Don Lovisa: From shoe salesman to successful college president

President Don Lovisa smiles as he stands next to the awards won by Durham College students and alumni. Photo credit: Soyra Mokashi

A young shoe salesman in Fort Frances, Ont, during the 1970s would never have guessed that 40 years later, he’d find himself walking briskly in sharp suits and paisley ties everyday for 11 years…into an office labelled college president.

Don Lovisa, the fifth president of Durham College (DC) since it opened in 1967, is currently on his third term and has held the post since 2008. He was initially appointed vice-president, Academic in 2007 but in a short span of 10 months, took on the role of president after his predecessor, Leah Myers, left the job unexpectedly.

In addition to his presidency at DC, he is also Chair of Colleges Ontario, an association that represents the province’s 24 colleges.

According to Lovisa, his job consists of three parts – internal affairs, community and politics. While a part of his time is spent providing leadership in the institution, another is spent building partnerships in the community. The remainder is spent with provincial and federal members of parliament to try to impact government policies in favour of colleges, he says.

To date, Lovisa has spent 33 years in the college system, including 22 at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. He started as a small business advisor, a role that took him to Poland, Ukraine and Jamaica.

“I was a young man and for me, it was a very eye-opening experience to go to another country and teach through an interpreter with different languages that I couldn’t speak. It was very rewarding. It taught me a lot about myself.”

Durham College currently houses international students from 73 different countries and Lovisa hopes to continue providing good educational opportunities for students around the world, along with introducing Canadian students to different cultures.

“Part of internationalizing our campus and community is to bring in the richness of diversity, different world views and different thoughts for Canadians to meet people from around the world,” he said.

Delora Pereira, a post-graduate international student from India, remembers when she had her international orientation at DC in September of last year.

“He came and spoke to us all, took a picture with us. It was nice to see that the school president was so involved, I didn’t expect that at all. It was nice to see he gave a s***,” she said.

DC has excelled under his leadership, with student enrolment growing consistently every year. The school has also won a number of awards, including being named one of Greater Toronto’s Top Employers for 2019. This is the eighth time DC has been recognized in the annual competition organized by the editors of Canada’s Top 100 Employers.

The college has continually seen new developments over the years, such as the AI Hub and more recently, the esports arena. His latest project, currently in the works, involves the expansion of the Whitby campus by 60,000 sq.ft.

“There is a heavy demand right across Canada for skilled and professional trades, so this would allow us to bring in 700 more students in trade-related programs,” said Lovisa.

Lovisa is passionate and driven when it comes to the growth of DC. The student experience comes first, he says. But it also comes with challenges.

“When your attention is to quality service, quality academics, support for your people, those are a lot of pieces you have to keep going,” he said.

Lovisa intends to keep the institution moving forward.

“I don’t want to be in the ivory tower. I want to be part of the team that helps this institution succeed.”