Frank Iacobucci: In celebration of HEQCO’s first board chairman

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Photo of Frank Iacobucci 1

It seems inconceivable that there could be a HEQCO Board of Directors meeting without the Honourable Frank Iacobucci at the helm.  But after six years as HEQCO’s first chairman, the inconceivable is upon us. The tribute below can only begin to tell the story of Frank’s many contributions to this agency and Canadian higher education.  Both are immeasurably better for his extraordinary leadership and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have worked closely with him.  Please add your own tributes to Frank in this blog’s comment section. Thanks for sharing…

Staff at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario think it’s endearing — HEQCO board chair Frank Iacobucci’s six-year penchant for pronouncing the agency’s acronym as “Echo” instead of the more common if lumbering “Heck-o.”

Now as Frank steps down from the HEQCO board, we learn that this son of Italian immigrants, lover of spicy Italian food and grower of pomodori has long been channelling his Italian heritage when speaking of the organization he’s championed so ably. His “echo” is actually “ecco,” an Italian term roughly equivalent to the French term “voila.”

Either term would have worked back in 2005 when HEQCO was born, the product of a provincial review of postsecondary education led by the current interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Bob Rae. The Rae Review and the ensuing Reaching Higher initiative were unfolding at the very time Frank, fresh from his 13 years as a highly respected Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, was serving as interim president of the University of Toronto. By the time that 10-month appointment had ended, Frank was poised to accept an invitation to chair the first board of the first provincial agency charged with conducting research on postsecondary access, quality and accountability.

Frank knows a thing or two about research, having also served as a law professor, dean of law and provost at U of T, where research is the prevailing currency. But with relatively few notable exceptions, he says there had been a dearth of research on higher education. “Across the country, the community of scholars didn’t conduct much research on what they were a part of.”

With postsecondary research at the core of its mandate, the fledgling HEQCO was little more than legislation in search of a board, staff, policies, protocols and a plan. “The provincial government provided a team of consultants who were really helpful,” recalls Frank, who also credits consultant, author and former postsecondary assistant deputy minister David Trick with sage advice and path-smoothing in the agency’s nascent stages. “He was an unofficial CEO,” says Frank.

“Those of us in higher education know about and admire Frank’s leadership, yet he almost never mentions the work that has made him equally admired by the Aboriginal community, the Italian-Canadian community, advocates for human rights, and his peers in the judiciary around the world.  Frank’s career is a model of how a citizen can be engaged in the public life of his country.” / David Trick

Frank’s early HEQCO days were filled with discussions with leaders of Ontario colleges and universities, where good will was mixed with some anxiety about the agency’s role.  Would it displace Colleges Ontario or the Council of Ontario Universities? Would it interfere with the role of institutional presidents? Would universities trump colleges in the agency’s focus?  “In this formative period, it was good for HEQCO to know that these anxieties existed,” says Frank.

But over time, they were allayed, he notes, through the deft leadership of HEQCO’s first president, James Downey; and first vice president, research, Ken Norrie – “providential choices,” he says. In 2010, Harvey Weingarten would succeed James, in Frank’s view transforming HEQCO with his dual longer-term and front-burner perspectives.

“For me, the best part of a great job at HEQCO was working with Frank Iacobucci.  Some friends I shared in common with Frank – David Johnston and Rob Prichard – had told me beforehand that it would be so; that for all his many achievements and honours Frank remained down-to-earth, even a bit earthy at times and always great company. His sense of humility is only trumped by his sense of humour, and even more than his wisdom do I miss his spontaneous and bang-on imitations of such cultural heroes of his and mine as W. C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and Bela Lugosi.  HEQCO is fortunate to have had him as its chair, chief advocate and guardian.  I feel blessed to have him as a friend.” / James Downey

Of his own board leadership, Frank says it all comes down to passion. “After passion for my wife and family, education is next. You have to have passion for the organization and what it stands for.”  His other must-have skills for aspiring board chairs? Solid interpersonal skills, consensus builder, ability to prioritize, good listener and an underlying respect for people.

“HEQCO’s board is made up of people with very diverse skills and experiences, and all are very accomplished,” says Frank. “I always keep my mind open. I’m always learning from my colleagues.”

Six years and some 36 HEQCO board meetings later, Frank says the agency is now a player. “I’m proud of the men and woman I have worked with at HEQCO. The staff have professional pride in being associated with the agency.  Their voices are being heard and their roles are appreciated.”

“In my role as a research director at HEQCO I had the privilege of interacting with Frank a handful of times a year over the course of some five years. I didn’t work closely with him and he had little reason to spend any time with me. Yet, Frank always went out of his way to be kind, gracious and generous.  He’s what a real leader should be: he always has time for people, he is humble and straightforward in his dealings, and he always makes those around him feel valued and important. If there ever comes a time in my career when I have the luck to work with Frank again, I would do so in a heartbeat.” / Fiona Deller

“I feel I’m leaving an organization that is making a mark,” he says, “one that the colleges and universities respect as contributing to a greater understanding of postsecondary education in Ontario and across Canada. I believe that HEQCO’s research has helped shaped policy discussions and inform policy decisions.  The system has made great strides in access and accountability.  The next frontier is quality and that’s where HEQCO can really make a difference. What do we mean by quality?  How can we measure it?  What are the targets? There’s no point in thinking about access and accountability without it.”

In his view, university research has evolved into a successful and sustainable industry, while the college sector has made impressive gains in entrepreneurial development. “The good news is that the provincial system has improved. The bad news is, so has everyone else.

“Education does not respect borders,” he adds.  “Faculty and students are in an international marketplace; it’s no longer a captive market. Global technologies are also changing what we do and how we do it. The competition has become international and that is a great catalyst for innovation.”

As for tomorrow, Frank admits that while he’s “blessed with energy” sufficient to hold numerous board and commission appointments (and keep in close contact with seven grandchildren), he knows he has to make some “strategic decisions… I’m 75 years old. I have to be careful not to bite off too much.”


Watch HEQCO president and CEO Harvey Weingarten interview outgoing board chair Frank Iacobucci about his six years leading the agency.

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