Chirag Shah discovered what he didn’t want to do long before he landed on what he did.
The India-born, Strathroy-raised Shah, BSc’89, entered Western as a Science major with an eye on following his family into medicine. He spent his summers working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, and it was there he made a personal discovery.
“I found, despite of my family background, I didn’t enjoy the hospital environment as much as I thought I would,” said Shah, who was recently named chair of Western’s Board of Governors. “My dad was very proactive. He said if you don’t like what you’re going to spend 40 years of your life doing, then maybe consider something that is more appealing.”
A year “finding himself” followed convocation. During that time, he took numerous cross-faculty courses across campus under the dean’s unrestricted program. He eventually landed on business and, specifically, accounting.
“It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.
Soon after joining PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Shah earned his chartered accountant designation in 1993. Today, he is the London market leader for the firm, managing delivery of its services to clients in the region.
In the local community, Shah serves on the boards of TechAlliance and United Way of London & Middlesex, and previously served as chair of the London Chamber of Commerce Board and campaign chair for United Way.
Recruited by Western’s Alumni Association, he joined Western’s Board of Governors in 2010. He has chaired the Board’s Property and Finance Committee and served as vice-chair in 2013.
From his vantage point, he has gained an appreciation of “the inner working of the university, a large and complex machine.” Admittedly, it’s a perspective this former Saugeen-Maitland Hall resident never expected.
“As a student, you get a lot of aspects of the academic life, the social life and it’s a very formative environment,” he said. “Sitting on the Board, you get exposed to the financial challenges that educational institutions are under in Canada, and the great opportunities we provide students.
“With the true cost of running a world-class educational facility like Western, it is amazing what we can deliver, given the funding levels we have, and the affordability levels we have.”
Shah admits the Board can be a bit of a mystery to the broader university community.
With the university’s Strategic Plan as its guide, the Board has primary responsibility for the fiscal governance of the university, including approval and oversight of operational and capital budgets, capital planning and development, investments and investment policy. The Board appoints the president and other members of the senior administration and supports the administration in achieving the university’s objectives.
Given a membership drawn from a wider pool, as well as half its meeting time spent in closed session, accessing the Board can be difficult when compared to other entities.
The university Senate, for instance, is the academic governing body of the university with responsibility for academic planning, curriculum development and policy governing student academic life. Senate sets admission standards, determines the qualifications for degrees and confers degrees. Senate recommends to the Board the establishment or termination of academic faculties and departments as well as policies and procedures with respect to academic appointments.
It draws representation from across campus and has a more open forum. Those factors combine to make its mandate easier to understand.
Shah said the Board’s more administrative, more financial responsibilities oftentimes distance it from the university community as a whole. But don’t underestimate its mandate, be it financing a new residence or balancing funding demands from incoming students or ongoing labour negotiations, Shah warned.
“It is a much more complex piece than people give it credit for,” Shah said. “People probably don’t understand the broad skill sets that come into the Board. I am amazed at the quality of the volunteers we have sitting on the Board, the effort expended by some outstanding individuals, the rigour that goes into the critical decisions on behalf of the university.
“That would be eye-opening for some people.”
Shah enjoys the strategy required by his position, and embraces that not every plan will have an instant payoff.
“Operationally, people would be surprised at how far in advance the university is thinking,” he said. “At times, we’re not able to be nimble across the footprint of the entire campus. So, you have to make certain changes that won’t resonate until five years down the road. Some of it requires a lot of patience and forethought.”
When the Board convenes on Thursday, Jan. 30, Shah’s first meeting as chair, he sees managing the university’s new Strategic Plan as dominating his early days. The course outlined in the document, he said, should keep the entire university community bullish on the institution’s future.
“I continue to see Western as one of the most outstanding, formative opportunities for a student to come to,” Shah said. “We do have a level of uniqueness compared to other institutions where we have got a phenomenal campus environment and a sense of community that is hard to replicate.”
Along with Shah, Hanny Hassan, BESc’64, was appointed Board vice-chair. Hassan manages Alef Consulting Inc., an independent consulting engineering practice in London, and has been a member of Western’s Board since 2009.