Man with a plan: Dean Ira Jacobs leaves legacy of building capacity and driving change

A picture of Ira Jacobs overlooking the Varsity stadium (photo by Seed9)

A couple of days after starting as dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education in July of 2010, Ira Jacobs was outside walking while on a break. He made a special point to walk to Ross Street, not far from his new office at the University of Toronto. His father was born and raised on that street and was the first in his family to go to university, graduating from the U of T pharmacy program. Jacobs called his dad from the street.



“I told him this was a special call because it was the first time I was speaking to him as a dean at his alma mater,” says Jacobs. “His response was that he now knows how his parents must have felt when he graduated from U of T and that he couldn’t imagine feeling any prouder. He died a week later, but knowledge of his pride has carried me through some challenging times over the last decade.”

A decade is how long Jacobs has been at the helm of the Faculty having been reappointed for the role of dean in 2016. A lot has happened within that time, much of it fueled by the development of the Faculty’s academic plan, aptly called “Creating Capacity, Cultivating Change.”

The plan revolved around four major goals: To educate and graduate a diverse student body who will go on to become leaders in their fields; to strengthen recognition of the Faculty and increase productivity in research and innovation; to improve participation rates and performance outcomes across the broad spectrum of sport & recreations programs operated by the Faculty; and to build new capacity through investments in infrastructure, people and partnerships.

“I have held leadership positions in many organizations in government, industry and academia,” says Jacobs, who was chair of York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science before assuming the role of dean of KPE, and worked as a federal government scientist prior to that.

“In each of those positions I had the opportunity to lead the development and implementation of strategic plans. But, being a dean at U of T has been exceptional in that regard because it’s the first time that I have also been directly responsible for the ultimate decisions about allocation of resources to priorities. It has been very gratifying to watch that allocation give life to our plans and propel the Faculty towards our collective vision of achieving international recognition for our excellence in research, teaching and practice, and for inspiring our University community and nation to achieve higher levels of engagement in healthy physical activity and sports.”

Meric Gertler, president of U of T, says that Jacobs deserves to be pleased as he looks back on his record as dean.

“One of the distinguishing features of our Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education is its commitment to integrating teaching and research with our rich array of co-curricular programming. Ira has embodied this integrated approach with personal conviction and dedication. He has led the sustained enhancement of the Faculty’s research profile and teaching excellence. And he has been a passionate champion of Varsity and intramural sports and recreation programs. It has been such a pleasure to co-host with him our annual lunch reception for Varsity athletes, all of whom embody the same remarkable ability to combine elite performance and academic excellence.

“Ira leaves a lasting imprint on KPE and U of T of which he can be extremely proud,” Gertler concludes.

The implementation of the Faculty’s plans involved a name change to the Faculty to better reflect the evolution of the academic discipline of kinesiology, followed by the introduction of a new organizational structure that saw the creation of the Faculty’s first vice dean of academic affairs, a dedicated associate dean of research and an executive director of athletics and physical activity. 

Between 2011 and 2019, student enrolment increased by 40 per cent for undergraduate students and 195 per cent for graduate students. 

More top scholars were hired to reinforce the Faculty’s commitment to interdisciplinary kinesiology research and teaching and learning.

Research funding increased from $0.434 million in 2011 to $1.967 million in 2018.

The Faculty was able to appoint its first Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health and launched a number of new extra departmental research units. 

The Master of Professional Kinesiology Program was launched, the first master’s-level program of its kind in Ontario.

Participation numbers in the Faculty’s sports and physical activity programs increased dramatically. On an annual basis more than 12,500 students now participate in intramurals, 840 compete in intercollegiate sport as Varsity Blues student athletes winning national and provincial championships and representing Canada in international competitions, and tens of thousands participate in other organized and drop-in fitness and physical activity programs. 

The Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport was built, a symbol of the Faculty’s integrated mandate for academics and co-curricular programs, housing under one roof both state of the art sport and recreation facilities and research labs.

The list of accomplishments does not exhaust itself here. In fact, it has kept growing over the decade, along with the Faculty’s reputation. Over the last three years, the QS University Rankings by Subject have placed U of T in the top five in the world for sports related subjects like kinesiology, exercise science and physical education.  

“These rankings demonstrate the growing global relevance of kinesiology,” says Jacobs. “I am so proud to see our Faculty and U of T ranked so highly each year, but not surprised, given the quality of our professors, their research and teaching, and the caliber of students who choose to study here.” 

Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost at U of T, says that over the course of his two terms as dean of KPE, “Professor Jacobs made a tremendous impact. He has been an exceptional leader to the Faculty, propelling it to recognition as one of the world's top schools for kinesiology, exercise science and sports-related subjects, and raising its research profile.

“He has been a tireless advocate for the development of community partnerships that have enriched both teaching and research at the Faculty. Professor Jacobs leaves a lasting legacy at KPE and has fostered a culture of excellence and innovation that will benefit us well into the future,” says Regehr.

Jacobs is looking forward to the future, when he can just be a “normal” professor.

“I’ve never had that experience and it looks like a very good gig from where I’ve been sitting for the last decade or so,” says Jacobs, who earned his doctorate in clinical physiology from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and spent the next 25 years doing extensive exercise physiology research in Canada’s human sciences laboratory, operated by the Department of National Defence, before transitioning to academia.

As dean of KPE, he is leaving behind a Faculty commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across all strategic goals – a commitment he inherited from leadership past and one he is confident will be carried on by future leadership. 

The creation of the KPE task force on race and Indigeneity and the subsequent report released by them was a tremendously important milestone in the history of KPE, according to Jacobs. 

“Their recommendations have illustrated both the challenges and opportunities presented to KPE,” he says. “Our world continues to experience turmoil as a result of inequities and intolerance, yet I’m very hopeful about the future knowing the important role our Faculty has and will continue to play in contributing to a healthy, active, caring and engaged society.

“Our students, faculty and staff have made so many exemplary achievements over the years in leadership, academics, sports and recreation, and I’ve relished every opportunity to recognize and congratulate them.” 
None more gratifying, he says, than attending convocation ceremonies and seeing the faces of graduating students beaming with pride and relief, while their families and friends look on happily. This is something he plans to continue doing as professor at the Faculty. 

But for now, he’s looking forward to experiencing Sundays that are somewhat less stressful in anticipation and planning for the remainder of the week.  

To honour Jacob’s legacy as dean, the Faculty has established the Ira Jacobs Graduate Fellowship in Sport and Exercise Science. This fellowship will be awarded to a graduate KPE student on the basis of academic merit and scholarly contributions and on evidence of emerging leadership within the academy.