performances. I’m also planning to continue to have some engagement professionally with post-secondary governance consulting, an area where my experience could be of some value. 

I presume you’ll be leaving U of T with fond memories?
Oh yes. And most of those memories will be about the people, the incredibly gifted individuals who have such dedication to something that underpins civilized society – the university.

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